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Part-time work offers lifeline to unemployed workers

Published 04/15/2012
The News & Observer in Raleigh, NC

As the state’s unemployment rate remains stubbornly high, part-time work has become a more attractive option for people struggling to get by on unemployment benefits.

The government considers them involuntary part-time workers because they are working reduced hours only because they cannot get full time work. Nationally their numbers appear to be on the decline, falling from 8.1 million in February to 7.7 million in March.

But there are still many people in North Carolina who consider those part-time jobs a lifeline, whether it’s because they offer needed benefits or a little breathing room.

Tomeka Wilkerson, who was laid off as a customer service representative for a Research Triangle Park marketing firm last November, recently took a part-time job with a company that conducts telephone surveys.

“Unemployment is not cutting it,” explained Wilkerson, 31, a single mom. “I’m barely covering my bills.”

The hours she’ll work each week not only will help with the bills, she’s receiving health insurance again.

Wilkerson found her job through Greene Resources, a recruiting firm in Raleigh.

Gary Greene, president and CEO of the company, said part-time employment is a good way for job seekers to build experience and subsidize unemployment benefits as they continue their job search.

He is now trying to hire about 400 people to conduct telephone surveys for a large Research Triangle Park research institution. A high school diploma is required for the $10-per-hour jobs. Weekend and evening hours are available. “This allows you to continue the job hunt while getting some income,” he said.

Applicants can pick and choose their assignments, Greene explained. His company offers both long and short-term studies. Some run as long as six months and others as short as three months. Applicants have the opportunity to go from one project to the next.

That flexibility was just what Wilkerson needed as she has had trouble finding full-time work that would allow her to be at home at night to care for her 10-year-old daughter. In addition, she needs to juggle employment with school. She is now taking classes to get a bachelor’s degree in accounting, hoping to expand her job options.

The survey work fit the bill; the health benefits were a pleasant surprise, she said.

Greene said it’s possible to find part-time jobs that offer vacation and holiday pay along with health, life and disability insurance.

In fact, many companies offer part-time employees benefits including insurance, and vacation and holiday pay along with such perks as store discounts. According to PT money, an online money magazine by Phillip Taylor, the 16 best companies for part-time workers include Target, Starbucks, Lowe’s Home Improvement stores and Trader Joe’s.

Jake Shepherd, a crew member at Trader Joe’s in Raleigh, said health insurance and a 10 percent discount is offered to anyone working at least 20 hours at the grocery store. Not a bad place to hang out as you explore career paths.

Volunteer work

Another route to full-time employment may be volunteer work.

Deb Hadley, dean of Career Readiness and Employment Resources at Wake Technical Community College, recommends volunteering because unemployment can be so isolating.

“Volunteering keeps you sharp mentally, moving physically, and can help build new skills,” Hadley said. “It exposes you to things and ideas you may have not discovered you are good at or interested in.”

Hadley said many companies and nonprofit organizations hire from their volunteer pool, including such organizations as the N.C. Triangle Affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, InterAct of Wake County and WakeMed Hospital.

Damita Chambers, marketing communications specialist for InterAct, a nonprofit that assists victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, said about 60 percent of the InterAct’s 40 employees started off as volunteers or interns.

Ritu Kaur was one of them. Kaur, an immigrant from India, volunteered for four years as a hot line crisis counselor. Now, she’s director of community-based services for the organization.

Kaur said that by donating her time to InterAct she got a chance to check out the structure of the agency. She already had a master’s degree in social work from a university in India, but she wanted the staff to see that she was a dedicated volunteer. When a position became available, she had proved herself. “They had witnessed my work ethic,” she said.

‘Hiring for attitude’

Susan Hester, director of community services at WakeMed Health and Hospitals, said volunteers often transition to paid employees at her facilities as well. “We have hired 16 volunteers since October 2011,” she said. Last fiscal year, the hospital hired 24 from the volunteer ranks.

Those employees are working in guest services, human resources, the gift shop, patient transport, the emergency room and the pathology lab.

Hester said volunteers are vetted like employees, meaning they are interviewed, go through background checks and get health screenings.

“During the interview, we ask them about their focus and interest, past employment,” she said. “If they are unemployed, we ask them if they are interested in a career change.”

WakeMed offers 85 different placement areas, including clinical and nonclinical, accounting and business, communications, support staff and food services, with many positions in-between.

“WakeMed hires for skills but also has a supreme focus for hiring for attitude,” Hester said. Applicants who are sensitive to working with diverse populations and who are sharp stand out.

Like hired staff, volunteers receive general orientation to the WakeMed culture along with specialized training depending on where they are assigned. Some of the courses include communication and technical classes such as ones that teach you how to use the latest version of Microsoft Word, Excel and PowerPoint.

“So many of these skills are transferable, such as how to work as a team,” Hester sad.

All that is asked in return is committing at least four hours a week to volunteer service. That service is appreciated by both patients and WakeMed staff. Hester also hears from the volunteers themselves.

“They feel like they gain far more than they give. They are personally and spiritually fulfilled,” she said. “Volunteers don’t come to waste their time. They lift people up with their time.”

Raleigh resident Tony Beasley, 51, came to get lifted. His father had been a volunteer at WakeMed. So when Beasley, a pipe fitter and welder, was laid off, he followed in his father’s footsteps.

Beasley started as a guest ambassador, escorting visitors to patients’ rooms. Every week for a year, he gave the hospital four hours of service.

In October 2011, he was offered a part-time position as a patient services assistant, meaning he takes patients to radiology and other departments for testing. In January, he transitioned from part-time to full-time.

“When I was part-time, I told my manager I wanted to become full-time as soon as possible. ‘If people are sick or on vacation, could you give me the hours?’ … He was really impressed with my work ethic. I did whatever it took. I did 110 percent.

“In this economy, you have to be a go-getter. The applicant pool is humongous. I feel fortunate and blessed.”

Bridgette A. Lacy writes monthly about resources for the unemployed.