part-timer doing full-time work without benefits

A reader writes:

A year ago, I accepted a part-time position with a large company. I was told to keep my hours below 30 per week since the position didn’t include benefits, but going over was fine as long as it was only “once in a while.” (The company’s policy is to offer benefits to employees scheduled at 30 or more hours.)

I work on a small team of “part-timers,” and our present reality is that the workload’s increased to the point where it’s impossible to manage and meet critical deadlines while working less than a full week. For months we’ve been consistently working over 30 hours — while formally scheduled as part-time employees. We’re not receiving benefits. As it happens, I don’t have a boss in the traditional sense (by which I mean someone whose job it is to manage me). HR is located in another city and is aware we’re short-staffed, because we’ve pleaded for more support before. The extra hours are being paid but no one has said anything about them.

Aside from whether the company can legally continue to keep us scheduled part-time this way — which I can only assume it can — isn’t this…well…unfair? I do want and generally like my job but I’m becoming demoralized. I fantasize about scaling my hours back to where they were (removing the lure of benefits), but it isn’t a practical option anymore. Do you have any advice for bringing the matter up with HR? (Or suggestions for getting over it, as the case might be?) 

You’re going to get the best results by being dry, factual, and not pushing an agenda — simply presenting the situation without emotion. Say something like this to HR:

“As you know, for the past X months, my team has been consistently working over 30 hours per work (usually averaging around Y hours weekly). Initially we were asked to keep our hours below 30 per week since our positions don’t include benefits, but since that’s proved not to be feasible for many months now, what is the best way for us to address this? Should our status change to benefits-eligible, or is there some other way we should handle this?”  If you want, you can add, “I’d love to be eligible for benefits, obviously, but I’m not sure what makes sense in this situation.”

However, be aware that the result of this might not be that you’re given benefits. Rather, it might cause them to direct you to stop working more than 30 hours a week, regardless of the impact on your output. And that might cause a different set of problems; ideally you’d be able to simply point out that obviously you’ll be producing less if you’re working fewer hours, but you certainly wouldn’t be the first to be told “too bad, find a way to get it all done in the amount of time we’ve authorized.” So you want to think about whether or not that’s likely to happen, based on what you know about how your company operates.

As far as the law here, federal law doesn’t define “full-time” or “part-time” work. That’s defined by the company. But your company’s health insurance plan will define who is eligible for insurance benefits, usually saying that it’s available to “full-time employees” (as defined by the company) or, more commonly, to employees who work over a certain number of hours per week. So you might also take a look at the plan summary and see what’s in there.

Additionally, retirement plans often cover employees who work 1,000 hours or more in a 12-month period, so you might look at that too.

HR should be familiar with the requirements of your health insurance and retirement plans, and they should be monitoring your hours to ensure that you don’t hit that eligibility trigger (or converting you to a benefits-eligible status if you do), but it’s entirely possible that someone is burying their head in the sand on this. So raise the issue — with the caveat above to be prepared for a solution you might not like.

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