There are two classifications that describe a work arrangement between you and a company: temporary vs. permanent and part-time vs. full-time. If you're a temporary employee, also called an independent contractor, you have a predetermined date at which you stop working for the company. The government classifies you as part-time or full-time based on the number of hours you work during a year. The two classifications are not mutually exclusive. A temporary employee can be either part-time or full-time, as can a permanent employee.
Most states consider you to be a part-time employee if you work less than 35 hours per week. However, you can be either permanent or temporary. For example, if you have a baby and return to regular employment but only work part-time hours, you are permanent part-time. If you take a job at a retail store that's hiring additional sales clerks for a few weeks surrounding the holidays, you are temporary part-time. Part-time employees are paid an hourly rate and overtime, if applicable. They are bound by the same policies and procedures as full-time employees.
Part-Time Eligibility for Benefits
Most part-time employees are not eligible for company benefits. However, if you work more than 1,000 hours in a year for a single company and the company has a retirement plan governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA, you automatically become eligible to participate in the plan. Your employer, however, is allowed to forbid you to work more than 1,000 in a year to avoid this additional cost.
If an employee temporarily goes on leave or is assigned to a special project, you may take a job as a temporary worker, or temp, to fill in for the employee while she is out. Or, you might work for an employment agency that sends you on temporary assignments. Temp jobs are quite commonly full-time jobs, but only for a specific period of time. Some companies create a temporary position and use the temporary contract period as a probationary period to try out new employees. When they find a temp they like, they convert the position to a permanent job and hire the temp as a regular employee.
If you work for an employment agency, you might get limited benefits. If you work as a temp for a company, the company may classify you as an independent contractor and you probably won't receive any benefits. Because independent contractors are self-employed, the company doesn't pay Social Security or Medicare payroll taxes on your earnings. However, a company that hires permanent employees as temps in order to avoid providing benefits or paying payroll taxes risks legal challenges from temporary workers and from the IRS. The IRS imposes significant fines on companies that misclassify employees as independent contractors.
Steve McDonnell's experience running businesses and launching companies complements his technical expertise in information, technology and human resources. He earned a degree in computer science from Dartmouth College, served on the WorldatWork editorial board, blogged for the Spotfire Business Intelligence blog and has published books and book chapters for International Human Resource Information Management and Westlaw.