In some organizations, being a full-time or part-time employee is the difference between receiving benefits, getting overtime pay, or being eligible for FMLA leave. At what point does a part-time employee become full-time and vice versa?

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What Is a Full-Time Employee?

You may have heard the accustomed number of hours that makes an employee full-time is 30, 35, or 40 hours per week. But there is no standard, universally-accepted number of hours that qualify an employee as full-time or part-time. The Affordable Care Act (ACA), Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) all draw the line at different places.

In most cases, people inquire about full-time and part-time hours in the context of receiving certain workplace benefits. In these situations, being considered full-time and eligible for company benefits is completely up to the employer. Fringe benefits are not completely mandated by law and therefore are at the jurisdiction of the employer. Many employers enact eligibility requirements for benefits, such as requiring employees to work a certain number of hours every week. This number of hours is decided by employers, whether it be 30 hours a week or 40 hours a week, and commonly dubs employees either full-time (if they’re at or above the line) or part-time (if they’re below the line).

Some employers do it differently by offering partial or full benefits to part-time employees as well. Whatever they decide benefit eligibility requirements to be, the number of hours qualifying an employee as full-time or part-time is completely up to the employer. The terms full-time and part-time are just phrases often used to more easily distinguish what kind of work schedule an employee has, or if an employee is eligible for benefits or not.

Often there are federal and state laws that only apply to full-time employees, but each law may define full-time differently. For the purposes of this article, full-time employee references will be for W2 employees working at least 30 hours per week and part-time employee references will be for W2 employees working less than 30 hours per week.

Part-Time vs. Full-Time

The term part-time is frequently used to refer to employees who are not full-time. This commonly means employees who work fewer hours every week or aren’t eligible for fringe benefits. However, these common implications aren’t universally applicable. All businesses and laws can define full-time and part-time differently. What’s important is that you understand how your business defines full-time and part-time employees and how applicable state and federal laws do so as well.

What are Considered Full-Time Hours?

Determining what full-time means depends on who you’re asking. In most cases, it’s determined by the employer. In some instances, federal laws can use the terms full-time or part-time differently. Here are the most common uses. 

  • Employer-defined. Employers can define full-time and part-time to distinguish work schedules or benefit eligibility.
  • ACA. The ACA defines a full-time employee as an individual who works on average at least 30 hours per week. ACA requires employers with more than 50 full-time employees to offer group health insurance to their employees.
  • FMLA. The FMLA requires employers with 50 or more employees to offer up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to eligible employees. One of the qualifications for FMLA is for an employee to work at least 1,250 hours,  approximately 24 hours a week, in the previous year. Therefore it could be said that the FMLA defines full time as working at least 24 hours a week.
  • FLSA. Contrary to popular belief, the FLSA does not define full-time or part-time. The FLSA does require overtime pay to be distributed to employees working over 40 hours in a week if they do not officially work 40 hours every week to be full-time.

Full-Time and Part-Time, Exempt and Non-Exempt

There is a big difference between the terms full-time/part-time and exempt/non-exempt. Not all full-time employees are exempt and not all part-time employees are necessarily non-exempt. Full-time/part-time has to do with the number of hours employees work, while exempt/non-exempt classifies how employees are paid.

Under the FLSA, employees can fall into two categories in the way they’re paid, either exempt or non-exempt.

What Is an Exempt Employee?

Exempt employees are paid the same amount of money each paycheck regardless of the actual number of hours worked. Since they can work over 40 hours a week without earning time-and-a-half benefits, they are exempt from overtime pay.

Another term for exempt workers is salaried workers. Rather than getting paid by the hour (i.e. $16/hour), salaried workers get paid by the year (i.e. $32,000/year).

What Is a Non-Exempt Employee?

Non-exempt employees receive overtime benefits. According to the FLSA, when a non-exempt employee works more than 40 hours in a week, each hour over 40 will earn time-and-a-half pay, or the employee’s regular hourly wage plus 50%.

Is There a Relationship Between Exempt and Full-Time Classifications?

Generally, there is no relationship between exempt and full-time classifications. A full-time employee can be either exempt or non-exempt. The majority of full-time employees in the nation are non-exempt.

Depending on how the employer defines them, part-time employees are almost always non-exempt. To be exempt, the FLSA requires an employee to earn at least $23,600 per year and hold certain exempt job duties, such as supervisory or advanced knowledge responsibilities. Most part-time employees don’t work enough hours or hold exempt job duties, so they must be classified as non-exempt.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Hiring a Full-Time Employee

There are pros and cons to hiring full-time help. Consider the following pointers.

Full-Time Employee Advantages

Here are some advantages to full-time employees. 

  • Long-term. Individuals looking for full-time work are often looking for a job to do long-term.
  • Investable. When employees spend more time on the job, it’s easier for employers to invest in them with training and development.
  • Greater productivity. More hours clocked in means more work gets completed.

Full-Time Employee Disadvantages

Here are some disadvantages to full-time employees. 

  • 30-40 hours of work. If you don’t have a consistent schedule or set of responsibilities for your full-time employees, they’re going to run out of work and flounder. For temporary or seasonal projects/duties, there may not be enough for a full-time employee.
  • Greater training requirements. Since full-time employees plan on being with the company for a while, you must provide onboarding, orientation, and training. Part-time, temporary, or 1099 workers may not need as much onboarding effort.
  • Higher labor costs. Since full-time employees put in more hours over a longer period of time, they naturally cost more through payroll. When hiring a full-time employee, be confident that the hire will have significant return-on-investment for the business, otherwise, you’re spending too much on the full-time employee.

Should Your Organization Hire Full-Time Employees?

Sometimes full-time employees are the best option for you and your needs, while sometimes different types of workers are better. Here are some instances when a full-time worker would or wouldn’t be the best option.

When to Hire Full-Timers

When these are your business needs or circumstances, consider hiring a full-time employee.  

  • When you need full-time help. If you need enough help equal to 30 to 40 hours of work a week, a single, full-time worker is better than multiple part-time workers. Just one employee means less training, scheduling and hassle.
  • When positions require knowledge and experience. More complicated job roles that require more experienced work are best suited to full-time workers. Part-time job seekers may have fewer or different qualifications than what you’re looking for. Full-time employees are easier to find and maintain for roles that require experience.
  • When internal relationships matter. Multiple part-time workers can complicate a role that involves a relationship with full-time employees. Coworkers could get frustrated repeating instructions, requests, or information to multiple part-time workers filling a role. A single full-time worker can make this easier.

When to Consider Other Options

Here are some situations when alternatives to a full-time employee may be better for your business. 

  • When little work is required. Sometimes there isn’t enough work to hire a full-time employee for 30+ hours a week. It’s important to match the desired work hours with the available workload. Some responsibilities or projects are best for part-time workers.
  • When you’re in a unique job market. Some markets like college towns or rural areas don’t have many job seekers looking for full-time work. There are also some jobs that naturally attract more part-time workers than full-time. Adapt to what’s available to you and tailor job schedules accordingly.
  • When you’re looking for volunteer work. In some cases, work experience for specific industries can be in high demand and you can hire individuals for free. Because it’s unrealistic to ask someone to work full-time for no pay, part-time is usually the best idea for volunteer workers.
  • When work is temporary but requires experience. In cases where work is project-based, temporary, and requires a certain degree of experience, it may be better to look for 1099-MISC workers.

Alternatives to Hiring Full-Time Employees

Certain circumstances call for different kinds of help. Full-time W2 employees aren’t always the best option, so it’s important to be aware of other alternatives. Here are some other options.

Long-Term Part-Time W2

Long-term part-time employees are usually hired when full-time employees aren’t available, or when there aren’t 30-40 hours worth of work every week.

Temporary/Seasonal Part-Time W2

For temporary project-based work that doesn’t require 30-40 hours of work every week, temporary or seasonal part-time employees can be hired. Some businesses have busy seasons where the extra help is brought in on a temporary basis.

Volunteer Temporary Part-Time

In rare cases, businesses with big reputations or significant opportunities can hire volunteer part-time workers. To avoid burnout, when a position is non-paying, it should be part-time and temporary with the chance of turning into a paid opportunity.

1099-MISC

1099 workers are independent contractors that are employed temporarily. Rather than filling out a W2, tax form 1099-MISC is completed for these kinds of workers. 1099 workers include consultants, freelancers, or gig workers and are usually hired to fulfill a specific task with a specific timeline.

Questions You’ve Asked Us About Full-Time Employee

The ACA does require employers with 50 or more employees working 30+ hours a week to offer affordable health insurance to at least 95% of their workforce. As long as these requirements are met, employers can set their own rules on who gets health benefits and who doesn’t. There are no other federally-mandated benefits besides health insurance that employers are required to offer.
It is up to employers to decide what distinguishes a full-time and part-time employee when it comes to work schedules and fringe benefits. Federal laws such as the ACA or FMLA have their own definitions of full-time employees. Any employee can meet these parameters as outlined within the laws depending on the average hours they work every week.

Brandon is currently a People & Capabilities Advisor at Thiess where he helps implement HR strategies in Salt Lake City and Colorado. He recently graduated with his MHR and MBA at Utah State University, where he also received his bachelor’s degree in Communication Studies with minors in HR, business management, and technical sales management. He has filled professional roles as an HR business partner, an HR generalist, and a senior recruiter; and has exceptional experience in people analytics, compensation, and talent development. Brandon is a strong advocate for HR strategy and helping business leaders understand the true power of maximizing employee potential.

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