Thinking of going part-time? Some questions to ask (and boundaries to draw)

img_1611If you’ve got young kids, making the pieces of work and life fit together can be challenging. That’s why part-time work remains a popular option. Various Pew Research Center studies have found close to half of mothers would prefer to work part-time (note: that’s not just moms working full time hours who want to scale down — about four in ten stay-at-home moms would prefer to be working part-time too!)

So is going part-time the key to achieving work/life bliss? Well, maybe. From studying time logs (particularly in I Know How She Does It), I think this depends a lot on the nature of your work, how clear the demarcation is between “at work” and “not at work” and the choices you then make with the time you’re not on the clock.

One of my favorite bloggers, Sarah (of The SHU Box), recently asked for — and got — an 80% schedule. She’s a pediatric specialist whose job currently involves seeing patients at the office M-F during the hours the office is open, and then being on-call 20% of the time. In the comments on her post announcing this move, a few people brought up my writing on this topic, so I thought I’d take the chance to write about the part-time question, and what can go right and wrong.

First, going part-time almost always involves a pay cut. So the key questions are whether you will actually get enough time back to justify the cost, and whether you will be able to use that time to do things you believe get short shrift in your current schedule.

In Sarah’s case, the line between work and not-work is pretty clear. Going to an 80% schedule means she will not be in the office one day a week. Her job involves seeing patients, and she will not see patients that day. So, in fact, she will most likely work fewer hours.

Other jobs, however, don’t have such clear boundaries or clear hours. Maybe some days people schedule conference calls at 5:00 p.m., and some days they don’t. Some days involve visiting a client, and taking off for the airport at 9 a.m. and other days involve needing to be somewhere at 8 a.m. and leaving at 7. Sometimes a big Monday morning presentation requires a lot of prep on Sunday evening, but people leave at varying times on Friday. Or at lot of people work from home one day a week.

In cases where there’s no clear number of hours people work, the actual numbers can be all over the map. For IKHSDI, I collected some logs from colleagues, and in every single case where I had more than one log from the same organization, I found a 10-hour gap in work hours within the same company. In one case I found a 20-hour gap. In another case, I found one woman working a PT schedule who logged more hours than a colleague working a FT schedule. It’s hard to know what’s going on in any individual circumstance (someone could just have had a bad week, and no doubt 10-20 hour gaps correspond with different career trajectories) but I do think that full time work encompasses a host of lifestyle options. Another issue: as hours go up, people have a tendency to overestimate hours. So if people talk about their “70 hour workweeks,” it is quite possible they are averaging closer to 50. Which means that taking a 50% pay-cut to work 40 hours a week is assigning a pretty high price to those hours on the margin.

So before taking a pay-cut to go part time, a good question to ask is whether you could get the same outcome by working a bit more flexibly. Instead of staying at the office until 7, could you leave at 5 and work after the kids go to bed? Would anyone notice if you came in half an hour later than usual once or twice a week (so you could drive the kids to school?) Could you work from home on occasion and use some of that time to do things like work out during your breaks? Could you just…slack? Not everyone who’s in the office is 100% on all the time, as anyone who’s worked in an office can attest. Even if you’re generally an A+ kind of person, some days it’s OK to do A- work. More broadly, sometimes it can be better to ask for forgiveness than permission. Work how you want to work and see what happens. There’s some evidence that men do this, rather than negotiating official part-time schedules.

If you decide to go part-time, make sure to log your hours before taking the cut, and then log them after. If there is not an appreciable decline, something is not working right and you’ll need to step in to solve the problem. In a world where a lot of work is done by phone and email, people are not going to respect your boundaries unless you force them to. Sometimes people want to make their part-time decision easier on other people, so they say things like “you can always reach me by phone” or “I’ll be checking my email” and next thing you know you’re on a conference call the entire time you’re at the playground on your day “off.” If you’re working full-time hours, you should get paid for full-time work. The fact that you’re working them flexibly is not as big a deal as one might think, as long as the work is getting done.

Finally, be mindful of how you plan to spend the hours you’ve bought back. If you want more time with your kids, be sure to spend the time with your kids. If you want more time for exercise and personal projects, do that. It can be very easy to do such things as errands and housework during that time, but then you’ve just substituted unpaid labor for higher-paid labor. If you love grocery shopping and cooking, that’s one thing. But using your day off to do chores and errands you don’t love, rather than the work you get paid a professional wage for, is not a great economic decision. Sarah is very smart here, and has written that she does not plan to take over more household chores as a result of her schedule change.

If anyone reading this has gone to a part-time schedule, I’d love your tips for making sure that it feels fair for all involved.

41 thoughts on “Thinking of going part-time? Some questions to ask (and boundaries to draw)

  1. Another important consideration is the kind of child care you can afford while working part time, especially when you have young children. I consult, teach online, write and blog from home. I work out child care for my youngest by help from my family, paying for a babysitter once a week, and using the childcare at my gym while doing work reading on the treadmill or bicycle. Paying for more consistent child care 3 or 4 days a week would take a significant chunk out of the income I gain through these endeavors. None the less, I do have a flexible schedule, and I enjoy being around for my children at this age.

  2. I appreciated this because I used the same logic to NOT work part time after having two kids. Would I love to work 30 hours instead of 50? Yes. But I am a knowledge worker, where my outcome is how well I can pursuade others to buy our business. That does not have a 1 to 1 correlation to the time I put in, though directionally, of course there’s a positive correlation. Going part time in a job like mine, in most cases, won’t really be useful, because I would spend a lot of my non-working hours still thinking about work.

  3. Some thoughts from someone who doesn’t have children (yet) but has been thinking about this for several years:
    *I would also factor in the loss of health insurance (if yours is better and costs less); the loss of retirement savings if your company contributes; and the loss of paid vacation and sick time.
    *It does depend on the job, but I actually think working full time in my field (public libraries) is more flexible than being a part time person. I work fewer evening and weekend hours as a full time person than I would if I went part time. Also, with paid sick time and vacation time, I don’t have to worry as much about scheduling doctor’s appointments and vacation because it’s easier for me to get coverage for the times I’m on the desk and the expectation is that I will need some time for things like that because I’m there forty hours a week.
    *While I don’t have kids yet, I’ve seen both full and part time staff members who do, and it seems easier for the full time person to change her schedule around. Partly this is because of the nature of our jobs and the full time staff are not tied to desks for their entire shifts the way the part time staff often are.

    Just some thoughts!

    1. @Caitlin – you bring up an interesting point about full timers having priority over part-timers in terms of scheduling. In some organizations, there really is a hierarchy.

  4. Thank you for the shout-outs, and this whole post! I am really looking forward to seeing how the pieces come together come April.

  5. I’m glad I learned some of these lessons from experience when I was younger, and then confirmed them through your blog as I’m sure it will stand me in good stead in the future. Working at a consultancy, I negotiated a four-day week because I had committed to a very rewarding but very demanding volunteer role on the side. Fortunately consultancy work often entails time-tracking, so it didn’t take me long to work out that I was working over 50 hours per week, yet only getting paid for 32, just for the flexibility of a day off. I promptly switched back to full time, and just took long lunches or late starts as needed. I also paid close attention to the men around me who quietly ducked out to go running (they didn’t announce that they were going or were back and people rarely noticed) or worked the ‘split shift’ (leaving on time to pick up kids while I stayed in the office until after 8, resenting it until I realised they were back online in the evenings). Some of this is easier said than done, especially with child care to factor in, but a ‘never complain, never explain’ kinda attitude can go a long way!

    1. @Lily- good for you for figuring out the way things really worked. Other people aren’t paying nearly as much attention to us as we think they are. Was there traffic on the way to work? Or did you take a morning class at the gym? No one really knows if you don’t talk about it.

      1. I came to this realization, as well. I used to only workout after work or during lunchtime, but it was getting harder and harder to do this with my busy schedule. One day I went to the gym downstairs at work at 3pm and saw the president of a major division of the Fortune 500 company I work for doing his workout. I was a little star struck and mentioned it to one of my (young, male) co-workers and he said “yeah, I see him working out at that time a lot”. Gah! I wish I learned these things earlier! 🙂

  6. Another thing I had to take into consideration as a teacher who pays into a pension (STRS) instead of Social Security: part-time years of service count only as the percentage you worked, towards your total years (when calculating for retirement). So if you work 80% for six years, those six years only count as 4.8 years toward your retirement. If you need 30 years of service to get an optimal pension, and you work some of those years part-time, you have to work more than 30 years to get there. I know these retirement systems only apply to a few jobs, but it’s still something to consider (and not something most people know).

  7. I cut my hours back to 30 hours/ week recently as well. I am pretty sure I committed one of LV’s no-nos, because I definitely was and still am in the thick of it with a 6 month old at home. I decided to do this after I came back from maternity leave after having kid #3. My job (mostly my direct manager) is not keen with letting me work from home, so I requested the 30 hour work week and it was granted. I did it because I wanted to spend more time with the kids and I wanted to savor the baby-phase more than I did or was able to with the first two. I’m also trying to work on a side project (very, very slowly). The 30 hour work week currently buys me one full day at home, in theory it could be two full days, but I like to go in on Fridays for a few hours to wrap up the week. In my industry I do get paid for every hour I clock, so on the weeks where I log more than 30 hours, I do get paid more. I’ve been doing it for several months now, and I don’t think I really want to change it any time soon. I’m pretty sure it will slow down the career trajectory, but maybe it won’t, we shall see!

    1. @atkrel – congrats on the new little one! If you get paid by the hour, then that solves much of the problem of part-time work really being under compensated full time work. Career trajectories are a bit fuzzier – very much an individual choice.

  8. Yet another very timely discussion, Laura. I was recently trying (very inadequately) to explain to a new mom on my team currently on maternity leave with her first child why I haven’t done a part-time schedule. In my line of work, with my personality, I KNOW I would end up paying for full-time child care (you know, to be flexible, to meet my clients’ needs!) and working pretty darn close to the same number of hours if I had a “flexible work arrangement” for make-it-up-percentage of the pay. I had seriously considered a part-time schedule a number of times in the past couple of years until I read IKHSDI and decided to track my time better to make sure my timesheet reflected a full-time career even if there is sometimes some flexibility in when those hours actually get worked. I didn’t chime in when I saw a reader’s similar comments last week during the time tracking challenge, but that was my biggest revelation the first weeks I tracked my time – just how much time wasn’t making it on my work timesheet! I think knowing yourself, your industry/workplace, and your childcare options, if that applies, are important to really think through when decided if a pay cut for part-time hours is really the answer you are looking for. (And, by the way, the new mom I had this conversation with was the third co-worker I bought your IKHSDI book for since I supported its message so strongly!)

    1. @Karissa- wow, thanks so much for introducing my book to your colleagues. I really appreciate that! And yes, there’s no point taking a pay cut if you’re going to work just as many hours (perhaps working them flexibly, but still).

  9. I appreciate your comment about working more flexibly. I really thought I wanted to work parttime when I was interviewing for my current position. I am an endocrinologist and “parttime” jobs involved working 27 hours in 3 days seeing patients, but did not include any admin time to review labs, chart or call patients, which I would have needed to do on my days “off”. When I was recruited by my current employer, they offered me 30 patient hours and the opportunity to do admin work from anywhere. They also offered a flexible schedule. So I work 30 hours in 5 days and am home to pick my big kids up from school 3 days a week and home by 6:30 always. This is technically a fulltime job which I almost didn’t consider because it was technically fulltime, but in reality is hardly different in terms of workload from the parttime job I wanted.

  10. Thanks, Laura. As always, your thoughts are really balanced and insightful. As you know, I’m kind of struggling with this issue as well. I’ve been on a reduced schedule last year, and while I am definitely working less, I am not working as much as less as I am getting paid less (if that run-on sentence makes any sense).

    I also read Sarah’s blog post with a lot of interest. Love her blog. I must say I had mixed feelings when I read it. On the one hand, I was really happy for her personally. On the other, as a patient (albeit in Canada), I really do get concerned by the number of (mostly female) doctors that work reduced schedules. It makes it a lot harder, at least in Canada, to get in to see a doctor. Well over 50% of medical school graduates in Canada who practice in family medicine (general practitioners) are women, and a substantial number of them are on significantly reduced schedules (like 1 or 2 days a week). While this is a fantastic option for the individual, it’s really awful for patients that can’t find a doctor to see them. Not sure what the solution is, but it’s a big problem, especially in Canada, where the government effectively subsidizes your medical school education. (OK, end of rant. Sorry.)

    1. I appreciated where you are coming from. As a physician I can say that issues of access are always concerning. It is a luxury as a physician to see someone frequently if it is clinically warranted. I cannot speak for the Canadian system but in the US the number of physicians trained is tightly controlled and was increased about a decade ago. While much less of a physician’s education is subsidized here, there is still a reluctance to recognize that flexible work is what many physicians both men and women want. Obviously, if you see patients in the office work time vs. not is clear and slipping out to go to the gym or get the kids at school isn’t an option. Parttime has to be official. However medical malpractice companies, for example, will not charge less if you work parttime. I plan months in advance to take a day off or even start late to attend to kid duties. I would argue the change needs to be with the medical system in determining the number of doctors who need to be trained and how services like malpractice insurance are provided.

      1. Gillian, see my response below to Laura. I agree that enrollment needs to be adjusted to reflect the needs of the people practicing medicine. I think, in general, medical schools are uncomfortable acknowledging the reality, especially vis a vis women. Which doesn’t serve anybody well – either the physicians themselves or the patients.

    2. @Rinna- I agree that capacity can be an issue in the medical field, where access is tightly controlled (partly, perhaps, because physicians have an economic interest in keeping supply down, but there are other reasons too). We just should be sure it’s not just mom physicians working PT who get criticized on this. Plenty of men (and women too) train as physicians and then don’t see patients because they go work for pharma companies, or health insurance companies, or in administration at hospitals, or for foundations, or government, or media, etc. In some private practices you can buy out of call at a certain age. So that’s older (often male) physicians working less and seeing fewer patients too.

      1. You are right, Laura, There are lots of physicians of both genders that opt out in some form. The reality on the ground – at least in Canada, where I have seen the numbers – is that it’s a far more significant issue with younger, female doctors (especially mothers). As you know, I’m a feminist through and through as well as a working mother, so I say this not as knock against women physicians but rather as an acknowledgment of the reality. If that is going to be the reality, then medical schools need to be realistic about the number of candidates that they are taking in and graduating. And they shouldn’t be politically correct about understanding the demographics. For example, if the trend shows that on average, 35% of female general practitioners do not work for a portion of their career and 15% of all physicians eventually follow a different career path (say pharma), then in theory the enrollment needs to be changed to reflect this reality.

        I guess, in my mind, a profession as a doctor is just different than, say an accountant (me) or an author/speaker (you). The world can survive without both of us, let’s be honest. So I do think that more has to go into the decision for both physicians and the schools that train them relative to access.

        1. @Rinna- I do agree that medicine is different, given the relative inelastic demand and the tightened supply. It makes for more of a “lump of labor” concept than in other fields. We just need to be careful to look at it holistically. It would be short-sighted for the powers that be to decide to admit more men to medical school under the assumption that they’d stick with it, especially if one believes that recent study that patients of female doctors had better health outcomes.
          As for us — as long as public companies need to be audited, the world will need accountants! You are 100% correct that the world does not need a time management author/speaker 🙂

          1. Laura, when I was in medical school (12 years ago) there was an administrator who openly said that fewer women should be admitted to medical school than men because women were going to go part time when they had kids. A pretty gutsy statement given that more than 50% of my class were women. I disagree with your last statement though. Physicians are people just like everyone else and we have families and need self care–time management experts help us to do just that so we can do our jobs well!

  11. I’m pretty locked into a 45-50 hour a week schedule during the school year. (Teaching and coaching) Teaching may be time locked, but I love the fluidity of how my time coincides with my kids so it is an acceptable trade off for me.
    I have never enjoyed part time work because it seems that you are working just as much, but not getting paid for it or you got stuck doing the work the full time employees didn’t want to do.
    As my kids get older, I’m over here trying to figure out how to work more! My oldest 2 are beginning to need me less for personal care tasks, but their social lives have increased and is stressing me out. We are in the mom is a taxi service stage.

  12. I’m pretty sure it was you who talked me out of a foolish idea to go to 80% so I could have one day at home to “get things done”. It would absolutely have been “same work/less pay” and also feeling an obligation to take on more & more of the housework and I’m pretty sure I’d be resentful and regretful now even though it sounded it like a good idea 5 years ago when I had a newborn and a toddler!

    1. Hit the button too soon…I definitely think it depends on the specific nature of the job and what full-time vs. part-time actually entails in your specific role. I’ve gotten REALLY good at creating my own flexibility, no one knows where I am at any given time anyways, so I can work from home/leave early and make it up later/etc… so taking a pay and benefit cut makes no sense.

    2. @Ana- I do believe that for many kinds of work, flexibility (meaning you control a lot of the where and when) matters a lot more for making the pieces of work and life fit together than the actual number of hours. There was that study from IBM and BYU many years ago finding that people who could control their hours and work from home sometimes could work 57 hours/week before a significant number experienced work/family conflict. Whereas that tipping point happened at 38 hours for people who have to be in the office at set times.

  13. This is also a timely post for me, though I’m getting to it a few days late. I’m in the opposite situation–deciding whether or not to pursue an opportunity for a FT job. I currently work as an adjunct English professor, writing tutor, and freelance writer. Sometimes that adds up to a full-time work week, other times (like over the summer) I’m only working 20 or fewer hours a week. My kids are 8 months and 3, and I like the flexibility I have to plan occasional weekday outings and playdates with them, and perform other “primary parent” duties like doctor’s appointments. I’m lucky to have a sitter who doesn’t mind changing her schedule along with mine so I can work as much or as little as I need to. And temperamentally, I’ve always felt more suited to a flexible, varying schedule that I have a lot of control over versus the regular 9-5 in-one-place office job.

    On the other hand, the prospective job, while full-time 9-5, would also incorporate teaching and tutoring (along with administrative duties), so it would be a nice fit with my skill set and experience. It would also come with the fringe benefits that others have mentioned–health insurance, paid vacation, retirement account, etc.

    I’m in the middle of reading your 168 hours book, so I think first of all I need to compose a “strategic vision” for my life and career. This job is a great opportunity, but I’m not sure it’s the path I want to take. And from a sheer health/life enjoyment/etc perspective, I’m not sure I could be happy with the trade-off of commuting 2 hours a day, seeing the kids less, and still being the parent “left holding the bag” if my husband has to work late and or even if he doesn’t, because I would still get home before him and have to do dinner/bedtime by myself.

    Sorry for the long comment! I appreciate your work, which always gets me thinking, and this supportive community of other women trying to work out these issues for themselves.

    1. @Elizabeth – thanks for your comment! I do think it’s wise to figure out some ideas on life direction and then evaluate the current job possibility within that. No job is perfect, of course, but if you decide you would like to work full time, there are many jobs out there, some of which might be closer, or an even better match for your skills, or higher paid or… It’s also possible your husband might be willing to step into the breach some more, or that you might have the funds for some extra help.

  14. I am the cautionary tale, I did this ALL WRONG 14 years ago when my children were pre-school age. Strategic vision for my life…ha ha no…I just knew I was overwhelmed & something had to give. So with some vague idea of “having more time” to “get stuff done” & “be with the kids” I asked to go to 30 hours, leaving at 3pm each day. I agree with everyone else that the field you are in & your boundaries are so important- my field & I were very poorly suited for this! I was really just doing the same job for less money, in fact I’m sure I worked more hours just trying to “prove myself”. From 3-5pm I juggled my job & my young children, giving neither the attention they deserved. It was MISERABLE & when after 2 years I went back to FT & it was a huge relief. I am confused though why so many of you talk about logging in & working at night as if it’s a good thing?? Aren’t you people tired? 

    1. @Ginny- thanks for your comment! I agree that trying to juggle work and kids from 3-5 would be miserable.

      As for working at night, it’s not for everyone, but I’m a fan of the “split shift.” Leave on time from work, and then knock off the emails or other low-energy stuff after the kids go to bed. You wind up trading work time for TV time instead of work time for family time.

    2. Ginny, I agree – unless I have a very urgent task, I really hate the split shift. I have to reboot my brain, the anticipation of which spoils my dinner time, and then after I’ve worked at night it takes me at least an hour to unwind my brain. I suppose it’s highly dependent on the nature of the work you’re in – if you’re solving very complex problems or dealing with challenging relationship dynamics (negotiations, sales, etc.), then this split shift concept can get very tiring

  15. I love this discussion and all the comments! As I’ve commented in the past, I worked part-time for 3 years at a large tech company (ranging from 25-32 hours roughly, though not getting paid by the hour). What I liked about this arrangement was that it was MUCH easier for me to say ‘no’ to extra work and it gave me full days where I was not working at all and had no guilt about it. I absolutely had to be firm about blocking my calendar for meetings and not working extra hours unless it was project-critical.

    I found it was MUCH easier for me to work near full time hours (37-39) when I took a contract job with the same company that was 100% work from home. In this job I actually got paid by the hour, which worked out better for me, and it was easier to hold the line OR decide to work more if I wanted because I was actually getting paid for it. Also, not having to travel and sit in an office (even though my commute is <10 min) is just a huge help. Something about having to get dressed and presentable to see other people, plus not being able to throw in a load of dishes or laundry between meetings makes the integration of work & life seem a lot harder to me.

    I decided to return to a full time regular employee job last year, but I decided to take Laura's advice about being flexible with my time. Up front I negotiated ONE regular day to work from home. In practice I am usually working from home 2 days a week. My team is not big on "face time" except for key meetings, so I have a lot more flexibility than I expected. Today I worked out at 8am, dialed into my daily 9am meeting, then got ready and went into work at 10. I will leave just before 5 since my husband has an evening thing. The biggest part has been for me to adjust to the "guilt" of leaving early or starting late. When I actually add up my hours, it's right around 40 because I put in some time at home in the evenings or weekends.

    I have become even braver in the past few months 🙂 and have decided to pick my kids up from school at 3:30pm 3 days a week. I block my calendar, let my manager know in passing that a few days a week I need to pick up kids, and that was it. If i have a meeting I can't miss, I swap with my husband.

    Obviously I am extremely lucky to have a 'knowledge worker' job where I have a flexible schedule that doesn't depend on clients or patients etc. But I never would have thought I *could* work a full time schedule without reading the stuff Laura has written. And it turns out all the dire consequences I was afraid of by not working 10 hour days in the office have not come to pass 🙂

  16. For a number of years, I did an 80% schedule but most weeks provided full time value or worked full time hours. I observed as well that there were colleagues who were contributing less than full time value, but getting paid full time salaries. In accordance with my reduced schedule, I (rightly) received less vacation time, but it did not impact my employer’s other benefit contributions. I also perceived that my less than full time status limited some growth opportunities, as my manager was mindful of my limits. Eventually, I chose to reinstate to full time under a new manager. I do have less time for my children in this new structure, but my hours are flexible and we constantly experiment to see what works. Because my work is mostly west coast based while I live on the east coast, I chose this year to tell my colleagues that I am putting in two “east coast days” a week this year, which means I am offline by 1:30 – 2:30 PM west coast time twice a week. This allows me to drop off and pick up two of my four children from school two days a week, which has been a good new thing for us to try. It is constant experimentation and I am so thankful for this blog and these conversations, which always spark interesting new considerations.

  17. I was an unwilling stay at home mom for 4.5 years, then part time for a year, then full time for 3 years. I start back to part time next week having thoughtfully considered how to structure my time in an industry where boundaries are never honored. Being older and wiser, I know it will be hard some days but I also know I can do it. Great, timely article. Thanks!

  18. arrg….i think i might fall in all the traps you mentionned.
    I just took a 3 day per week position. my work is face to face and in public service. there is a culture of checking in the lazy public servant so no double shift for me, even if i believe it could work. long commute, that i can use for reading ( great)! not enough money to hire help so i still am and will be the default parent. Income is good but not significant considering i live in a “social country” so the pricing of stuff such as childcare depends on income. bummer of bummer i actually had to cancel a family vacation to take the position. On the plus side, it can be a path to full time, it is only 28 hours out of the 168 per week so really not that much and it is in my field. lets keep spirit up!

  19. Evaluating going 80% and finding this old post extremely helpful (and evergreen despite being written pre-pandemic). Leaning towards NOT going 80% to have a day to clean the house and run errands. It felt like a good idea, but I will end up resentful about taking on more housework than I already do. Plus I know I will still work close to 40 hours a week. I have to track my time for work (consultant, billable hours) so I will see what changes I can make in the next couple of weeks to work more flexibly…

    1. @Lori C – yep, there are few circumstances where an 80 percent schedule winds up being a good deal. Even if you do manage to get a full day off, if you would use the day off for household work, then you’re substituting lower paid work for higher paid work, which isn’t really economically rational. There may be other reasons people do it, but that tends not to work as well as people hope.

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