Workers only know their schedules at the last minute. It’s a big problem

Although essential workers have been hailed as heroes during the Covid-19 pandemic and a historically tight labor market, schedule instability has improved little in the past two years, according to new research.
“Unstable and unpredictable work schedules continue to be the norm for workers in the service sector – especially for workers of color, and for women of color in particular,” according to a report released Friday by the Shift Project, a joint venture of Harvard University and the University of California, San Francisco.

The proportion of workers reporting on-call shifts, where they are required to be available if needed but not paid for their time, last-minute changes to shifts, and “closings” – the same worker closing the store then opening it the next day — resembled those experienced in the years before the pandemic.

“Along with the health risks, uncertainty and stress of working during a pandemic, many service sector workers continue to face chronically unpredictable and unstable work schedules,” said the researchers, led by sociologists Daniel Schneider and Kristen Harknett, in a memoir.

Since 2017, Project Shift researchers have conducted biannual online surveys of 110,000 hourly workers at about 150 of the largest retail and fast food chains in the United States. The latest surveys were conducted in the fall of 2020, and researchers looked at workers’ schedules before and during the pandemic. They found little improvement.

Unstable schedules can harm workers and their families: Other research has shown that unpredictable work schedules can impact everything from workers’ health and well-being to their children’s sleep schedules and school attendance.

The impact of inconsistent schedules

Kenya Slaughter, a General dollar (CEO) employed in Alexandria, Louisiana, was getting last-minute calls asking her to cover a shift, even on her days off. This left her scrambling to find daycare. She felt compelled to say yes and show up to stay in her manager’s good graces.
After more than three years with the channel, Slaughter now has a fixed weekly schedule. She was able to get it after pleading with the store in 2021 when her five-year-old daughter was shot and needed full-time care. Slaughter took unpaid leave, but returned and took a pay cut for a regular schedule.

“It’s made life a lot easier. I’m a lot more confident. I’m a lot more comfortable. I’m better rested,” Slaughter said. “I don’t have to worry about being stuck at work and not being able to pick up my baby.”

Dollar General did not respond to request for comment.

Uncertain schedules and fluctuating hours pose a host of challenges for Isabela Burrows, a PetSmart worker in Howell, Michigan, and member of labor advocacy group United for Respect. She has to schedule her second job and online college classes around her irregular schedule at PetSmart.

PetSmart said it does its best to accommodate workers’ scheduling preferences and give them as much notice as possible. The company said its scheduling practices balance the needs of customers, stores and workers.

“If I had a regular schedule, I could schedule more time for homework and helping my family.”

Fair work week legislation

People of color are overrepresented in the service sector, and research from the Shift Project found that “racial inequality in schedule reviews has widened during the pandemic.”

Workers of color were more likely than white workers to report being notified less than two weeks in advance of their schedule during the pandemic and more likely to work on call. These disparities may arise because managers often control schedules, “allowing for conscious or unconscious bias and unequal treatment,” the researchers said.

Lawmakers have begun to address the erratic schedules of retail and service workers.

San Francisco, New York, Seattle, Chicago, Washington, DC, Oregon, New Hampshire and others have passed so-called fair work week laws to increase schedule predictability.
At the federal level, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Connecticut Rep. Rosa DeLauro introduced the Work Hours Act, requiring employers in the retail, restaurant, hospitality and warehouse industries to provide work hours. to their workers two weeks in advance.
Project Shift researchers studied the changes for workers in Seattle, which passed an ordinance in 2017 stipulating that employees receive two weeks’ notice of their schedules or be compensated with extra pay when schedules change.

By comparing workers in Seattle to those at the same companies in similar cities, the researchers found that schedule predictability and stability made a positive difference in workers’ lives.

“The law also had important downstream benefits,” the report says, “improving workers’ sleep, economic security, and overall happiness.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly listed the store location of Dollar General employee Kenya Slaughter. She works in a store in Alexandria, Louisiana.

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