A Fair Schedule, Then A Fair Wage


By Sarah Sibley.

Charles Blow said it best–  “Being poor is expensive.” If you are poor, you likely spend more on cars, groceries, insurance, and education than middle class Americans. You have less access to quality education and, if you are among the 11 million working poor in the U.S. and you are unbanked, it will even cost you more to cash your paycheck. Traditional routes up the economic ladder are blocked at every turn, so for those wishing to ease the path to the middle class, where should we start?

A worker’s autonomy over her own time.

Take Carmen, for instance, whose story I heard when I was a Congressional Intern. Carmen is a former hotel cleaning service worker outside of Washington, D.C. and, despite being the primary caregiver for her five-year-old grandson, she never missed a shift. She did, however, miss countless birthday parties, school events, and family reunions when she was called into work with only three-days or even twelve-hours notice. After over a decade of award-winning service, Carmen, for the first time in her career, missed five days of work when she was sick. She presented the required documentation from her doctor and was fired on the spot.

Even union protection only goes so far- just down the road, Kim, a unionized retail worker at Macy’s, is lucky that her schedule is posted two weeks ahead of time. However, managers only give her 48 hours notice if they change her schedule, and part-time workers only get 24 hours notice. All non-union members (Macy’s is a closed-shop, but some positions are not unionized) receive just one day of advanced notice. Those that are unable to make their last-minute shifts are penalized under Macy’s “point system,” and, if they lose enough points, they can lose their jobs.  Kim has so little control over her schedule that she can never arrange for a tutor for her daughter, and was even scheduled to work on the day of her mother’s memorial service, which she specifically requested to have off.

“Stop bitching about your schedules” is the common managerial refrain, says Kim. “But these are not teenagers working up to save money for the prom. These are adults who are trying to make a living.” What workers want first is control over their own time.

Unpredictable scheduling has acute social costs that keep workers and their families in poverty. Yes, raising the minimum wage is necessary, but, if a worker cannot predict what she will be doing in two days time, how can she hope to reach the middle class? If she cannot plan her week, or even her day, she cannot look for other jobs, hold another job, or attend a class to gain new skills. She is told that her family, social, and personal life does not matter, and she is trapped in her job indefinitely.

According to a study commissioned by Popular Democracy, an advocacy organization, low-income workers list scheduling unpredictability as their most immediate and pressing concern. Half of low-wage workers report that they have “limited control over the timing of their work hours,” and more than two-thirds are unable to change the hours they start and finish work, says The National Women’s Law Center. Yet, even in cities with labor laws meant to protect workers from excessive call-in shifts and schedule changes, most have no recourse when infractions do occur. Industries with sky-high turnover rates, like almost any low-wage job, make being a squeaky wheel dangerous. Retail, restaurant, and service industries are the worst offenders.

Companies have shifted the cost of unpredictable demand squarely on the shoulders of workers. “Even though the technology enables [employers] to predict 80 percent of their labor costs well in advance, they are scheduling workers according to the smaller percentage of hours that they can’t predict,” says Carrie Gleason at the Center for Popular Democracy.

Companies would be better off implementing fair scheduling policies. According to the Workplace Flexibility Summit, increased flexibility led to “reduced absenteeism, enhanced customer service, and higher profits,”  thanks to increased productivity and savings from “reductions in overtime costs resulting from unscheduled absences.”

The movement for more predictable scheduling practices is gaining momentum. Twelve states are considering reforms, and New York’s Attorney General is looking into whether widespread dependence on on-call scheduling violates New York labor laws. In response to a New York Times investigation, Starbucks committed to scheduling three weeks in advance; under threat of legal action, The Gap announced it would reform its scheduling practices just last month.

The Schedules That Work Act, introduced in the U.S. Senate by Senator Elizabeth Warren, would give employees in the retail, restaurant, and cleaning industries the ability to request a schedule change, and the company must have a good business reason to refuse. Schedules must be posted two weeks in advance, and employees must compensate workers for any change in that window with an extra hour of pay. Similarly, employers must dole out an extra hour of pay for split and on-call shifts to disincentivize routine on-call scheduling. If an employee shows up for a scheduled shift and is told to go home because there is not enough work, the worker will receive four hours of pay or be compensated for the full shift (whichever is less).

There are many reforms we must make if we want a fair-growth economy, but if we want those at the bottom to be able to climb the economic ladder, we should give them time to find it first.

*This piece was inspired by a July, 2015 Congressional Briefing, “Schedules That Work,” sponsored by CLASP


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  1. Jack

    Well thought out article. Makes me think about the difficult challenges low income workers must face. This definitely makes me a more conscious Macy’s consumer.

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