National Consumers League

The unfairness of unpredictable and unstable work schedules


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Ever had a shift canceled at the last minute or been called in to work on your day off? 

For 74% of adults in today’s labor market last minute shift changes are not rare occurrences. Work schedules in low-wage jobs are often unpredictable and unstable, making it nearly impossible for employees to plan their lives around their constantly changing schedules.

Last week, New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse profiled workers struggling to find balance in their work and life responsibilities in A Push To Give Steadier Shifts to Part-Timers. Many of the workers’ stories involved similar issues: problems commuting to work only to find that there is no work, ever-changing shifts making child care an impossibility, and the constant worry of not having enough money to pay the bills.

According to the National Women’s Law Center, there are nearly 20 million low-wage workers in the US and 76% of workers in the ten largest low-wage jobs are women. While low wages, typically paying less than $10.10 an hour, make it hard for workers to support themselves and their families, it is not the only problem they face. Too often these jobs include work scheduling policies and practices that pose problems for workers with significant responsibilities outside the job, including caregiving, pursuing higher education and training for or holding down a second job.

“The volatile work schedules of today erode earning potential, push workers out of the work force, and exacerbate inequality, especially for women and workers of color who are more likely to work part-time jobs. For a fair paycheck, these workers need wages and hours with dignity,” said Carrie Gleason, Director of the Fair Workweek Initiative for the Center for Popular Democracy.

With some employers using “just-in-time scheduling” to lower labor costs, it puts workers’ schedules at the mercy of consumer demands and often results in employees being given very little advance notice of their work schedules. For employees this type of policy means fluctuating hours between full-time and part-time, the inability to pursue further education, and the uncertainty of having enough hours to pay the rent, utilities, groceries and childcare.

Fortunately, Representatives Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and George Miller (D-CA) and Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Tom Harkin (D-IA) introduced the Schedules That Work Act this week in both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. The Act would help combat the problem of unpredictable and unstable work schedules. It lays out a modest variety of rights and protections for employees including: a voice in their work schedules, advance notice of schedule, protection against employer retaliation, and the right to report pay and split-shift pay.

Fair, flexible, and reliable scheduling is a simple way to ensure workers are treated with dignity and respect. In a perfect world employers would view employees as human beings with competing life demands rather than numbers on a spreadsheet. The Schedules That Work Act takes an important step towards that goal.

To learn more about workers’ scheduling struggles, please click here.
To learn more about the Schedules That Work Act, please click here.