WASHINGTON — If there’s one labor issue that’s come to the forefront of political agendas over the last few years, it’s the minimum wage: Cities and states nationwide are taking action to boost pay, as federal efforts seem doomed to fail.
But a new wave of reform is under way. Instead of how much you earn, it addresses when you work, pushing back against the corporate trend toward timing shifts exactly when labor is needed, sometimes in tiny increments or at the last minute. That practice, nicknamed “just-in-time” scheduling, can wreak havoc on workers who can’t plan around work obligations that might pop up at any time.
Community groups and unions in Washington are formulating a bill that will address the problem of schedules that can be both shifting and inflexible. The legislation hasn’t been hammered out yet, but the labor-backed group Jobs With Justice says it will likely include a requirement that employers provide workers with notice of their schedules a few weeks ahead of time and that additional hours go to existing employees rather than spreading them across a large work force.
“The one thing we’re finding overwhelmingly is that people aren’t getting enough hours to make ends meet,” says Ari Schwartz, an organizer at D.C. Jobs With Justice, which is tabulating the results of a survey of hundreds of hourly workers in the city on scheduling. “People aren’t getting their schedules with enough time to plan child care and the rest of the things in their lives.”
When a proposal reaches the D.C. Council, Washington won’t be the first: After the passage of legislation in San Francisco, bills have been offered in Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Illinois, Connecticut, California, New York, Michigan, and Oregon. Along with new proposals to expand paid sick-day legislation are a bid to give employees more control over how they spend their time.
“These scheduling reforms are getting really popular, because it makes no sense that, for example, you’re required to be available to work by your employer, and you’re not picked for that time,” says Tsedeye Gebreselassie, a senior staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project. “People who don’t suffer these abuses already understand what it’s like to juggle work and family, so people really identify with that as being a problem.”
Twenty years ago, schedules weren’t as much of a headache. Retail, especially, tended to be a solid 9 to 5 job.
But then retail hours grew longer. And computerized scheduling allowed employers to best fit staffing to demand. Here’s what that looks like in practice: handing out schedules based on what times of day or the month you expect the most business, splitting up hours across a large work force that’s available on a moment’s notice, and sometimes sending people home if traffic is slow.
That helps companies optimize their labor costs, but for low-wage workers, they don’t know how much they’re going to make from week to week and often can’t schedule anything else.
One worker, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she is still employed there, works in the hot-food prep section of the Whole Foods in Washington. She worked consistently from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., and took a second job as a nanny in the afternoons, which added money to send home to her father in El Salvador and to support her daughter in college in Tennessee.
But then, a new manager cut back hours; some people left and weren’t replaced. The schedule posted on the wall started to shift the worker’s days off or tell her to come in from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. instead. Usually she got a week’s notice, but sometimes she’d come to work and the schedule had changed, so she’d have to go back home. After that happened on too many days, she had to drop the afternoon job.
“She would come and say, ‘I really need you to cover this shift,’ and it is what it is,” the worker said through a translator. “Lots of us have lost lots of jobs.”
Things are better, she said, and that’s not by accident. As public complaints surfaced about Whole Foods’ scheduling, the company rolled out a new system that allows employees to see their schedules for two weeks in advance and prevents managers from changing them at the last minute or scheduling “clopenings” — both closing the store and opening it in the morning — without an employee’s consent. The policy has been in place nationwide since early April, spokesman Michael Silverman said.
Wal-Mart has also introduced a system of “open shifts,” which allows workers to pick their own hours. Starbucks curbed some of its practices in the wake of a New York Times article last year that described their effect on one barista. The Gap is working with the Center for WorkLife Law at Hastings College of Law, University of California, in San Francisco to set up nationwide pilot projects that would measure the impact of giving employees stable schedules and more hours.
Many companies haven’t considered how much their scheduling practices are costing them in the form of employee turnover, said Joan Williams, a UC law professor.
“If you don’t count that cost, it disappears ...,” she said. “Our hypothesis is that if you provide people with more stable schedules, you’ll see lower turnover [and] absenteeism and higher worker engagement.”
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