The Stranger: The City Council Might Actually Do Something About Unpredictable Scheduling for Low-Wage Workers

The Stranger

by Heidi Grover

Local Starbucks employees have tried going directly to Howard Shultz with their complaints about how the company schedules its workers. He hasn't responded. So they're going to the Seattle City Council instead.

Working Washington—a labor advocacy group funded in part by Service Employees International Union 775—organized a panel of food and coffee workers this morning to talk about how difficult it can be to go to school, care for their families, or do just about anything else without a predictable work schedule. Two city council members attended and promised to work on legislation requiring more predictability in scheduling for low-wage workers.

Crystal Thompson, a Domino's Pizza worker who was also prominent in the push for a $15 minimum wage, described not finding out her schedule until Sunday nights for the week beginning the next day. Former Starbucks worker Grant Medsker said he got work schedules ranging from as few as eight hours one week to as a many as 40 the next. "What I used to call a love-hate relationship with the service industry," Medsker said, "I later recognized was more of an abusive one."

The concerns are the same ones workers have been expressing repeatedly over the last few months, including at a march downtown in November. Along with insufficient notice of work schedules, Starbucks workers have spoken out against the company's "lean staffing" policies (an effort to save money by staffing fewer people, making it especially difficult when someone calls in sick), requirements that workers find their own coverage if they're sick, and clopenings. A 2015 report from the Restaurant Opportunity Center United found that about a third of restaurant workers surveyed in King County had unpredictable schedules and "workers reported that unstable schedules served as a barrier to taking up additional work or attending higher education, and made consistent arrangements for childcare difficult."

While the workers' concerns weren't new, the presence of two city council members was. Newly elected citywide Council Member Lorena González and West Seattle Council MemberLisa Herbold attended the panel and told workers they plan to work together on legislation requiring employers to give workers more notice of scheduling.

"Lorena and I are a great team to work on this issue," Herbold told workers today. "I will absolutely be supportive of your efforts."

The council members don't yet have specifics or draft legislation, but they'll likely find support among their colleagues. At least two other council members—Kshama Sawant andRob Johnson—said during their campaigns last fall that they would support scheduling regulations. Council staff can start work on the issue by looking to other jurisdictions, especially San Francisco. There, one law protects a worker's right to ask for predictable hours to care for family members and another, a "Retail Workers' Bill of Rights,"requires large employers to give workers at least two weeks' notice of their scheduleand one week's notice of changes. (Vermont also has a "right to request" law.) San Francisco's scheduling regulations apply only to large companies, which is likely the approach Seattle would take, González told me after this morning's event. Neither Starbucks nor the Washington Restaurant Association responded to requests for comment about this. UPDATE: The WRA just sent me this statement from President Anthony Anton (emphasis mine).

Local restaurants care about their employees and are proud of the fact that they are a career opportunity and a pipeline of entry into the workforce. As employers in the hospitality industry, we are concerned about what a mandated restrictive scheduling policy could mean to our employees and our businesses. We want to ensure restrictive scheduling policies won't defy a crucial cornerstone of restaurant employment—flexibility. Many of our employees seek out the hospitality industry for its flexible schedule, something very few industries offer, to meet commitments of school, parenting and other life responsibilities. We look forward to seeing the details of a proposal to better understand its impacts.

When might council members introduce legislation? Which sectors and businesses will be affected? Will workers have to wait for the city to convene a special task force and for that task force to make recommendations before the council takes action? All still unanswered.

González said she and Herbold are "still working on the particulars."

"All I can tell you is I'm going to be riding this issue hard," González told me. "I hope to deliver on this this year... I'm not interested in miring this down in byzantine Seattle process."