Al Jazeera America: Women unduly harmed by unpredictable scheduling

Originally published by Al Jazeera America, Ned Resnikoff
May 12, 2015

Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

Irregular hours and just-in-time scheduling are pervasive throughout the low-wage economy, but they do particular harm to working women, according to an analysis released Tuesday by the Center for Popular Democracy.

Women still disproportionately shoulder responsibility for child care and other family obligations, and more than 6 million women have cited those constraints as the primary reasons they are not employed full time, according to the report.

The Center for Popular Democracy argues that juggling family responsibilities with the unsteady work hours that often come with part-time employment leads to additional challenges for women.

“Women working more hours are likely to experience the stressful effects of overwork and may often have no choice but to work overtime hours or lose their job,” the report says. “However, the over 12 million women working part time in hourly jobs are at greatest risk of both highly erratic schedules and of extreme income fluctuation."

Women were found to be slightly more likely to work jobs paid on an hourly basis: 61 percent compared with 56 percent of men. As a result, their income is more likely to fluctuate based on how many hours they are assigned to work per week or month. Additionally, their off time can be difficult to control or predict because of last-minute scheduling.

Erratic hours can be particularly hard on women, who tend to spend more time than men performing household chores and caring for children. A 2014 Bureau of Labor Statistics survey found women in households with children under the age of 6 spent roughly an hour a day attending to their physical needs, whereas men spent roughly half an hour.

On a conference call with reporters to discuss the report, Albuquerque, New Mexico, activist Kris Buchmann said she has been “treated like my life outside of work didn’t matter” while working hourly jobs in retail. 

“I can’t tell you how many times I was asked to close and then turn around and come back in after five or six hours off,” she said. “It’s not enough for a full night’s sleep or showering or anything else I have to do."

Other times, “they would call me into work, I would show up, and they would say, ‘Oh, never mind. We don’t need you,’” she said. Such unpredictability made it difficult for her to know when she would need to find child care for her son.

University of Massachusetts at Amherst sociologist Naomi Gerstel, who wrote the book “Unequal Time: Gender, Class and Family in Employment Schedules” with Dan Clawson, said erratic scheduling exists “across the entire class spectrum” but falls especially hard on low-wage workers.

If you’re in a stable, full-time position, “you’re more likely to be able to say no or find substitutes” such as baby sitters and other care workers, she said. Additionally, some higher-paying workplaces are “changing occupations to make it possible for especially women workers to take on what’s defined as flexibility."

But perks such as maternity leave have not filtered down the income ladder. And long-term changes in family structure have created a “double-edged sword” for some workers, said Gerstel. Births to unmarried women have risen steadily since the 1940s, according the U.S. Census Bureau, so more single mothers have been forced to negotiate child care on top of their work schedules.

That’s beginning to change in some parts of the country. Carrie Gleason, the Center for Popular Democracy’s Fair Workweek Initiative director, told reporters on a conference call that 11 states “have introduced some form of work hours legislation, and this is an issue that was basically not on the map last year.”

Buchmann is part of a campaign to get predictable scheduling legislation passed in New Mexico. In November, San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors approved a legislative package known as the Retail Worker Bill of Rights, which is, in part, intended to enforce more predictable scheduling for retail workers.