Vox: Retail and Restaurant Workers Have the Worst Schedules. Oregon Plans to Change That.

Originally published on Vox on 07/10/2017 9:30 am ET

In the next upcoming battle for workers’ rights, activists aren’t asking for more money or more time off. They just want workers to get a little advance notice about what their schedule will be.

Activists for better working conditions have scored victories lately. This year, 19 states increased their minimum wage — the result of a coordinated state-by-state campaign to take action on an issue that the federal government has basically ignored for a decade. And a handful of cities and states have passed laws requiring employers to offer workers paid parental leave.

Those fights aren’t over. But progressive cities and states are taking on another issue that affects low-wage workers in retail and restaurant jobs: work schedules that can change with less than 24 hours’ notice and that can require workers to pull back-to-back shifts. Oregon is poised to become the first state in the nation to pass a statewide fair scheduling law.

Advocates hope that more states — blue states, at least — will follow Oregon’s lead and pressure Republicans in Congress to take action. “We do hope that that pressure across the country will bring momentum and urgency to find a national solution,” said Elianne Farhat, who directs the Fair Work Week campaign at the Center for Popular Democracy.

Irregular scheduling disrupts people’s lives

People working low-wage jobs in retail, health care, and restaurants are the workers who get stuck with the most erratic work schedules, according to research from the University of Oregon. They tend to be young women of color who have children at home.

Labor economists at the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, estimate that about 17 percent of US workers have unstable schedules. That, in turn, is linked to higher rates of work-family conflict and stress.

While the federal government has limited data on how many workers are subject to irregular scheduling, a few surveys suggest that the problem has been growing as the economy shifts away from manufacturing and toward services. Nearly 80 percent of all US jobs are now in the service sector.

Last year, researchers from the university’s Labor and Education Center interviewed 750 workers from a variety of professions in Oregon. One in six said their supervisors had given them less than 24 hours’ notice of their job shift, and nearly three-quarters got less than two weeks advance notice. About 44 percent said they had worked back-to-back shifts, and 41 percent had been sent home early from their shift.

Hectic scheduling wreaks havoc on workers’ lives. Tia Raynor, a US Army veteran who did two tours in Iraq, worked for two years as a barista at a coffee shop in the Portland International Airport. She could be scheduled to work a shift as early as 3:30 am or one that ended as late as midnight.

Raynor, who traveled to Salem, Oregon, to tell lawmakers about the impact of her work schedule on her life as they were debating the scheduling law, said she didn’t have any choice in which shifts she got. She often had to scramble to find someone to cover her evening shifts at a second job as a banquet server — which she needed to supplement her minimum wage earnings.

But the worst days were when her manager at the coffee shop scheduled her for a late-night shift followed by an early morning shift the next day, she said, a retail practice known as“clopening.”

“It’s difficult to do that to your body,” said Raynor, who is now 33. “There were days I would work 48 hours in a row. Then I would go to my other job sleep and for an hour or two in parking lot. When that was done I would sleep for another hour or two and then go back to the coffee shop.”

It was her only option, she said, because otherwise she would have been homeless. Her erratic schedule made it impossible for her to get proper treatment for her PTSD. Raynor wanted to get off her medication, but was unable to make plans to attend the weekly group therapy sessions.

She’s happy that lawmakers have decided to stop the kind of “scheduling abuse” she has lived with for years. She no longer works at the coffee shop, but she still juggles three banquet-serving jobs. She’s expecting her first child, and she said it gives her peace of mind to know that employers will need to give workers some level of stability in their lives.

“It’s so good to know that when I make an appointment for the doctor, I will already know my schedule,” said Raynor, who lives in Portland. “If I need to take my kid to the doctor, I will be able to make an appointment.”

The problem is worst for service workers

Last year, Seattle and San Francisco became the first cities to pass laws protecting workers from irregular scheduling. New York City followed in May.

The Oregon law, known as the Fair Workweek Act, requires businesses with more than 500 employees to give workers at least one week’s advance notice of their schedule starting next year, and two weeks’ notice starting in 2020. They must also compensate employees for last-minute schedule changes and give them at least a 10-hour break between shifts. The law only applies to workers in Oregon, regardless of where the company is based.

The law passed with bipartisan support after Democratic lawmakers worked with Republicans to tweak the law and make it more flexible for employers. Now lawmakers in Chicago, Connecticut, California, North Carolina, and Massachusetts are considering similar bills.

The real goal for advocates, though, is a nationwide law. Raynor argues that Republicans should support the laws as a way to get people back to work. Her mother, who was single, had trouble juggling several jobs precisely because of the “scheduling chaos.” So they ended up on food stamps because she couldn’t count on a fixed schedule and steady source of income.

“People can get out of poverty if they could just plan their lives a bit better,” says Raynor. “I really think this is the first step to getting people off public assistance.”

Still, it’s unlikely that Congress would take up the issue at the national level anytime soon, particularly after stalled efforts to raise the minimum wage and create a paid family leave program. Democrats in Congress are trying anyway. In June, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) introduced the Schedules That Work Act with Sen. Elizabeth Warren. The law requires employers to post schedules two weeks in advance for workers in retail, food service, and cleaning jobs. It also guarantees some compensation for employees whose schedules are changed at the last minute, or who are assigned particularly difficult shifts.

So far, no Republicans have co-sponsored the bill. The lack of support among Republicans suggests that workers in blue states will be more likely to get these protections, while those who live in red states are left behind.