MAY 04, 2018
In the summer of 2015, Marilyn Moore took a seasonal job at a local Target in Bridgeport, Connecticut. She told her new employer that she wanted to work at least 20 hours per week. Though she tried to use her previous experience in retail sales to negotiate for higher than $9.50 per hour, she was rebuked. Her first week on the job, she worked just eight hours. Talking with fellow new employees, she learned that none of them were offered even the minimum number of shifts they requested. At that rate, Moore realized, she would need at least two more jobs to pay her bills.
This is a common story among part-time shift workers. In Connecticut, for instance, 88% of service-sector workers are offered fewer than 40 hours a week at their job. Fifty-eight percent of those workers would like to work more hours. Around 66% of service-sector workers have to keep their schedules open for the possibility that they might work, only to never get a call from their employers, or see shifts disappear from their calendars if their bosses decide they’re not needed at the last minute. This creates instability, and hampers workers’ abilities to plan their days and arrange secondary employment to fill the holes created by their first job. While these numbers testify specifically to the situation in Connecticut, they gesture toward the reality of workers in all states.
Moore swiftly realized the reality of her new employment: In her first two weeks, she took home just $128.50. In order to adequately provide for a family of four, she would need to be earning $2,587.20 in that same time frame, but she never secured enough hours to come close to that total, nor was her schedule regular enough to allow her to look for a second job. But Moore, ultimately, was not dependent on this work for a living: She was actually one year into her first term as a Democratic state senator for Bridgeport, and wanted to gain an in-depth and empathetic understanding for what service workers endure in order to advocate more effectively on their behalf.
Part of Moore’s efforts have centered on calling for the passage of a fair workweek bill, which would outlaw on-call scheduling, the practice of employers keeping workers on the line for a potential shift without any guarantee of work, and frequently canceling shifts at the last minute with no compensation. A previous Fair Workweek bill failed to pass in 2015, but undeterred, she resurrected it and fought for it again this year.
The Fair Workweek bill was ultimately shot down in the Senate again on May 1, as the legislative session drew to a close. But the Connecticut Working Families Organization, which was pushing for the bill’s passage, will continue to do so next year following precedent sent by Oregon, which passed statewide fair workweek legislation last year, and a handful of cities including San Francisco and Seattle. As Connecticut was the first state to pass paid sick leave, a once-fringe measure that is now fairly ubiquitous, advocates are hopeful that the successful passage of fair workweek legislation in the state will signal a country-wide movement.
CHALLENGES TO A FAIR WORKWEEK
The practice of on-call scheduling came about in the 1990s, as companies largely shifted from paying their workers a fixed annual wage to paying them by the hour, and with lessening regularity. As companies gain access to software that predicts up-to-the-minute business-flow predictors, like traffic and weather, they can adjust their staffing needs to cut costs, former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich writes. It’s common practice for employers to assign workers tentative shifts, then shoot a text to someone just minutes before they’re supposed to come in to say they’re not needed.
Companies often claim that abiding by fair scheduling principles will cost them both financially and logistically–it’s much easier to shuffle workers around shift schedules as if they were pieces on a chessboard, rather than to consider the actual implications of those moves. They often bristle at the requirement that they compensate hastily canceled shifts with some portion of the workers’ expected wages, and at the idea of fines for failing to provide their workers steady and predictable shifts.
For states like Connecticut, which in recent years renewed its efforts to attract new businesses to the state, there’s been pushback to the legislation. Corporate lobbyists maintain that paying workers better or advancing just scheduling practices will cause the state to lose its competitive edge in attracting companies, says Zack Campbell, media and outreach director for CT Working Families. “But we’re flipping the competitiveness angle,” Campbell says. “We won’t be competitive because we don’t give people enough opportunities, and because people who live here now can’t get ahead.”
Furthermore, research shows companies that implement fair scheduling practices see benefits to their bottom line. In 2015, the Gap rolled out a pilot program with 19 stores across the San Francisco and Chicago metro areas to test the effects of finalizing schedules two weeks in advance, and eliminating on-call scheduling. The stores that implemented these practices saw a 5% increase in labor productivity and a 7% increase in median sales over the study period–significant for an industry that considers increases of 1-2% progress. Over the 35-week period, the stores increased overall revenue for the Gap by $290,000. Gap has subsequently extended the policy to all its stores, and other major chain retailers, including Disney and PacSun, have done the same.
The findings from the Gap study testify to how fair scheduling practices could help companies by improving workforce morale, and commitment, and driving down time spent on last-minute scheduling changes. But these tactics also produce more intangible benefits for the local economies in which they’re implemented. “It’s Econ 101,” Campbell says. “Working people are the backbone of the economy, and there’s no flow of money if people can’t afford things.” Furthermore, workers are more likely to have to lean on services like SNAP and subsidized housing, which puts more pressure on government resources. These arguments mirror those used to support the $15 minimum wage, which will expand to 18 states this year. Working Families and other labor activist groups maintain that fair scheduling laws are necessary to support the achievements of a higher minimum wage, because even $15 an hour won’t do much when the hours are still well below regular.
AN UNSEEN ISSUE
Even though an estimated 17% of the working U.S. population faces unstable schedules, “people who aren’t directly affected by this issue often don’t see it,” Campbell says. Upon hearing stories from people like Lexii Evans, who lives in Hartford and has often been held overtime long enough at her shift job at a Nordstrom’s in West Hartford to miss her bus home, legislators often claim the stories are anecdotal and don’t represent a pervasive reality.
In response, researchers at U.C. Berkeley have undertaken a national research study aiming to quantify the extent of workplace practices like on-call scheduling and failure to compensate canceled shifts. The entire project, called Shift, will be released in the future, but the research team pre-published the Connecticut data when they recognized the momentum around the issue. The data will be helpful in advancing Fair Workweek legislation in the state. The numbers prove unequivocally that this is not an anecdotal issue: Over 80% of workers in the state report unstable scheduling, and the vast majority say it interferes with their ability to provide for their families financially and emotionally. Numbers like these will likely emerge from other states as the Berkeley researchers publish the data.
The Shift project will be crucial to informing the fair workweek fight going forward. “In a lot of states, there’s interest in this type of legislation, but they’re looking to other places to do it first,” Campbell says. If Connecticut can successfully translate this data into meaningful policy to correct it, other states might be encouraged to examine their own scheduling practices to do the same.
The real hope, Campbell says, is for this to become a federal issue–like the minimum wage, it’s certainly pervasive enough to merit a national solution. “We’re not in the right climate for that at the moment, though,” he says. But states, he adds, can continue to leverage the issue, and more companies should look to the example of the Gap and understand that this policy that helps their workers can ultimately help them.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.