The Seattle Times: Seattle weighs rules for work schedules

Originally published on Seattle News on June 4, 2016 at 8:00 am

Seattle officials are considering new rules for another aspect of working life — scheduling. In retail and food service particularly, low-wage workers often face unpredictable schedules, say advocates. Businesses say they’re wary of onerous and inflexible regulations.

Jerry Cole has a landscaping business. Four years ago, in order to make ends meet, he took on a second job as a courtesy clerk at te Rainier Beach Safeway.

But the scheduling demands of the second job — including erratic hours and a schedule that isn’t posted until three days before the workweek starts — makes it difficult to do his first job.

“It’s hard to schedule my landscaping business with clients on a regular basis because I’m having to juggle my landscaping around when I have to be at Safeway week to week,” he said.

Stories from workers such as Cole are spurring some Seattle City Council members and Mayor Ed Murray to devise a scheduling law that could affect thousands of workers and many retailers in the city.

Worker and employer representatives are meeting — in separate groups — to pin down what they want, or at least what they can live with.

Business groups, including the Washington Restaurant Association, seem to accept that some kind of scheduling regulations are coming down the pike, and are quietly striving for rules that won’t be too onerous or inflexible.

But behind the scenes some heated words are already flying.

“I now am questioning if you are trying to help people or just penalize businesses for being in business,” retired Starbucks President Howard Behar wrote in an email, addressed to Councilmember M. Lorena González and copied to other members, on the scheduling issue. “I am disgusted with this city government.”

In the two official working groups, ideas on the table from the workers’ representatives include:

• Two weeks’ advance notice of schedules

• A minimum of 11 hours’ rest between shifts, except when workers voluntarily choose to work with less rest

• An hour of additional “predictability pay” when an employer changes a worker’s posted schedule

• Up to four hours’ pay for workers who are assigned shifts that are either canceled, or reduced to less than four hours, with less than 24 hours notice

• Offers of additional hours must go to existing part-time employees before new employees can be hired

Some business representatives have suggested more limited measures, including:

• One week advance notice of schedules

• 10 hours’ rest between shifts

• An hour of additional “predictability pay” only for changes to the posted schedule initiated by employers

The business group is still discussing the remaining issues proposed by the worker representatives: pay for workers whose shifts are canceled or reduced, and giving part-time workers preference if more work hours are available.

Both groups are reportedly leaning toward having the law apply to large retailers and franchises, although specifics of what constitutes “large” and whether local restaurants should be included are still being hammered out.

An online survey of both workers and managers is under way to get a better idea of scheduling practices around the city and how those practices affect workers’ lives.

González, who, along with Councilmember Lisa Herbold is spearheading the scheduling issue on the council, anticipates bringing legislation to the full council in August.

The goal, González said, is to “recognize the needs of business to be nimble in their scheduling practices, but also provide maximum protection to the most number of workers so we’re delivering on the promise of economic security to hourly workers.”

Closing, opening shifts

Seattle would be following in the footsteps of San Francisco, which in 2014 became the first city to pass such laws. Washington, D.C., Chicago and Emeryville, Calif., are also considering similar laws.

After minimum-wage raises, scheduling issues have become a focus by advocates for some of the country’s lowest-paid workers.

In addition to unpredictable or insufficient hours, some workers at retail or food-service companies complain about so-called “clopening” shifts — having to work late closing shifts and then early opening shifts the next day — and about having to be on call, only to find out at the last minute that there’s no work that day.

Across the country, “more workers are facing more erratic scheduling,” said Lonnie Golden, a professor of economics and labor-employment relations at Penn State Abington and a research associate at Economic Policy Institute. “That’s always happened but it’s more intensive than it used to be and more pervasive.”

The causes include a labor surplus, pressure on retailers to keep prices low, and scheduling software that allows retailers to minimize their workforce to keep expenses down, he said.

Benefits of rules seen

For Cole, 56, who is single and lives with three roommates in a house in the Central Area, a scheduling law would make it easier to arrange work for his landscaping clients and to take part in social events with family and friends.

He’s told Safeway he’s available any hours he can get at the $12.50 an hour job, because he wants “to make enough money to pay rent, buy food, keep gas in the truck and pay credit-card bills that are due,” he said.

As a part-timer, he’s guaranteed at least 20 hours a week. But the number above that varies; his recent weekly totals range from 28 to 31, he said.

“You don’t know how many hours you’re going to get week to week. Your schedule varies too much,” he said.

On a recent Thursday, for instance, he found out he would be working the following Sunday from 6 to 11:30 p.m., Monday from 2 to 9 p.m., Tuesday from 4:30 to 11 p.m., Thursday from 6 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and Friday from 4 to 11:30 p.m.

“I basically tell my clients: ‘I work at Safeway. My schedule comes out on Thursday. I’ll call you back and let you know when I can come out next week. Let me know if that’s possible,’” Cole said.

Safeway said that, as a union employer, its employees work under rules spelled out in a negotiated contract. Its current collective-bargaining agreement requires that schedules be posted three days in advance and allows scheduling to accommodate the needs of the business.

“Our industry, by its nature, offers and requires flexible scheduling,” the company said in a statement, adding that the needs of grocery stores can shift week to week for reasons ranging from the weather to community festivals and holidays. Employees are also scheduled based on their seniority and availability, among other factors.

Flexibility “is essential to the store’s ability to adequately respond at the right level of customer service throughout the month,” the company said. Each store’s management team “does its best to accommodate all employees’ scheduling needs.”

Employer agrees

David Jones, who owns two Subway franchises in Seattle, as well as a Subway and Blazing Onion restaurants outside of Seattle, says he agrees workers should have some predictability and advance notice of their schedules.

“If an employee has to worry about being called in at the last minute, I think that’s ridiculous,” said Jones, who is participating in the employers meetings.

It’s equally unacceptable “if an employee can’t figure out a second job because the employer can’t make them a consistent schedule,” Jones said.

He employs about nine workers at each of his Subway restaurants. Most schedule changes stem from employee requests or emergencies such as a worker calling in sick, he said. And he added that he doesn’t have workers on call — requiring them to be available for certain shifts if need be.

But, Jones says, “I just don’t agree with legislation that catches everybody in the pot rather than catching those few abusers and gives them a fine.”

He thinks a week’s advance notice of schedules — what he gives at his restaurants — is ideal: It provides workers enough predictability while allowing his business enough flexibility.

Being required to offer any additional hours to current part-time employees before hiring new ones would be “a huge issue,” said Jones. It may require advancing someone who is not as well qualified for a position, he said.

The mayor’s office says officials are mindful of “all the impacts and implications” as they meet with workers’ advocates and employers.

“This is an important workers’ rights issue, but as we work to address the needs of employees, we don’t want to create any unintended, negative consequences for the local economy,” said Jason Kelly, a spokesman for Mayor Murray.

Starbucks’ stance

Coffee giant Starbucks, a company at the center of the worker-scheduling issue since a 2014 New York Times story described the effects of its practices on employees, is not participating in Seattle’s employer group talks. But it is answering any requests from council members about its policies, a company spokesperson said.

Other retailers are also coming under scrutiny.

Attorneys general from eight states (not including Washington) and the District of Columbia last month sent letters to 15 retailers — among them Lynnwood-based teen-clothing company Zumiez as well as American Eagle Outfitters, Coach and Disney — seeking information on their use of on-call shifts. (Zumiez, which could not be reached for comment, told The Wall Street Journal it plans to cooperate with the request for information.)

In San Francisco, it’s still too early to judge the effects of the so-called “retail workers’ bill of rights.” The final rules were only put into place in March.

Its law requires two weeks’ advance notice of schedules; offers of additional hours must go to existing part-time employees before new employees or contractors can be hired; “predictability pay” of up to four hours for any schedule changes made on less than a week’s notice; and two to four hours’ pay for on-call workers who aren’t called in.

It covers chain stores and eateries with at least 40 establishments worldwide and 20 or more employees in San Francisco.

The city’s Office of Labor Standards Enforcement has received fewer than 10 complaints so far, most from workers who didn’t get their schedules far enough in advance, said deputy director Seema Patel.

Gordon Mar, executive director of Jobs with Justice San Francisco, which pushed for the law, said he too has heard the most from workers about how helpful the advance-notice scheduling has been.

The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, which opposed the scheduling law, says it’s still concerned.

“What we’re seeing now is rigid scheduling with little flexibility by employers because of fear of onerous penalty pays if there’s any perception that the employee is either staying longer or leaving earlier because management suggested it,” said Jim Lazarus, senior vice president of the chamber.