Unpredictable Work Schedules Can Lead to an Unstable Family Life. Here’s How Cities Can Help.

Many workers in hourly, low-wage jobs struggle to manage their lives while navigating difficult work schedules, but several cities have taken action recently to address the challenge and promote a healthier workforce.

(Getty Images)

A predictable schedule is something that many nine-to-five workers take for granted; it allows people to balance school, work, and family. Basic protections from cities can make this possible for all workers. (Getty Images)

Two days each week, Andrea R. is usually scheduled to work what her fellow employees call the “clopen” shift. She closes the doors of the large retail store where she works, gets home around midnight, prepares school lunches for her children, gets a few hours of sleep, and has to be back at work by 6 a.m. to open the store.

Her schedule changes every week, so Andrea does not know in advance which days she has to work this shift. Her employer’s policy claims that workers will know their schedules two weeks in advance – but Andrea, a single mom, often gets less than a week’s notice, making it difficult to arrange child care. Her unreliable schedule means that she must often ask family members to take care of her children, but she worries that providing such short notice strains her family relationships. Making only $9 per hour, it is often less costly for Andrea to not work a shift than to find and pay for child care. “If I could rely on a reasonable set of hours of work without having to pick up shifts, I could work on going back to school,” Andrea says.

Many workers in hourly, low-wage jobs struggle to manage their lives while navigating unpredictable work schedules. A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute found that 17 percent of workers in the labor force experienced unstable work shifts, and that the lowest income workers (those earning less than $22,500 per year) were most likely to experience this scheduling unpredictability. The study links instability of shift schedules to lower levels of job satisfaction and higher levels of family stress. Further research finds that shift work is associated with diminished cognition and physical health.

Additionally, studies find African Americans and families who speak Spanish at home are disproportionally affected by these challenges. The City of Seattle conducted a survey of approximately 700 local workers and 350 local managers to assess the scheduling challenges faced by city workers. The survey found that scheduling issues caused difficulties in the lives of roughly one third of workers overall, compared to 40 percent of workers who speak Spanish at home and 40 percent of African Americans, who said scheduling posed challenges for taking classes.

Retail, hospitality, and warehouse work all respond to demand that can fluctuate throughout the day, week, or season: a coffee shop may need more baristas during the morning hours; and an online retailer may need more shipping employees in November and December. But as traditional methods of scheduling are replaced by more precise forecasting technologies, workers have faced even more unpredictability with their schedules. The increasing use of scheduling software by businesses has led to widely fluctuating hours, impractical commutes, and convoluted childcare arrangements for many.

City leaders are recognizing the importance of balancing worker quality of life with business interests; several cities have taken action recently to address these challenges, and more are quickly joining the movement. In September, the Seattle City Council passed an ordinance that requires retailers and large chains to give their employees two weeks’ notice of shift scheduling. Employers who do not provide the advance notice will be required to provide additional pay, which includes:

  • One additional hour of “predictability pay” if an employer adds hours to the employee’s schedule after it is posted
  • Pay for half of the hours not worked if an employee is scheduled for a shift and then sent home early
  • Half-time pay for any shift employees who are “on-call” for but do not get called into work

In addition, the law requires a minimum of 10 hours between shifts – which would protect workers from “clopening” shifts.

Other cities are taking action as well. Portland, Oregon, and Emeryville, California, recently passed ordinances like Seattle’s, and New York City officials have voiced support for a similar measure that applies only to fast food workers.

City leaders know that low-wage, hourly workers struggle to balance the needs of their jobs with family obligations. Measures that require employers to provide advance knowledge of shift scheduling can help workers achieve that balance, maintain their employment, and advance in their careers – all of which results in healthier and more productive cities.

Lily Roberts photoAbout the author: Lily Roberts is an Intern with the NLC YEF Institute’s Economic Opportunity and Financial Empowerment team.