Why Fair Scheduling Could Be Labor’s Next Big Fight

A series of citywide ordinances are taking aim at erratic and unpredictable scheduling.

Jonathan Timm November 25, 2016

Workers rally for passage of Seattle's Secure Scheduling law on September 19. (Working Washington)

When Jamal Tar­ga, 29, worked as a piz­za deliv­ery dri­ver in San Fran­cis­co, he says his boss would reg­u­lar­ly call him just hours after he’d fin­ished dri­ving for the night to demand he show up to work the morn­ing shift. Although shifts were sched­uled ahead of time, the boss switched them at the last minute to deal with fluc­tu­a­tions in demand or to replace unavail­able dri­vers. Tar­ga says that if dri­vers refused to come in on short notice, the boss would cut their hours the fol­low­ing week. Twice, he was so sleep-deprived that he col­lapsed on the floor of the piz­za place.

This fall, city governments in both Seattle and Emeryville, Calif., passed their own fair scheduling laws, which expanded on San Francisco’s by covering workers in both retail and fast food.

It felt like slav­ery,” he says. I had to hide my feel­ings because I knew that’s just how it is — you have to come to work or else you lose your job.”

About 17 per­cent of U.S. work­ers have unsta­ble work sched­ules, accord­ing to a 2015 study by the Eco­nom­ic Pol­i­cy Insti­tute. That’s why many groups see fair sched­ul­ing laws as labor’s next big fight. In one bright spot on Novem­ber 8, vot­ers in San Jose, Calif., passed a labor-backed bal­lot ini­tia­tive that will require employ­ers to give more hours to part-time work­ers before hir­ing addi­tion­al employ­ees. Such local ini­tia­tives could be one of the few open­ings for labor under a Don­ald Trump presidency.

This year, cam­paigns to raise the min­i­mum wage paid big div­i­dends as wage laws took effect in 14 states, boost­ing the incomes of 4 mil­lion work­ers. But high­er wages only go so far if you can’t get enough work hours, or you lose your job because you can’t accom­mo­date a last-minute shift change.

Work­ers need a fair and liv­able wage, but they also need oth­er aspects of their jobs to be rea­son­able so that they can actu­al­ly keep the jobs and at the same time take care of their fam­i­lies and man­age to get by,” says Liz Ben-Ishai, a senior pol­i­cy ana­lyst on the job qual­i­ty team at the Cen­ter for Law and Social Pol­i­cy (CLASP), a non­prof­it research and advo­ca­cy group.

In 2014, a coali­tion of labor and com­mu­ni­ty groups cam­paigned suc­cess­ful­ly to pass the nation’s first fair sched­ul­ing law in San Fran­cis­co. Among oth­er pro­tec­tions, the For­mu­la Retail Employ­ee Rights Ordi­nance requires stores to cre­ate work sched­ules at least two weeks in advance and to pay an extra 1 – 4 hours in wages for last-minute sched­ule changes or on-call” shifts. The ordi­nance applies to retail chains that have at least 40 stores world­wide and employ more than 20 peo­ple in San Francisco.

The move­ment quick­ly picked up momen­tum. This fall, city gov­ern­ments in both Seat­tle and Emeryville, Calif., passed their own fair sched­ul­ing laws, which expand­ed on San Francisco’s by cov­er­ing work­ers in both retail and fast food. In 2014, Rep. George Miller (D‑Calif.) intro­duced fed­er­al leg­is­la­tion that would require employ­ers to post sched­ules two weeks in advance and pro­vide pay to work­ers who are required to work or end their shifts ear­ly on short notice, though the action at the fed­er­al lev­el looks bleak.

Errat­ic or unpre­dictable sched­ules are espe­cial­ly com­mon in the retail and food ser­vice indus­tries, where work­ers are often required to work clopen­ing” — clos­ing the store at night, only to return ear­ly the next morn­ing to open it again. Sched­ul­ing soft­ware that auto­mat­i­cal­ly divvies up shifts among work­ers makes it extreme­ly easy for large com­pa­nies to keep labor costs down in response to fluc­tu­at­ing demand or exter­nal events that dri­ve down rev­enue, such as bad weather.

But unpre­dictable sched­ul­ing can make it near­ly impos­si­ble for work­ers to both care for their fam­i­lies and earn a steady liv­ing. More than half of those who pro­vide care to chil­dren or elders are also in the work­force, and low-wage work­ers are par­tic­u­lar­ly like­ly to have irreg­u­lar sched­ules. There is evi­dence of racial dis­par­i­ties as well. This year, a CLASP sur­vey of approx­i­mate­ly 700 work­ers and 350 man­agers in Seat­tle found that sched­ul­ing issues caused dif­fi­cul­ties in the lives of around 40 per­cent of African Amer­i­cans, com­pared to about 33 per­cent of work­ers over­all. There’s a real racial jus­tice ele­ment” in the push for fair sched­ul­ing, says Ben-Ishai.

New York City may be the next to take up the issue. In Sep­tem­ber, May­or Bill de Bla­sio announced that he would join with mem­bers of the City Coun­cil and a coali­tion of labor and com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions to draft leg­is­la­tion ensur­ing reg­u­lar sched­ul­ing for 65,000 fast-food employees.

Giv­en sup­port from local law­mak­ers, the odds cur­rent­ly look good for such an effort. But that could change if the city’s pow­er­ful restau­rant indus­try steps into the fray. In Sep­tem­ber 2015, Min­neapo­lis May­or Bet­sy Hodges cham­pi­oned one of the strongest fair-sched­ul­ing poli­cies that had yet been pro­posed, cov­er­ing all employ­ers of any size. It was part of a broad­er cam­paign for work­er-friend­ly leg­is­la­tion called the Work­ing Fam­i­lies Agen­da.” But the local busi­ness lob­by and restau­rant asso­ci­a­tions con­vinced the may­or to drop the fair-sched­ul­ing com­po­nent of the leg­is­la­tion, post­pon­ing fur­ther dis­cus­sions until mid-Novem­ber. That same month, labor advo­cates in the Dis­trict of Colum­bia suf­fered a sim­i­lar blow. The Wash­ing­ton City Paper reports that, fol­low­ing an indus­try-led cam­paign against a fair-sched­ul­ing ordi­nance, for­mer spon­sors of the pol­i­cy vot­ed to table it, effec­tive­ly killing it.

Once fair-sched­ul­ing poli­cies are imple­ment­ed, the chal­lenge becomes enforce­ment. Two years fol­low­ing the pas­sage of San Francisco’s law, most work­ers have nev­er heard of it,” says Ilana Mas­ter, co-direc­tor of Young Work­ers Unit­ed (YWU), a labor group that helped push for the law. Many employ­ers are not com­ply­ing with small parts of it, such as pre­dictabil­i­ty pay for sched­ule changes.”

In col­lab­o­ra­tion with the city’s Offi ce of Labor Stan­dards Enforce­ment, YWU is reach­ing out to the city’s most vul­ner­a­ble work­ers to inform them about their rights. Staff give pre­sen­ta­tions at local uni­ver­si­ties and com­mu­ni­ty cen­ters, and even just show up at retail cen­ters like San Francisco’s Union Square to talk to work­ers. After quit­ting his piz­za-deliv­ery job, Jamal Tar­ga is work­ing with YWU to help his for­mer cowork­ers recov­er over­time wages they say they are owed. He’s hope­ful that San Francisco’s law will cre­ate bet­ter jobs, and that more cities will fol­low suit. I hope this trend con­tin­ues,” Tar­ga says. This is what peo­ple need to live their lives.”

Jonathan Timm is a free­lance reporter who spe­cial­izes in labor and gen­der issues. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @jdrtimm.
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