workers fair workweeks
Supporters of work scheduling rules appear at a Seattle City Council meeting in 2016. The rules would apply to hourly retail and food-service employees. Copyright photo by Elaine Thompson of The Associated Press

Equal Voice

Workers Are Fighting for and Winning Fair Workweeks

March 4, 2020

By Katherine Webb-Hehn

“Just in time” scheduling can wreak havoc in the lives of hourly workers and their families, disproportionately affecting women of color. But workers, as part of a nationwide movement for equity, are winning more stable and fair schedules.

Three years ago, Christina was a 24-year-old new mother struggling to pay her bills in Los Angeles even though she had multiple jobs.

At the root of Christina’s trouble was the unreliability of “just in time” scheduling, a system built on short-notice shifts subject to cancellation by employers.

Her employers could post schedules the morning before an afternoon or evening shift, which meant Christina was regularly hustling across town on the bus to find out if she’d work or not and scrambling for child care. She was never able to plan for the simplest things in her personal life, like whether she’d be able to put her daughter to bed.

If you call a worker in on their day off, they're sacrificing whatever is going on in their personal life, and that is not how it should be.
Rachel Deutsch, an attorney at The Center for Popular Democracy

Today, Christina is part of a nationwide movement advocating for better working conditions to improve the lives of hourly-wage workers and their families. Their goal is expansive adoption of fair-workweek laws, which have passed in some states and cities, including San Francisco, New York City, Philadelphia, Seattle, Oregon and most recently Chicago.

The laws aim to strengthen worker rights by requiring employers to post schedules with adequate notice, compensate employees for cancelled shifts, offer extra hours to current employees before making new hires, and refrain from retaliating against employees who make schedule requests.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren and U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., have pledged to reintroduce federal legislation, known as the Schedules That Work Act. Previous versions of the bill have not made it out of committee and weren’t expected to pass a Republican-held Congress.

Opponents of the fair-workweek policy say the rules make it harder to be flexible when building schedules, which is difficult when an individual worker’s availability varies week to week.

“[Managers] want you to believe if you have open availability, then you’ll have more hours, but that’s not true,” Christina said on her break at work, the easiest time during the day she could talk.

Christina was more than willing to work, but she hadn’t planned on a multi-job balancing act. When Christina started her job at Target, she was working 40 hours each week with a reliable schedule and earning enough to provide for herself and her 5-month-old daughter. The regularity made it easy for her mom or sister to keep Christina’s daughter.

“I had my 40 hours. I was good with one job,” Christina said.

workers fair workweeks
A Target employee scans an item in 2018 as she collects merchandise from shelves in Edison, New Jersey. Copyright photo by Julio Cortez of The Associated Press

A year later, management cut her hours. Christina wasn’t sure when she would work or how many hours she would have each week, sometimes only receiving one eight-hour shift. As work hours decreased many of Christina’s coworkers began to quit, and her responsibility increased as the more senior employee. Still, she didn’t want to leave the job, hoping for a return to stability.

Some days, Christina would take the bus to Target only to be cut early and have to return home. It was harder to find a trustworthy babysitter because her schedule was unpredictable. Since she was now paying for child care, Christina felt guilty returning home early, cutting hours for her babysitter too, who might not return the next time she called.

Christina told her manager at Target she could only work four days a week, blocking out time to pick up shifts at a fast-food restaurant and a car wash. She was exhausted and didn’t have time to pursue classes or training that might help her out of what felt like an impossible situation.

At home, things were increasingly stressful. Christina’s daughter was showing signs of aggression. They went to therapy together, and even though Christina wasn’t sure if her daughter was struggling because of the new instability, she decided to fight for more time as a mother.

The High Cost of ‘Open and Available’

A new study from the Shift Project from the University of California, Berkeley and University of California, San Francisco found Christina’s story isn’t unusual.

Some days, Christina would take the bus to Target only to be cut early and have to return home. It was harder to find a trustworthy babysitter because her schedule was unpredictable. Since she was now paying for child care, Christina felt guilty returning home early, cutting hours for her babysitter.

Researchers surveyed 30,000 hourly workers and found people with irregular scheduling struggled economically and emotionally, and so did their children. The study surveyed people from 120 of the largest fast-food and retail employers in the United States. Half of those surveyed were given less than a week’s notice in their schedules. A third were involuntarily working part-time.

With 80 percent of employees having no say in their schedules and 69 percent of employers requiring their workers keep schedules “open and available,” the majority of these workers were in highly stressful, economically erratic situations.

“Right now, the whole business model is built on uncompensated flexibility,” said Rachel Deutsch, supervising attorney for worker justice at The Center for Popular Democracy. “If you call a worker in on their day off, they’re sacrificing whatever is going on in their personal life, and that is not how it should be.”

Planning for anything – a kid’s after-school activities, doctor’s appointments, or even dinners with friends – is unnecessarily difficult, Deutsch said.

The study found the rising trend of “just in time” scheduling is a widespread problem, affecting 17 percent of the labor force, and disproportionately affecting women of color who are both more likely to work in these jobs and more likely to receive poor scheduling than their white and male coworkers.

As more and more companies rely on algorithms to create schedules with peak customer traffic in mind, employees’ needs are often ignored. And when actual people are still in control of mapping schedules, those in charge are often white, male and biased, according to the Shift report.

The result: Workers like Christina, who is Latinx, are subject to whims or changing targets of their employers, with potentially devastating effects.

Low-wage shift workers are more likely to report trouble with sleeping, psychological distress and general unhappiness. The report found child behavioral problems increased as parental work schedule instability increased. Because parents had less time for developmental activities, like reading to their children or family meals, the overall well-being of the family suffers.

Children in these families report feeling “worthless, anxious, guilty, self-conscious, unhappy or worried” and exhibit externalized behavior, including “arguing, destroying things, being disobedient, stubborn, having temper tantrums or making threats.”

Turnover in these jobs is high, and employers at large retail and fast-food companies often run continual hiring with an expectation for low employee retention.

“It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Deutsch said, citing studies that showed how more reliable hours create more loyal employees who report being happier and more secure in their parenting.

The Damage of “Clopins”

But it’s not just parents and children who are harmed by these policies, Deutsch said.

When a worker is scheduled for back-to-back shifts (closing and then opening a store, for instance), it’s called a “clopin,” Deutsch said. Some workers have only a few hours to get home, eat and rest before they return to work.

“One of the most compelling accounts I’ve heard from an organizer is from someone who struggled with bipolar disorder,” Deutsch recalled. “He worked in a Seattle store where he had these protections, and then he transferred right outside the city limits where he didn’t. He experienced a pretty dramatic negative impact on his mental health because getting adequate rest is an important component to the management of his disease.”

Now, that worker is organizing for a statewide fair workweek law in Washington.

Duestch said companies that are forced to adopt these policies in one city or state don’t necessarily apply the rules to stores in places unprotected by the law. But she said some employers are seeing the financial benefit that comes with creating a more secure workplace, namely less resources going toward training new hires.

From Student to Working for a Fair Workweek

Natasha Castro is a community and worker organizer with Fair Workweek LA, a coalition of labor, community groups, health advocates and retail workers advocating for a comprehensive fair-workweek policy. When Castro was a 21-year-old student at UCLA, she was working full-time in retail while learning labor law in class.

“I’m learning they were breaking laws left and right,” said Castro, who was a store manager for a corporation headquartered in Australia.

“I was clocking out early but staying to get the work done because we were understaffed,” she said. “That’s wage theft.”

Castro didn’t have control of scheduling. She requested fewer hours, and in response her bosses cut her hourly wage. So, she quit.

Two weeks later, she got a job at the UCLA Labor Center and helped create a survey for 800 retail workers in LA.

Christina, the young mom in LA who was searching for a way to keep her job at Target and be home more with her daughter, filled out the survey, and Castro connected with her. Christina said Castro educated her on existing worker rights.

“I felt like I was being heard, finally,” Christina said.

Castro continues to connect with workers across the city, going into stores and chatting with employees when managers aren’t within earshot, hanging out in food courts or bus stops – because, she said, worker input is invaluable.

“We’ve had conversations with more than 900 retail workers in the past two years,” Castro said. “Our goal is to get workers directly involved, coming to City Hall with us and talking to council members or joining us in the meetings.”

Workers participated in every stage of drafting the ordinance, Castro said, because only the workers know what needs to change to improve conditions.

Christina said connecting with the fair-workweek movement has already helped her. She’s learned her rights as a worker and feels empowered. Now, Christina feels secure when she makes requests of her employer. She’s more vocal about what she needs, but she knows not every worker is in a position where they feel safe to speak up.

“I realized there were things happening that I thought were normal, but they were not,” she said.

Her hours have improved. She’s working one job again. Most importantly, things are better at home.

“My daughter is doing great in kindergarten. She loves it,” said Christina, who gets to spend every evening with her daughter.

“She’s good now.”


Katherine Webb-Hehn is a freelance multimedia journalist in the South. Her work has appeared in The Bitter Southerner, The Nation, The Progressive, In These Times, The New York Times and Scalawag. She is a 2018 recipient of a Marguerite Casey Foundation Journalism Fellowship. Her work has been honored, awarded or selected by the Institute of Nonprofit News, The New York Times, The Atlantic, Longreads and others. Follow her at @KAWebb_. Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America. All original Equal Voice content – articles, photos and videos – can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included. Photographs from The Associated Press are copyright protected.

Workers Are Fighting for and Winning Fair Workweeks