How erratic schedules hurt low-wage workers

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Rachel Cooper moved to Chicago from New York after her employer, Just Salad, promised her a raise and promotion. But instead she saw her hours dwindle. She now works in the banking industry. (Terrence Antonio James/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

CHICAGO — As campaigns to raise the minimum wage find success across the country, erratic schedules have become the next front in the fight for workers’ rights.

Gap is among several retail heavyweights to promise recently to make employees’ hours more predictable. Several legislative efforts seek to regulate scheduling practices that make it difficult for low-wage hourly workers to plan for child care, go to school, work a second job or have comfort that they will earn enough to pay their bills.

“I’m optimistic that it’s going to change, because it has to change, it’s just not right from a pure matter of human decency,” said Anne Ladky, executive director of Chicago-based advocacy group Women Employed. But she isn’t celebrating yet.

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“What we are hearing a lot from workers we talk to, and what is deeply disturbing, is that they are being treated as if their families don’t matter,” she said.

One of the workers her group talked to was Carlisha Johnson.

Johnson, 27, had left a job at McDonald’s for Old Navy, excited to work in fashion and not come home smelling like fries. She commuted two hours from her suburban home to a downtown Chicago store. She loved the work.

But after a few months, the company started scheduling her to work nights even though she had signed up only for mornings, Johnson told the Chicago Tribune. With two children age 2 and 6 she had to pick up from day care and after-school programs in the evening, and the bus home not running late at night, Johnson found that life got complicated when her shift ended at 10 p.m.

She said she had to scramble to find friends or family members to help with her kids or search for co-workers to take her night shifts. When neither would come through, she would have to call in saying she couldn’t work.

Johnson said she was laid off last month; she believes it was because she called in too many times. She said she has since moved in with a friend and sent her children to stay with their father.

“I wanted to be a normal mom, and I can’t even be a normal mom,” Johnson said. “I thought I did everything right, and every time it feels like a knife.”

Gap, which owns Old Navy, declined to respond to Johnson’s comments and instead reiterated a statement it made in announcing several scheduling changes.

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“We recognize that flexibility, inclusive of consistent and reliable scheduling, is important to all of our employees,” said Gap spokeswoman Laura Wilkinson. “Our goal is to provide the most stable and predictable scheduling system possible, while still meeting the needs of our business, driving productivity in stores and ensuring the satisfaction of our customers.”

Gap, which has been working on the scheduling issue for a year, said that by the end of September its five brands — Old Navy, Banana Republic, Gap, Intermix and Athleta — will end their “on-call scheduling,” which requires employees to call in before a shift to see if they will be needed, meaning they have to block off the time but aren’t guaranteed a paycheck for it. It also said its stores would commit to providing employees with at least 10 to 14 days’ notice of their schedules.

Abercrombie & Fitch made similar news in August, and Victoria’s Secret in June. All three companies were on a list of 13 retailers that had been warned by New York’s attorney general that certain scheduling practices might violate New York law.

While businesses have long had last-minute needs that demand workers to come in with little notice, the volatility has spread to more shifts and more workers, said Susan Lambert, an associate professor in the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago who has been studying workplace scheduling for 15 years.

“They have taken a stopgap measure and made it into common practice,” she said. News reports over the last few years have described just-in-time scheduling meant to keep staff as thin as possible to control costs, driven partly by technology that lets businesses match their staffing to real-time customer demand.

More than 40 percent of hourly workers across all age groups report getting less than a week’s notice of their schedules, according to Lambert’s recent analysis of data from the 2014 General Social Survey. The share was highest, at 68 percent, among workers age 18 to 22.

In a separate a analysis of 2011 data of hourly workers age 26 to 32 published last year, Lambert found that half said they have no input into their schedules and three-quarters said their hours fluctuate week to week.

The recent moves by retailers to give more notice and end on-call scheduling are “a wonderful step in the right direction” that sets standards for other companies to follow, Lambert said, though retail is not the only industry affected. Construction, janitorial work, food service and home care also are at high risk of precarious scheduling practices.

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Meanwhile, legislators have put scheduling in their crosshairs.

The federal Schedules That Work Act, re-introduced in the Senate in July, would, among other provisions, give workers the right to request scheduling changes without fear of retaliation and guarantee at least four hours of pay to employees who show up for a shift and are sent home early. About 10 states already have such pay requirements, though the details vary.

At the forefront of scheduling rights is San Francisco, where the Retail Workers Bill of Rights went into effect in July. It requires that large retail chains pay employees if they’re on-call or sent home early, give them at least 14 days’ notice of their schedules and give existing part-time workers the chance to work up to 35 hours a week before hiring new people.

Some 6.2 million people in the U.S. work part time but want to be full time, down from the peak of more than 9 million during the recent recession but still well above the pre-recession level of 4 million, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In Illinois, Rep. Will Guzzardi earlier this year introduced a bill that would require employees to get at least two weeks’ notice of their schedules. It has since been amended, after he got input from the business community, to give employees the right to ask for a specific schedule and not be penalized for doing so. If an employer denies the request, they have to provide a reason.

“I know this seems like the absolutely lowest hanging fruit,” Guzzardi said, “but the approach I’m taking is to take it one bit at a time.” Guzzardi hopes to pass the amended legislation next year to start the conversation about scheduling, which affects many low-income Latino families in his district who are struggling to juggle multiple jobs.

“Employees are really being treated very poorly, and their lives are being disrupted in a very meaningful way,” he said.

That disruption appears to have consequences for their children too.

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In a policy brief last month summarizing existing research, the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute wrote that toddlers whose mothers work irregular hours demonstrate worse sensory perception, memory, learning, problem solving, verbal communication and expressive language than their peers. Preschoolers exhibit more negative behavior like depression, anxiety, withdrawal and aggression.

Irregular family mealtimes and bedtimes interfere with healthy development, as does not having a parent around to help with homework or read a book. Parents chasing fluctuating schedules are more tired, anxious, irritable and stressed, influencing negative behavior in their kids, and moms often must make inconsistent and poorer-quality child care arrangements, the brief said.

Some say low-wage jobs should be temporary steppingstones to something better. But Ladky, of the advocacy group Women Employed, said accelerating demand for low-skilled labor, thanks in part to rising tourism and home health care jobs, shows that it is a large and growing part of the labor economy. People supporting families are staying in those jobs for a long time.

“We cannot educate our way out of low-wage jobs,” she said. “These jobs have to be made better and more stable.”

The instability is not bad just for employees. Employers risk losing talented workers.

Consider Rachel Cooper, 22, who said she had hoped to climb the ranks at Just Salad, a fast-food chain that recently expanded to Chicago.

She moved to Chicago from New York six months ago with the hope of more hours, higher pay and a promotion to catering manager, she said.

The hours were long at first as she trained new cashiers, but soon they dwindled because the restaurant was not as busy as anticipated, she said. She was often sent home hours before her shift was supposed to be over, she said, after having spent an hour commuting to the restaurant from her home. At $10 an hour, she said it was tough to make ends meet when her hours fell, at one point, to 17 hours a week.

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Moving costs to the tune of $6,000, which exceeded the $3,500 plus a week at a hotel paid by Just Salad, wiped out her savings, she said. Cooper said she occasionally pawned her belongings, including her computer and PlayStation, and then bought them back on weeks with a better paycheck. Unable to afford a bed, she slept on the floor for a time and subsisted largely on packets of ramen.

“I just couldn’t live like that,” said Cooper, who quit after four months. She now works as a bank teller and gets a steady 30 hours a week.

Jason Rotter, Just Salad’s team leader in Chicago, said the company has always provided staff with “static schedules allowing ample notice of any changes. However, schedules can fluctuate when you factor in the unpredictable weather, festivals, surrounding school schedules, and summer holidays. As a company, we always try to accommodate our staff’s changing availability.”

Rotter, in a statement, added that Cooper never voiced any issues. The company also said their records show Cooper worked an average of 36 hours weekly from April to July with just one week at 17 hours, and that employees are entitled to a free meal up to a $10 value on a shift.

While technology has been blamed for some of the hairy scheduling, makers of sophisticated scheduling software say their products, when used properly, should make life easier for employers and employees.

Steven Kramer, founder and CEO of WorkJam, a Montreal-based scheduling software company, said many businesses have antiquated systems based on spreadsheets that put a big burden on the manager. Many larger companies with metric-based shift management technology are missing a key piece: collaboration with their workers.

Businesses suffer when workers are less productive and less happy, he said.

Workplace Systems, a U.K.-based scheduling software company with North American headquarters in Chicago, is in the midst of a study with Harvard Business School to show that revenue, transaction value and talent retention improve with smart scheduling, said CEO David Farquhar.

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On its platform, employers, whose goal is to maximize revenue per employee per hour, enter a budget, including target sales and costs, and the software takes into account a slew of metrics — including historic sales, weather, merchandising campaigns, pricing and foot traffic — to calculate how many people it will need at a given time. Employees, whose goal is to have predictability and regularity in their shifts, enter their shift requests.

The software runs 1 million iterations of a schedule in 30 seconds to find one that matches the needs of both the employer and employee. It can forecast a schedule 16 weeks in advance with 90 percent accuracy, giving employers little excuse for not giving employees plenty of notice, said Farquhar, who counts H&M, Warby Parker, Nike and Subway among the company’s clients.

A mobile app lets workers check their schedules on the go and swap shifts with co-workers.

“If you collaborate with employer and employee, their happiness will go up and the level of churn on better employees will go down,” he said.

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