In Focus

Apr 20, 2016  |  PERMALINK »

L.A. Sick Days Victory Packs Equity Punch

By Liz Ben-Ishai

Yesterday, Los Angeles became the latest city to pass a paid sick days law, joining more than two dozen other jurisdictions across the country that enable workers to earn a minimum number of paid sick days per year. Every such win is a critical step forward for working families, but L.A.’s victory is especially important because of scale and scope. L.A. is the second-largest city in the U.S. and home to the most low-wage workers. Further, the new law offers the most expansive definition of what constitutes a family of any paid sick days law in the country. It will also reduce racial inequities in access to paid sick time. For example, 60 percent of Latino workers lack access. Finally, by bringing enforcement to the local level, it may increase the odds that workers will get their due. 

With L.A.’s new labor standard, workers in the city will be able to earn twice the number of sick days as currently required under the state law—up to six days, or more if the employer chooses.

It’s an important step forward for Angelenos. That’s because, behind the looming Hollywood sign, L.A. is home to thousands of workers earning barely enough to put food on the table. For these workers, losing a day’s pay to take a child to the doctor might mean missing a rent payment or skipping a utility bill. And too often, workers who return from taking a day to recover from the flu may be told to go back home—because they’ve lost their job. 

Prior to passage of California’s Healthy Workplaces, Healthy Families Act (AB 1522) in 2014, a report from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that more than half of L.A. workers lacked access to paid sick time, with pronounced racial and ethnic disparities. Access was startlingly low for certain groups, including Latino workers (60 percent lacked access); part-time workers (80 percent lacked access); and full-time workers earning less than $15,000 per year (76 percent lacked access). Yet, L.A. is nearly 50 percent Latino and its workers have lower median earnings than their counterparts in other major cities.

When AB 1522 passed in 2014, the vast majority of these workers gained access to sick days—but only three days per year. Even though this was progress, it was far below the number of days typically guaranteed for workers in other paid sick days laws, and insufficient to offer the insurance that most workers need when they must recover from a more serious illness (the CDC says that flu can be contagious for five to seven days after flu symptoms emerge) or to care for sick family members. Now, with L.A.’s new law, these workers will have decent coverage for themselves and their loved ones.

Being able to care for family members is an important aspect of sick days laws—almost all of us have people in our lives that we support, and sooner or later we’ll need to take some time to help them recover from illness or visit a healthcare provider. While most sick days laws allow workers to care for their family members, today’s definition of family is constantly shifting, and traditional language may limit workers’ ability to care for their loved ones. L.A.’s new law defines family members as those related to the worker either by “blood or affinity” —which means that caring for your chosen family is valued just as much as caring for your biological family. It’s an especially important provision for many members of the LGBTQ community, and by adopting this language, L.A. leads the nation in taking up a contemporary and progressive vision of the family.

L.A.’s law will also help to ensure effective enforcement of sick days—an especially important goal in a city that has been called the wage theft capital of the country. At present, the state is stretched thin in its efforts to enforce AB 1522. But the city is currently setting up a strong Labor Standards Bureau to enforce its minimum wage and wage theft laws—and this office will take up sick days enforcement, too. In several other major cities, local enforcement is making labor standards more meaningful for the workers they are meant to protect, and chances look good that L.A. will join them.

The L.A. City Council should be commended for adopting a strong law that will make its historic minimum wage law even more meaningful; when workers don’t risk losing their jobs or their wage to take a sick day, they truly reap the benefits of $15 per hour. But as with all labor standards, advocates and policymakers must keep up the fight, even after passage—a law on paper is only as good as the mechanisms that ensure its enforcement.

Apr 15, 2016  |  PERMALINK »

Attorneys General: On-Call Shifts are Not a Business Necessity

By Liz Ben-Ishai

“On-call shifts are not a business necessity,” declared New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman this week, pointing to, “the many retailers that no longer use this unjust method of scheduling work hours.” The statement—and the growing body of evidence supporting it—poked a hole in the all-too-common claim that lack of stability and economic security for working families is an unfortunate but necessary cost of doing business.

This week, attorneys general from nine states, including California, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, and Rhode Island, joined together to inquire into retailers’ scheduling practices, particularly the use of on-call shifts. On-call shifts require workers to contact their employers at a designated time or await a call or text in order to find out whether or not they will be working that day; the result is an inability for workers to plan for and around work, and uncertainty about whether or how much they will be paid each week. An earlier inquiry by Attorney General Schneiderman, who has been leading the fight on this issue for more than a year, resulted in more than half a dozen major retailers declaring that they would no longer engage in the practice of putting workers “on call” and pledging to make other improvements to their scheduling practices.

The laudable action of these attorneys general to inquire into—and ultimately curtail—on-call scheduling challenges a narrative about volatile scheduling that has become increasingly prevalent as volatile scheduling practices in low-wage jobs have moved into the public eye in recent years. Too often, news coverage of the issue pits workers and employers against one another. On one side, workers, facing unpredictable and erratic schedules, are calling on employers to provide a modicum of stability so that they can pay their bills and care for their families. On the other side, employers argue that in order to stay in the red they need to have a flexible workforce that’s “nimble” enough to respond to shifts in consumer demand by coming into work at the drop of a hat. But as Schneiderman notes, employers are demonstrating that such scheduling practices are often unnecessary—and, as some employers are acknowledging, eliminating them may actually be the best approach for the bottom line.

Last year, Harvard Business School Professor Ethan Bernstein wrote in an op-ed,  “[scheduling] solutions favoring employers and those that meet employees’ needs may be closer than you think.” According to Bernstein, scheduling software, which can be used to forecast demand and adjust schedules to meet it, is often cited as one of the reasons for the rise of erratic scheduling. However, Bernstein argues that scheduling software can be used to comply with legislation that would bring about more stability for workers—and such legislation could nudge employers to use scheduling software in a way that would not only create better working conditions for employees, but also be more profitable for employers, creating a happier, more effective workforce. Meanwhile, the CEO of scheduling software company Workplace Systems, David Farquhar, says that his company’s product provides more than enough forecasting accuracy to eliminate the need for on-call scheduling.

These inquiries from nine states, including two of the most populous (California and New York), are important steps in making the case for a service economy that provides higher-quality jobs for its workers. But given the pressing need for schedules that are both just and fair within retail and other industries—and taking into account the compelling evidence that better schedules won’t be a drain on business—legislators should also move forward with public policies to ensure such fair schedules. High road employers recognize the importance of addressing scheduling through legislation. For example, Tony Lucca, owner of two successful restaurants in the District of Columbia explains, “Fair scheduling just makes sense. It not only helps our workers; it also makes life easier for me and my managers…we have relatively low turnover and employees are satisfied with their jobs.” Adds Lucca, “We need public policies to create a minimum standard for workers’ schedules.”

In addition to the federal Schedules that Work Act, cities and states across the country are considering fair scheduling legislation.

To learn more about the attorneys general inquiry, see the press release and the letters issued.

To learn more about fair scheduling and see where laws have been proposed, visit CLASP’s national repository of scheduling policy resources

Apr 6, 2016  |  PERMALINK »

Unemployment Insurance Rules Often Leave Workers With Volatile Schedules Behind

By Rick McHugh and Liz Ben-Ishai

Growing numbers of Americans, especially those in low-paying jobs, have work schedules that fluctuate wildly from week to week. These volatile schedules, which often come with little advance notice, vary by both total hours and shift times. Given the chaos that such schedules create, it’s no surprise that workers are often forced to leave their jobs. In a new fact sheet, we examine how employers’ volatile scheduling practices intersect with ten states’ unemployment insurance (UI) rules. Drawing on legal research, as well as interviews with advocates and UI agency officials in those states, we find that in many cases established UI rules and agency practices don’t reflect today’s labor market. As a result, workers facing volatile schedules often come up short under the current system, leaving them without a safety net.

When they consider UI claims involving workers who lose their jobs as a result of volatile schedules, state agencies must often rely on relatively old rules, which they must apply to new “factual settings”—that is, the new world of erratic schedules. Under those old rules, a substantial reduction in wages or hours (usually 25 percent) justifies an employee leaving work; in such situations, workers can quit their jobs without being disqualified from receiving UI. But when workers in jobs with volatile schedules face similar situations, we found a consistent pattern of state agencies using discretionary rationales to avoid applying these same UI rules, ultimately disqualifying workers from UI benefits.

State agencies commonly give two reasons for denying claims filed by workers subjected to volatile schedules when they leave their jobs after substantial cuts in pay and hours. First, they say that the employees understood at the time of hiring that volatile schedules were a condition of their employment. Second, they argue that employees must ask employers to adjust their schedules prior to quitting, even when their schedules were set according to established employer practices and making such a request would likely be futile. In other cases, states offer what appear to be conflicting reasons for denying claims: some workers quit too soon after their schedules are changed—not giving their new schedule enough of a chance—and others stay too long when faced with volatile scheduling practices—apparently demonstrating the acceptability of the situation by not quitting sooner. The common theme for all four of these rationales is that UI claims are denied.

Perhaps most troubling is that there is little or no chance for workers to know in advance what rules will be applied to their UI claims. These discretionary rules of thumb are not found in rules published by agencies in most states. Instead, these informal rules are commonly understood by agency adjudicators or appear in software used to guide agency staff when deciding claims. Indeed, in some cases these agency rules of thumb are not found in the text of state UI laws regarding leaving work with good cause.

Our new fact sheet helps advocates, policymakers, and others to understand the unique challenges created when a safety net system with outdated rules—the UI system—is confronted with new and growing trends in the labor market—in this case, volatile job scheduling. In the fact sheet, we summarize the findings of our longer study, Out of Sync: How UI Rules Fail Workers with Volatile Schedules. In addition, to support the growing movement to eliminate these unfair scheduling practices, we propose formal changes in UI rules to override state agency discretion and ensure that more workers experiencing volatile scheduling can rely upon UI benefits when they are forced to leave these jobs.

Read the fact sheet>>


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