In Focus

Aug 15, 2014  |  PERMALINK »

Starbucks’ Scheduling Changes are a Start, But We Need Public Policies

By Liz Ben-Ishai

Starbucks has announced that it will enforce its existing scheduling polices and eliminate some unfair practices following a recent New York Times article about the harrowing experiences of an employee grappling with an erratic, unpredictable schedule.

The Times article highlights the role of scheduling software, such as the programs made by Kronos, that enable managers to modify workers’ schedules in almost immediate response to slight changes in consumer demand, weather, shipment deliveries, and more. Charles DeWitt, vice president for business development at Kronos, said his product is “like magic.” But these computer programs are anything but magical for the millions of workers whose lives are upended by constantly shifting schedules.

Starbucks employee Jannette Navarro, a 22-year-old single mother to four-year-old Gavin, is profiled in the article; she details her severe struggles with a fluctuating schedule that she receives no more than three days before the beginning of the workweek. The article vividly describes how Navarro’s schedule wreaks havoc on her relationships with her aunt and boyfriend, forces her to count pennies to pay for her three-hour commute to work and child care, and dictates the ways she can manage the essentials for herself and her son, such as sleep, food, and housing.  

Navarro is far from alone; new research shows that nearly half of early career hourly workers receive their schedules one week or less in advance of the upcoming workweek. Three quarters of these workers experience fluctuation in the number of hours they receive each week.

Soon after the article was published, Starbucks showed that it could rein in the “magic” of its scheduling software. Cliff Burrows, Starbucks president in charge of U.S. stores, said the company would modify its software to “allow for more human input from managers into scheduling.” In addition, Burrows’ email to 130,000 employees said workers would no longer be required to “clopen” (close the store and then return to open a few hours later) and would receive at least one week advance notice of their work schedules (a policy that had been in place previously but was not being followed). Additionally, workers who, like Navarro, face long commutes will be moved to more convenient locations if possible.

These changes could dramatically improve the lives of Starbucks workers, particularly those with caregiving responsibilities. As the original Times story notes, volatile schedules can make maintaining child care—especially child care subsidies—extremely challenging. Navarro had to contend with a “perpetual blizzard of paperwork” to document her changing hours. For many, the challenges of keeping subsidies and child care slots eventually prove too difficult to overcome; these workers must scramble to find alternative arrangements for their children—often with informal care providers. This lack of stability is harmful to children’s development and extremely stressful for parents.

Navarro, who eventually lost her boyfriend and housing because of her volatile work schedule, was surprised by the news of Starbucks’ rapid response to her story. She told the Times she hopes other chains will adopt similar practices, because “with a stable schedule and advance notice of work hours, ‘you can get your life more back in order […] That way, you can make your kids proud.’”

While Starbucks’ efforts to ensure its managers are following company scheduling policies are commendable, further improvements – such as advanced notice of work schedules of at least two weeks – are needed. And, to make Navarro’s hope that other businesses will adopt worker- and family-friendly  scheduling policies a reality, we need public policies to set a floor for job schedule predictability and stability. Recently, the Schedules that Work Act was introduced in Congress by Representatives George Miller (D-CA) and Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Tom Harkin (D-IA). This legislation would give all workers the right to request predictable, stable, and/or flexible schedules, with special provisions requiring employers to accommodate workers who are caregivers or students or who have second jobs or serious illnesses. It would also require employers in the restaurant, retail, and building cleaning industries to provide workers with at least two weeks advance notice of their schedules, as well as compensate workers when they are sent home from work early, required to work on-call, or must work a split shift.

While Congress considers this important legislation, advocates at the state and local levels are forging ahead to put an end to unfair scheduling practices. San Francisco’s Family Friendly Workplace Ordinance and a provision in Vermont’s Equal Pay Act give workers the right to request flexible and/or predictable work schedules. Also in San Francisco, a retail workers’ bill of rights currently under consideration could help to address the epidemic of underemployment while also tackling erratic scheduling issues. Elsewhere, advocates are hard at work organizing and strategizing as they prepare to take further action on this pressing issue of job quality and workers’ rights.

Aug 5, 2014  |  PERMALINK »

Local, National Initiatives Aim to Improve Working Conditions for Low-Wage Workers

By Lauren French

Tiffany Beroid was working as a customer service manager at Walmart while attending community college classes to become a nurse. When she asked for a schedule adjustment that would allow her to continue classes, not only did the retailer refuse her request, it drastically cut her hours. She had to drop out of her college nursing program because she was not able to pay her tuition. The financial strain sent her family into a tail-spin—forcing her husband to work 24-hour shifts as a security guard just to keep them afloat.

Tiffany's story is not atypical. While the retail industry is one of the fastest-growing sectors in the U.S. economy, retail workers are among the lowest paid. The average wage for a woman working in retail is just $10.58 an hour; even in the unlikely event that she were able to secure full-time status, that wage would leave a family of three near poverty. In recent months, growing attention has also focused on the industry’s unpredictable and unstable scheduling practices, which make it nearly impossible for workers to budget, attend school, keep a second job, or plan for child care. On top of already low wages, retail workers' shifts often fluctuate from week to week and many receive their job schedules at the last minute. Workers are also often required to accept “on call” shifts, where they must keep their schedules open but have no guarantee of compensation if they do not end up getting called.

Last week, several events raised the profile of these issues. The City of San Francisco, which has consistently led the way on family-friendly workplace policies, is poised to take another big step. On Tuesday, City Supervisor Eric Mar introduced the Retail Workers Bill of Rights, which would create new scheduling protections for retail workers in San Francisco. The legislation, which was moved forward by a coalition of labor, community, and small business advocates, would require employees to offer hours to existing employees before hiring more workers. The bill would also require that employees be paid for a minimum of four hours’ work when they are required to be on call or when shifts are canceled with less than a day’s notice. If adopted, the new law would apply to chain stores with 11 or more locations. In the fall, Supervisor David Chiu (who last year championed the Family Friendly Workplace Ordinance) will introduce the second part of the Retail Workers Bill of Rights, which will advance additional provisions to protect retail workers.

The issue is also being addressed at the national level. On July 22, the Schedules that Work Act was introduced in Congress by Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), Representative George Miller (D-CA), and Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT). The bill would give workers the right to request—and in some cases receive—scheduling changes without fear of retaliation. It would require employers in the retail, restaurant, and building cleaning industries to provide workers with advanced notice of their schedules and to compensate them when they are sent home from work before the end of their shifts or are required to work nonconsecutive hours in one day (a “split shift”).

Further underscoring the growing movement to improve working conditions for low-wage workers, Representative Donna Edwards (D-MD) hosted a congressional briefing to highlight the many challenges faced by women in the retail sector. At the briefing, Tiffany Beroid shared her experience with Walmart and her work with the Organization United for Respect at Walmart (OUR Walmart). Other speakers included Amy Traub of Demos and Vicki Shabo, vice president of the National Partnership for Women & Families.

While retail is not the only sector filled with low-wage and unpredictable jobs, it is one of the top sectors employing women—a trend economists expect to continue for the foreseeable future. According to Traub, there are currently 1.3 million women working in retail who are living in or near poverty; their economic security is constantly in doubt because of retail employment practices. Almost 30 percent of women in this sector who are working part-time would prefer to be working full time. Traub explained that contrary to popular belief, these workers are not high school students earning some extra pocket money. Ninety-three percent of low-wage women working in the retail sector are 20 years old and above. One in three of are supporting children, and almost 20 percent are the sole earner in the household.

Fortunately, there are policies we can adopt today to strengthen the economic security of these working women. The Schedules that Work Act would provide a comprehensive solution to scheduling challenges for workers nationwide. Until this legislation passes, local and state initiatives, like those proposed in San Francisco and passed in Vermont, are moving the needle for the millions of workers struggling to make ends meet in low-wage jobs.


Aug 1, 2014  |  PERMALINK »

Paid Leave: A No-Brainer for Businesses and a Lifesaver for Workers

By Liz Ben-Ishai

Could it be that workers whose employers offer leave benefits actually end up getting sick less often because they are happier? Senator Al Franken (D-MN), tongue firmly in cheek, proposed this “radical” idea at a hearing on paid leave held by the Senate Health Economic Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee’s Subcommittee on Children and Families. Franken’s comments echo all the evidence: paid leave is a no-brainer that benefits both workers and employers. Unfortunately, far too many workers still lack paid leave, including paid sick days and paid family and medical leave.

The hearing, convened by Senator Kay Hagan (D-NC), drew attention to the dire circumstances facing U.S. workers who need time away from work to welcome a new child, care for a sick loved one, or recover from serious illness. Witnesses testified to the importance of paid leave for families’ economic security, the value to employers of offering such programs, and the growing body of evidence that shows the effectiveness of existing paid leave programs. The critical importance of this issue was evidenced by the attendance of seven senators: Casey (D-PA), Franken (D-MN), Hagan (D-NC), Harkin (D-IA), Murphy (D-CT), Murray (D-WA), and Warren (D-MA).

Those who oppose paid leave policies often express concern about their effect on businesses. However, testimony from Kevin Trapani, CEO and president of The Redwoods Group, and Maryella Gockel, flexibility leader at Ernst & Young LLP, demonstrates that such worries are misguided. Indeed, for these employers, as well as for businesses in the states that have passed paid family leave insurance laws (California, Rhode Island, and New Jersey), there has been no evidence of what witness Vicki Shabo of the National Partnership for Women & Families called the “parade of horribles”—a litany of negative business implications predicted by critics.

Trapani, whose business offers generous leave benefits, described the importance of meeting his employees’ needs so that they can best  perform important work for clients and the community. Paid leave has been crucial to the well-being of many Redwoods employees, said Trapani. For example, one employee took paid leave to care for his sick father, who lives out of town. He told Trapani, “My dad may not have survived if I hadn’t been here.” And at Redwoods, paid leave doesn’t just benefit  employees grappling with grave personal matters; it pays dividends for  the company’s bottom line. Redwood’s turnover rate for the past 10 years is only 5 percent, generating major  cost savings and increased productivity from a loyal workforce.

Ernst & Young’s Gockel explained how paid leave and other benefits have nearly closed the gap in retention rates between male and female employees at her company; in the mid-90s, she said, women were leaving the company at a much faster rate than men. Beyond the impact of such disparities on women’s ability to advance in their careers, Gockel noted that high rates of turnover are costly. For a mid-level worker, said Gockel, it costs between 1.5 and two times the worker’s annual salary to hire and train a replacement.

Jeannine Sato’s experience, recounted at the hearing, brings the retention and turnover numbers to life. In a previous job, when Sato had her first child, she found that her employer was not covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) because it had multiple offices that were more than 75 miles apart, meaning the number of employees at each location could not be combined for FMLA eligibility purposes. This obscure provision meant that Sato was not eligible for 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the law—and her employer was unwilling to accommodate her needs. As the family breadwinner, she had no choice but to go back to work just six weeks after giving birth. Soon, she was looking for a new job. “Even a big raise couldn’t keep me there,” she said. Sure enough, Sato had found  new employment less than a year later. Workers like Sato offer a lesson to employers about the consequences of not providing paid leave: while it may prevent a valued employee’s temporary absence, it could cause you to lose them permanently.

While some employers haven’t caught on yet, there are many who are aware of the importance of providing paid leave. Unfortunately, despite many high-road employers taking action, others are not in a position to do so because of the financial burden of extended paid leaves. However, legislation introduced in Congress last December would help such well-intentioned employers to do right by their workers. Using small contributions from employers and employees, the Family and Medical Leave Insurance (FAMILY) Act would create a trust fund for workers to draw on when they need to take leave. Such a social insurance program is appealing to workers and employers alike, as evidenced by support from many small businesses and a growing group of diverse business leaders from across the country.

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