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

Aug 05, 2014

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.

 

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