California’s Low-Wage Retail Workers Want Off the Roller Coaster of Unpredictable Schedules

By Liz Ben-Ishai

In recent years, major news outlets have declared workers’ schedules to be the next big labor struggle; it’s not only how much money you make, reads one headline, it’s when you work. As they fight for not just higher wages but better-quality jobs, retail workers are demanding an end to the erratic, unpredictable schedules that make it virtually impossible to arrange child care, hold (often much-needed) second jobs, attend school, or simply budget to pay the bills.

Despite major victories for workers’ rights in Californiaincluding an expanded paid family leave program, a recently enacted paid sick days law, and a pathway to a $15 minimum wageworkers in the state are still hurting.

In a new brief released today, On the Clock in California: Volatile Schedules in California Retail Jobs, CLASP highlights evidence that retail and restaurant workers urgently need policies that address volatile schedules. Too many workers receive their schedules at the last moment, aren’t getting enough hours despite wanting to work more, must work on an on-call basis, and experience destabilizing fluctuations in their hours. Simply put, retail workers are more than ready to get off the work scheduling roller coaster.

A new poll from The Employment Instability, Family Well-being and Social Policy Network (EINnet), reveals significant challenges for California workers. The poll of nearly 500 workers in the state (across industries) found that one in three workers received seven days’ or less notice, and one in four received three days’ or less notice of work schedules. More than 40 percent of part-time workers said they would have liked more hours per week in the past month. Nearly one fifth of respondents had worked on-call shifts either sometimes or most weeks. And those working on-call shifts were juggling more than just their work schedules—53 percent said they were primary caregivers for children or family members.

CLASP’s new brief provides additional data from surveys of California retail workers, many of whom experience even greater volatility in their schedules. National survey data on retail workers’ experiences also highlights the prevalence of this trend across state borders. For example, a survey of U.S. hourly workers age 26-32 found half of retail workers receive one week or less notice of their schedules; 44 percent have no input into their schedules; and a shocking 87 percent experience fluctuations in their hours. Retail workers who endure such fluctuations see hours vary by up to 50 percent of their usual hours in the past month.

California retail workers’ scheduling challenges are exacerbated by the low wages they earn and their inadequate access to hours. Though wages will increase in the coming years as the state’s $15 minimum wage phases in, retail workers have a long way to go—and the new minimum wage law will only get them some of the way there. Retail salespersons and cashiers—major retail occupations in the state—earn $27,010 and $23,470, respectively—barely above the poverty line for a family of three ($20,160) and far below what the California Budget Center estimates a single parent with two children would need to cover basic expenses in L.A. County (a whopping $77,546).

For decades, California workers and advocates have been organizing relentlessly to improve the quality of lower-wage work. And in recent years, their struggles have borne considerable fruit. But there is still much more work to do, and unfair schedules are high on the list of ongoing injustices. Already, localities in the state are taking action: San Francisco has passed a “Retail Workers Bill of Rights,” which is helping to improve scheduling practices for workers employed by large retailers in the city; Emeryville’s city council is considering legislation; and San Jose has taken the issue to the ballot box. California’s Attorney General has also initiated an inquiry into some retailers’ use of on-call shifts. These are important steps forward and will help to fuel a state-wide—and eventually, a national—solution to unfair scheduling practices in retail and other industries. Hard-working Californians deserve it as they scramble to get the economic security they want for themselves and their families.

Read the brief—including links to all surveys cited above—here>>

For more information on scheduling policy, visit CLASP’s national repository of scheduling policy resources>>