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.