Unstable Work Schedules Hurt Economy, Communities, and Families

By Liz Ben-Ishai

Imagine if your work schedule changed from week to week or even from day to day. Imagine being scheduled to work 40 hours one week and 15 hours the next, with no warning of these fluctuations. Imagine paying for child care, only to have your manager send you home without pay, claiming there aren’t enough customers for you to work your shift. For many lower-wage workers, it doesn’t take much imagination at all to conjure up these scenarios.

A new report by the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), Retail Action Project (RAP), and Women Employed reveals that unstable and unpredictable work schedules have severe implications for hourly-wage workers, as well as businesses and consumer spending. The report highlights two policy approaches that would lift up the economy and give workers a boost so that they can cover the basics.

Tackling Unstable and Unpredictable Work Schedules examines the recent trend toward “just-in-time” scheduling practices, where employers schedule workers based on fluctuating consumer demand, which they monitor from day to day or even hour to hour.

These struggles aren’t unusual; a study of 17 major U.S. corporations in various industries found that only three gave more than a week’s notice of schedules. Another study focusing on one major U.S. retailer found that 59 percent of full-time hourly workers experienced fluctuations in either the days or hours of their shifts from week to week.

Two approaches that some employers are taking create jobs with better conditions while meeting business needs.  For example, Costco jobs guarantee a minimum number of hours each week. Cooperative Home Care Associates, a home care staffing agency, has a program that guarantees participating employees a set number of paid hours per week, even if they are not ultimately needed to work all of those hours. In addition to these voluntary minimum hours policies, some collective bargaining agreements and many states’ laws require employers to pay a set amount even if they send a worker home early or decide the worker is not needed for a shift (known as “reporting pay”).

Erratic schedules can cause workers to lose wages and jobs, which leaves them unable to pay for basic goods. Businesses should be concerned. In fact, Wal-Mart was recently the focus of press coverage as it weighed whether to support an increase in the federal minimum wage—a choice driven by the company’s reliance on low-wage workers not only as employees but also as customers. Just as Wal-Mart is waking up to how wages matter to the company and the larger economy, it is time for businesses to realize that unstable scheduling practices are a part of the picture, too.

With nearly 8 million hourly-wage workers in the U.S., many of whom struggle to pay the bills and cover the rent, it’s clear that change is needed. We need public policies that make it possible for working families to get by—and this includes policies that help to create good jobs. Stable and predictable schedules are a key piece of the job quality puzzle.

Read Tackling Unstable and Unpredictable Work Schedules.