Predictable Schedules Offer Stability and Regular Pay to Hourly Workers

By Ann O’Leary 

Co-authored by SF County Supervisor David Chiu

Social media has been ablaze during the past few weeks with images and news stories about workers trying to raise their local hourly minimum wage. From New York to Los Angeles, we’ve heard the personal stories of the people behind these campaigns who say they can’t make ends meet because their wages are so low. These campaigns are beginning to make a difference in the lives of families as more and more of them win wage increases for hourly workers.

But there’s another determinant of household income that deserves just as much attention. For many hourly workers already struggling to get by on minimum wage, the schedule of work and the number of hours they receive on that schedule decides whether they can pay the rent or not. This issue is critical to workers’ stability and their ability to get ahead.

Hourly, part-time work is on the rise. Across the country, 59 percent of all workers are paid hourly. Many of these workers get their schedules just a few days in advance, and sometimes that comes with a last-minute notice of reduced hours. As described in a recent piece in the New York Times’ and in The New Yorker’s recent article on fast food workers, workers in retail and restaurant jobs often find out at the last minute what their schedules will be, or whether they will work on a given day at all.

This week, in San Francisco, we are taking a step to address this problem. Over the past year, we convened a task force with businesses and worker advocates to explore policy solutions to the unpredictable scheduling practices in San Francisco. Together, we agreed that more needed to be done to raise awareness among employers of how these practices impact the economic stability of families in our community, and to put in place best practices for employers to follow. With legislation that addresses these practices among chain stores, San Francisco will be the first jurisdiction in the nation to adopt such legislation. It will offer an opportunity to further study and understand how these changes impact employers and their workers.

Through our work on the task force, we studied how these practices impact workers.

For parents, this type of schedule takes a particular toll. Professor Susan Lambert, who presented her work to the task force, and who recently released a comprehensive report on the subject, found that among respondents in her survey (workers age 26-32) with a child 12 or younger, 69 percent of mothers and fully 80 percent of fathers report that their hours fluctuated in the prior month by an average of approximately 40 percent when compared to their usual hours. According to the Center on Law and Social Policy, working parents with unpredictable schedules cannot know when or how much child care they will need, eliminating the possibility of sending children to most child care programs. Instead, they often rely on multiple child care arrangements, such as family and friend caregivers. One in five working mothers in the restaurant industry report losing their child care due to unpredictable work schedules.

A parent’s unpredictable schedule impacts the entire family in many other ways, too. Children need the stability brought about by regular meals with their parents, a consistent bedtime, and their parents’ involvement in school activities. Scheduling practices that prevent workers from knowing when they’ll work next rob them of important opportunities to be dependable.

And unpredictable schedules can impact hourly workers’ abilities to take on second jobs to improve their income. In San Francisco, where the cost of living is high, we’ve heard from many workers who must work several minimum-wage jobs so they can earn enough to get by. If their schedules vary from week to week in an unpredictable way, those schedules conflict with one another. Then the whole jigsaw puzzle of work falls apart, threatening to keep them from earning enough to provide for their families.

Businesses are always trying to find ways to increase efficiency, to maximize profit, and reduce waste, which is good for our economy. But creating instability in the lives of the people who keep their doors open is bad for their bottom line, bad for our economy, and bad for children who need the stability of parents’ predictable schedules. There are other ways.

San Francisco is a tight labor market with a higher-than average minimum wage. Yet, a number of employers presented information to our predictability task force, showing that this was doable and that, in fact, they already instituted these best practices and were thriving. Bi-Rite, a San Francisco creamery and grocer, posts its schedules two weeks in advance, and gives employees at least five-days notice if any changes come up. Zazie, a popular restaurant, provides workers with core schedules for the entirety of their employment. And national employer Costco demonstrates its commitment to quality, full-time jobs by providing opportunities for part-time employees to gain more hours, cross train, and transition to full-time status when there is availability. That is its policy for all of its stores, not just those in the Bay Area.

These are only a few examples of many businesses — big and small — that provide good predictable scheduling practices. They demonstrate that it is possible to profit and thrive while providing stability to employees.

The input of these and many other businesses, and of the California Work and Family Coalition, contributed to the San Francisco Ordinance, introduced this week by Supervisor David Chiu that will improve the predictability of workers’ lives. And it will be feasible for employers to implement.

In San Francisco and throughout the country, this will not be the end of the conversation, however. Some employers face real constraints that make predictable scheduling very challenging. It is easy to understand how we got to this point. But the costs of an unpredictable schedule – for a family’s emotional and economic well-being — are too high to ignore.

Supervisor David Chiu represents San Francisco’s District 3 on the County Board of Supervisors.