Report: Unstable Work Schedules Hurt Economy, Communities, and Families

“Just-in-Time” Scheduling Policies Leave Workers Guessing About Pay, Lead to High Turnover

WASHINGTON, D.C.—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 create jobs that schedule workers based on fluctuating consumer demand, which they monitor from day to day or even hour to hour.

For workers, jobs with erratic schedules create constant uncertainty. They pose challenges for the son who needs to drive his dad to weekly treatments; the mother who must secure child care for her infant; the family trying to budget for groceries and rent; and the employee juggling school and work in order to advance her career. 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.

Some employers are creating jobs with better conditions while meeting business needs through minimum hour and reporting pay policies.  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 (i.e. reporting pay). But according to the report, better enforcement of such laws is needed to ensure these policies are successful. Both types of policies provide crucial stability and predictable income levels for workers, and also lower turnover for businesses.   

“With so many national companies choosing just-in-time scheduling over family-sustaining hours, we need to address this issue in a comprehensive way. “Workers and their families simply can’t afford business as usual,” said Sasha Hammad, director of RAP.

As the report notes, reduced wages from volatile scheduling can make it necessary for workers to rely on safety net programs in order to make ends meet.  In California, for instance, Wal-Mart workers accessed $86 million in public benefits just to cover their most basic needs. Even Wal-Mart has begun to consider the economic limitations of workplace policies that limit employees’ ability to pay for basic goods. The company was recently the focus of press coverage as it weighed whether to support an increase in the federal minimum wage—a choice driven by Wal-Mart’s reliance on low-wage workers not only as employees but as customers whose spending the store depends upon.

Liz Ben-Ishai, policy analyst at CLASP, explained: “Just as Wal-Mart is waking up to how wages matter to the company and the larger economy, it is time to realize that unstable scheduling practices are a part of the picture too.  Erratic schedules can cause workers to lose wages—or even their jobs. That, in turn, burdens employers with increased hiring and training costs.”

 “There are nearly 8 million hourly-wage workers in the U.S., and far too many are struggling to cover the basics and take care of their families,” added Christina Warden, senior program manager at Women Employed.  “Steady schedules and income are critical to raising healthy, stable families and supporting a thriving economy.  We know there’s a better way forward—now it’s time to act.”

Read Tackling Unstable and Unpredictable Work Schedules.

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The Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) develops and advocates for policies at the federal, state, and local levels that improve the lives of low-income people, with a focus on strengthening families and creating pathways to education and work. Through careful research and analysis and effective advocacy, we foster and promote new ideas, mobilize others, and help advocates and government implement strategies that deliver results for people across America. For more information, visit and follow @CLASP_DC.

The Retail Action Project (RAP) is an organization of retail workers dedicated to improving opportunities and workplace standards in the retail industry. For more information, visit and follow @retailaction.

Women Employed’s mission is to improve women’s economic status and remove barriers to economic equity.  Since 1973, WE has been committed to “rights and respect” for working women and has played a leadership role in many of the most important economic advances women have made in the past four decades, reducing the incidence of sexual harassment and pregnancy discrimination, winning policy changes that recognize caregiving responsibilities, increasing women’s representation in higher-paying professional jobs, and increasing women’s participation in higher education. Women Employed currently pursues its mission by focusing on improving the status of women who earn less than the median income.  Our goals are to make workplaces fairer and increase post-secondary attainment leading to better jobs.