Why We Need the Schedules that Work Act
Andrea, a hard-working single mom to two-year-old Ben, started working in a cosmetics store during the holiday season, when many retail outlets hire additional staff.* After the holidays, Andrea was asked to stay on and join the team at the store.
The store’s typical practice is to send out schedules for the week by email on Sunday. This meant that she could be working Monday, but find out about it only the day before. Andrea’s weekly hours fluctuated wildly. One week she’d be scheduled to work 11 hours, the next 42. She was classified as part-time, which meant she was not entitled to overtime. On weekends, she would often be asked to work from 11:00 AM-9:00 PM or 12:00-10:00 PM.
Andrea’s son, Ben, has chronic asthma, so in addition to the typical illnesses that small children get, she had to deal with a more serious health issue that frequently meant he couldn’t go to child care or would be sent home early from child care. On days when Andrea couldn’t go into work, she would be under intense pressure to find someone to cover her shift, or she’d have to ask friends or family to care for a sick Ben. And, when Ben’s child care provider would call to say he needed to be picked up because he was sick, her boss wasn’t very understanding. Rather, Andrea would be punished with extra-long weekend shifts or by being denied requested days off, even when she submitted these requests long in advance—well before schedules had been made.
Since Ben’s child care provider closes at 6:00 and Andrea’s shifts often ended later than this, she’d often need help picking him up. Sometimes her parents could help her, or she’d ask a friend or a neighbor. “I’d say, ‘I’ll give you $20 to pick him up and watch him until I’m home.’ But I didn’t have much money to begin with, working part-time.” On occasion, when plans fell through and Andrea was late to pick Ben up, she would be charged significant late fees by the child care provider.
At one point, things became even more difficult. Andrea explains, “Eventually no one could help me. My mom took a second job and my dad was working overtime so our family could be okay financially.” So she told her employer that she had to leave at 4:30 PM on the dot in order to pick up her son. However, if the worker scheduled to replace her hadn’t arrived by 4:30 PM, Andrea was forced to wait, making her late to pick up her son.
Late fees had to be paid to the child care provider immediately, or else Ben could not return. Three or four times, Andrea didn’t have enough money to pay, so she would have to stay home with him—there was no one else to care for him. On these occasions, she’d call in to work to tell her manager that she simply couldn’t come in because her son needed her. After being “written up” three times for attendance reasons, she was in danger of being terminated. It was only after she met with her district manager and pleaded with her, crying, to understand her situation that she managed to hang on to the job. The manager told her she could keep her job, but needed to make better child care arrangements. However, she felt that after meeting with the manager, she was punished, often receiving on-call shifts (shifts requiring the employee to be available to work, but with no guarantee of receiving hours).
Andrea had expected better conditions when she started the job. She explains, “There is an unspoken rule in retail. On your application, you have to have open availability [meaning that you are willing to work any shift] to get the job. Nine times out of ten, if your schedule is closed in any way, you won’t get the job—no matter how great a candidate you are.” Andrea was losing job offers because she had listed her schedule as closed, so eventually she said she had open availability. However, she told the interviewer at the cosmetics store that she had a baby in child care and needed advance notice, and he said this was okay.
This was far from how it turned out, however. She often had “on-call shifts,” meaning that she was guaranteed a few hours in the first part of the day—sometimes 10:00 -2:00—but was “on-call” from 2:30-6:30, meaning she could be sent home at any time. If the store was slow, she’d be sent home. “It would mess with my checks,” she says, “sometimes I’d have 40 hours, sometimes 12.”
The fluctuating hours didn’t just affect her paycheck. They also affected her access to public child care assistance that is offered to help low-income working parents. The District of Columbia’s child care subsidy program requires the hours of child care to match the parent’s work schedule, a policy that’s difficult to meet with fluctuating hours. When Andrea lost her child care voucher, she ultimately had to quit her job to care for her son. Ben could not go to child care for two months.
As committed to working as ever, Andrea found another job at another store where, given her skills and strengths, she had some managerial responsibilities and was guaranteed 40 hours a week and a set schedule, with the ability to leave work in time to pick her son up from child care. This job was definitely better, but it was also located far away from her home and not accessible by public transit. She needed a car, so was now saddled with car payments. In order to meet these payments, she took a bartending job in addition to her regular job. At the same time, the new employer’s promise of a 40 hour set-schedule proved false – just like in her previous job, Andrea’s schedule continued to fluctuate according to the productivity of the store. Soon she had almost no time with Ben and was constantly exhausted.
Earlier this year, Andrea took a job at a D.C. nonprofit. Since beginning in the position, where she works a regular, daytime schedule, her life has changed dramatically. She is able to make plans, to sit down with Ben and play with him or read to him (activities she almost never was able to do before), cook dinner, sleep “like a normal person,” and so on.
Andrea had to leave school to work at the cosmetics store. As she says, “they wouldn’t even work around my schedule as a mom, so there’s no way they’d work with me on school schedule.” At her other retail job she signed up for two online classes, but with a second job bartending and little sleep, she could not focus and had to drop her classes. Now, she is registered to start her paralegal certification in the fall, something that feels doable given her stable, predictable schedule.
Having a fair, reasonable schedule that allows workers to care for their families and pursue higher education shouldn’t be something reserved for those who are lucky enough to have an employer with unusually good practices. Thankfully, Andrea no longer has to deal with the chaos of an unpredictable schedule. It’s time for all workers to be free from the stresses and strains of unfair scheduling practices (not just those who happen to get hired by a particular employer)! That’s why we are thrilled about the introduction of the Schedules that Work Act.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.