As more workers find their lives upended and their paychecks reduced by ever-changing, on-call schedules, government officials are trying to put limits on the harshest of those scheduling practices. The actions reflect a growing national movement — fueled by women's and labor groups — to curb practices that affect millions of families, like assigning just one or two days of work a week or requiring employees to work unpredictable hours that wreak havoc with everyday routines like college and child care.
The rapid spread of on-call employment to retail and other sectors has prompted proposals that would require companies to pay employees extra for on-call work and to give two weeks' notice of a work schedule. They ask employers to discuss a new employee's situation and to consider scheduling requests, but they do not require companies to accommodate individual schedules.
U.S. Rep. George Miller of California, the senior Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, plans to introduce legislation this summer that would require companies to pay their employees for an extra hour if they were summoned to work with less than 24 hours' notice. He is also proposing a guarantee of four hours' pay on days when employees are sent home after just a few hours — something that happens in many restaurants and retailers when customer traffic is slow.
That happened to Mary Coleman. After an hourlong bus commute, she arrived at her job at a Popeyes in Milwaukee only to have her boss order her to go home without clocking in — even though she was scheduled to work. She was not paid for the day.
"It's becoming more and more common to put employees in a very uncertain and tenuous position with respect to their schedules, and that ricochets if workers have families or other commitments," Miller said. "The employer community always says it abhors uncertainty and unpredictability, but they are creating an employment situation that has huge uncertainty and unpredictability for millions of Americans."
Corporate groups protest that measures like Miller's undercut efficiency and profits. "The hyper-regulation of the workplace by government isn't conducive to a positive business climate," said Scott DeFife, an executive vice president of the National Restaurant Association. "The more complications that government creates for operating a business, the less likely we'll see a positive business environment that's good for the economy and increasing jobs."
He pointed out that the daily ebb and flow of customers necessitated flexibility in scheduling.
David French, a senior vice president of the National Retail Federation, said many people chose careers in retail because of the flexible work hours. "These proposals may sound reasonable, but if you unpack them, they could be very harmful," French said. "Where employers and employees now work together to solve scheduling problems, you'll have a very bureaucratic environment where rigid rules would be introduced."
Housecleaning is one example of a business in which it is hard to maintain predictable schedules for employees. And the employees pay the price.
"If a client cancels and there's no work, there's no work," said David Chou, the spokesman for Polish Ladies Cleaning Service, a company based in Brooklyn. "We try to let everyone know ASAP, of course, but there are times when clients do cancel literally at the very last minute."
About 27.4 million Americans work part time. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, 47 percent of part-time hourly workers ages 26 to 32 receive a week or less of advance notice for their schedule.
In a study of the data, two University of Chicago professors found that employers dictated the work schedules for about half of young adults, without their input. For part-time workers, schedules on average fluctuated from 17 to 28 hours a week.
"Frontline managers face pressure to keep costs down, but they really don't have much control over wages or benefits," said Susan Lambert, a University of Chicago professor who interpreted the data. "What they have control over is employee hours."
Lambert said flexible, not rigid or unpredictable, hours would become as important an issue as paid family leave. "The issue of scheduling is going to be the next big effort on improving labor standards," she said. "To reduce unpredictability is important to keep women engaged in the labor force."
Courtney Moore, a cashier at a Walmart in Cincinnati, had been assigned about 40 hours a week until she told store management in June that she would begin taking college classes most mornings and some afternoons. She said she asked her manager to put her on the late shift, but to her dismay, the store reduced her to 15 hours a week. "They said they need someone they could call whenever they need help — and they said I'm not that person," Moore said.
She said she would prefer being a dedicated full-time employee at Walmart but had to take a second job at McDonald's instead.
David Chiu, president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, has created a business-labor group that is trying to find the middle ground. "We've learned that predictability in hours is important not just to help workers juggle their lives, but for economic security — to help workers take a second job to live in expensive cities like San Francisco or New York," he said. "We're confident that we can move forward with policies that work for workers as well as business's bottom line."
Sharlene Santos says her part-time schedule at a Zara clothing store in Manhattan — ranging from 16 to 24 hours a week — is not enough. "Making $220 a week, that's not enough to live on — it's not realistic," she said.
After Santos and four other Zara workers recently wrote to the company, protesting that they were given too few hours and received just two days' notice for their schedule, the company promised to start giving them two weeks' advance notice.
Fatimah Muhammad said that at the Joe Fresh clothing store where she works in Manhattan, some weeks she was scheduled to work just one day but was on call for four days — meaning she had to call the store each morning to see whether it needed her to work that day. "I felt kind of stuck. I couldn't make plans," said Muhammad.
A national campaign — the Fair Workweek Initiative — is pushing for legislation to restrict these practices.
"Too many workers are working either too many or too few hours in an economy that expects us to be available 24/7," said Carrie Gleason, director of the Fair Workweek Initiative and an organizer at the Center for Popular Democracy, a national advocacy group. "It's gotten to the point where workers, especially women workers, are saying, 'We need a voice in how much and when we work.' "