Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, housing, labor, and technology.
A new survey finds that service workers in Connecticut are hungry for more hours, and for more predictable schedules.
When Lexii Evans, a retail worker in Hartford, Connecticut, was faced with the choice between finishing community college or working, she reluctantly chose the latter—and delayed graduation. The decision wasn’t an easy one, but it was getting harder to juggle work and school. Some days, she’d get asked to take an unexpected shift, missing classes or keeping her from finishing homework. It wasn’t that her hours were long—it’s that they were never consistent.
Evans’ story is unique, but she is one of thousands of retail and food service workers in Connecticut and across the country who are subject to “on-call scheduling”—their shifts can vary wildly by length each week, or be changed at the last minute. It’s an employment situation that can play hell with workers’ home lives and career aspirations: To accommodate the unpredictable whims of their employers, they might avoid signing up for college classes, or other job shifts; parents must scramble to hire babysitters or rely on family and friends to fill childcare gaps that suddenly crop up.
“It shouldn’t take me three years to graduate from a two-year college,” Evans said. “I want to be great, but I can’t be great and work part-time and be on call.”
It’s an increasingly common fact of life for low-wage service workers. National labor statistics data published in support of as-of-yet unsuccessful federal Fair Scheduling legislation indicates that “66 percent of food service workers, 52 percent of retail workers, and 40 percent of janitors and housekeepers know their schedules only a week or less in advance.” Each month, the variation in hours swings wildly: for food service workers, by 70 percent; for retail workers, 50 percent; and for janitors and housekeepers, 40 percent. Together, those groups make up 18 percent of the economy.
With unemployment rates at a 17-year low, service industry workers can indeed secure a job in this economy, but many must work multiple positions to earn a living wage. And with on-call scheduling, instability—surrounding paychecks, time, and quality of life—persists even once jobs are secured.
In a research brief published in March, UC Berkeley sociologist Daniel Schneider and UC San Francisco sociologist Kristen Harknett surveyed 438 of Connecticut’s 250,000 service sector workers and found that 25 percent of workers reported having on-call hours. But almost 66 percent overall describe their work schedules as “irregular” or “variable,” and many others reported “rotating” or “split” shifts, or regularly irregular nighttime hours—schedules that don’t fit the strict definition of “on-call,” but that result in similar instabilities. Another 66 percent said they keep their schedules “open and available” to fill a shift at a moment’s notice. Perhaps unsurprisingly, almost three quarters of all workers craved more stability and predictability in their work schedules.
More state-level reports are scheduled to appear out of Berkeley later this year, as part of Schneider and Harknett’s national Shift project, surveying the breadth and scope of the issue. (Spoiler alert, it’s wide and deep: Based on estimates drawn from thousands of interviews, Schneider says that the 25 percent of Connecticut workers who are on-call scales up to the entire country, with only small state-level variations.)
The researchers expedited the publication date on Connecticut’s report to bolster the case for a bill that would have limited on-call scheduling throughout the state. Proposed for the second time this year, SB 321, “An Act to Stabilize Working Families by Limiting On-Call Scheduling,” called on Connecticut businesses to give workers 24 hours notice before calling them into work, and to pay them for half of the lost hours if a shift is cancelled. It was voted down in March.
The fair scheduling fight is a relatively new front in the broader battle to beef up labor rights ignited by the “Fight for $15” movement over minimum wage, which has expanded to include organizing around paid sick time and paid parental leave policies. Though there has been a “Schedules at Work Act” floated at the federal level, it’s cities and states that have taken the lead on passing (or killing) regulation around employee scheduling. This constellation of local legislation is meant to “raise the floor” on low-wage jobs in a time of unprecedented inequality—and reduce the instability associated with living paycheck to paycheck, and hour to hour.
So far, the impact of these regulations have not yet been measured comprehensively. In Seattle, the city council unanimously adopted a Secure Scheduling ordinance in 2016, requiring that businesses with 500 or more employees release schedules 14 days in advance, and that if employees are sent home early from a scheduled shift, they’re paid for half of the hours not worked. In New York City, Fair Workweek Laws passed in 2017 include a ban on on-call shifts with less than 72 hours advance notice for retail workers and a requirement that fast food workers be given a “good-faith” schedule two weeks in advance. Oregon became the first state to require employers to give a full week’s advance scheduling notice last year.
Outside of state legislative efforts, some retailers are adopting on-call bans piecemeal. In 2016, under pressure from attorneys general from eight states and D.C., six major retailers (including Disney and Pacsun) stopped using on-call shifts for their 50,000-some workers. And after conducting a 2015 pilot at three San Francisco locations, all Gap stores eliminated on-call scheduling, too, and now give workers two weeks advance notice on schedules.
A state-level on-call scheduling ban would have made an especially large impact in Connecticut, a state of wide economic disparities: It’s got the richest residents per capita, and the largest gap between the top 1 percent and the bottom 99. After the Great Recession, corporations started leaving (and are leaving still). The finance and insurance industries swooped in to rebuild the state’s economy, and with them came a burgeoning service industry. “The state of Connecticut has actually driven its growth out of the recession through the efforts on the backs of people earning poverty wages,” said Carlos Moreno, the state director of Connecticut’s Working Family Organization. “We have a low-wage economic boom happening here in Connecticut, and what it really amounts to is like modern-day slave wage labor.”
The bill was championed by State Senator Marilyn Moore, a Democrat who experienced first-hand the whiplash of irregular scheduling when she took a job at a Target in Trumbull, Connecticut, during the Senate’s off-season. “When you don’t have to walk that path you might think, people must be making this up or they’re exaggerating,” Moore told CityLab. “But you cancel the shift of a person who’s low income, who has children, it changes their whole budget, it changes what they can buy in a grocery store. It has greater impact than what [state senators] who have these incomes can even imagine.”
Stiff resistance to fair scheduling legislation has come from industry groups. “[On-call scheduling] is only used in circumstances in which employees agree to be available for extra shifts on an on-call basis,” Scott Fanning, president of the Connecticut Franchise Association, told the Connecticut Post. Also lining up against the proposed Connecticut bill was the Connecticut Conference for Municipalities; in a statement, the group argued, “These new mandates are impractical and would limit the flexibility needed by local officials to meet the constantly changing needs of municipalities.”
For many employers, on-call scheduling—often orchestrated via software that can predict staffing needs—is part of a broader strategy to manage labor costs as tightly as possible, says Schneider. “Rather than running the risk of having a few people working when demand isn’t exactly aligned with staffing, employers transfer that payroll risk to others.”
Opponents of limits to on-call scheduling also argue that such legislation would hinder opportunities for retail workers like college students trying to pick up occasional shifts to earn spending cash. The Berkeley report, however, found that one third of Connecticut retail workers in the sample surveyed were living with children, many of them single parents, which Moreno takes as evidence that the problem has a more substantial impact on older families. “The folks that rely on these jobs rely on that income to actually pay their bills—it’s not disposable income,” said Moreno. “These are folks that are trying to keep a roof over their heads.”
And for workers on this schedule, it’s impossible to know how incomes will fluctuate week over week. “It could be a hundred bucks, and then it could be $400 the next,” said Moreno. “And you really can’t plan accordingly for your bills, much less for your future, in terms of going to school or having a family.”
That’s the other problem with on-call scheduling: Workers are hungry for hours and often need to take the shifts they’re given, however inconvenient. According to Schneider and Harknett’s report, more than half of Connecticut workers reported wanting to fill more hours each week. Only 12 percent of Connecticut service sector workers have shifts scheduled for a full 40 hours a week; 17 percent work fewer than 20 hours per week, and 31 percent between 20 and 30. Though the labor market is tight, what the study reveals is that even for those deemed “employed,” full-time work is hard to achieve. And if more states follow Arkansas in rolling out Medicaid work requirements, the stakes of picking up hours get higher: If Medicaid recipients fail to report working 80 hours a month for more than three months, they’ll be removed from the program.
“What we have is a reserve of underemployed workers,” said Schneider. “And that gives these employers a lot of flexibility to call in workers when they need them—they need these hours.”