A fast-food worker is detained by police outside a McDonalds during a protest for a higher minimum wage.
A fast-food worker is detained by police during a protest to push fast-food chains to pay their employees at least $15 an hour, outside a McDonald's restaurant Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014, in Philadelphia. Matt Rourke/AP

The city’s bill is the most expansive effort yet to tame on-call scheduling, and the unpredictability it adds to workers’ lives.

For the nearly 130,000 service workers employed in Philadelphia, finding a job is only half the battle to stability. Once hired, many must contend with constantly shifting schedules and variable hours each week. Some keep their schedules open just in case a shift pops up; others avoid taking second jobs or college classes because of their unpredictable call times. For parents especially, “on-call scheduling” makes organizing childcare and other family responsibilities an ongoing nightmare.

This isn’t just a Philadelphia story—on-call scheduling is legal in most U.S. cities, where it wreaks similar havoc on the lives of those in the service industry. But according to a recent survey of nearly 700 Philadelphia service workers conducted by U.C. Berkeley, the problem is particularly rampant in that city: 66 percent report irregular schedules, and 77 percent ache for a change.

On December 6, Philadelphia’s city council will be the latest to vote on a fair workweek bill in an attempt to stop hourly work from being so wobbly. “We’re trying to change the way we look at what’s often seen as intractable issues like poverty and recognize all our responsibility,” said at-large Councilmember Helen Gym, who proposed the legislation. “Governments, businesses, residents and citizens themselves.”

While several labor reforms—like raised minimum wages and paid sick leave policies—have sped through local governments since the “Fight for $15” labor rights movement began in 2012, the momentum behind fair scheduling has been slower to gather: Five cities, including Seattle, New York City, and San Francisco, have enacted legislation since 2014; together, the regulations protect some 740,000 employees. Some individual companies, including Gap and Victoria’s Secret, have implemented in-store regulations, too. A state-wide measure in Connecticut failed last year, though, and federal action has been stalled.

But Philadelphia is the poorest big city in the country—it’s maintained a poverty rate of 26 percent for the last five years. To match, its workweek bill is the most expansive to date. All service employees of the largest retail, food, and hotel establishments operating in the city—those that employ more than 250 workers and operate in more than 30 locations worldwide—would be covered by the law, which would take effect in 2020 if passed. (Hotel workers are not included under other fair scheduling laws, but after Marriott hotel employees went on strike in eight cities nationwide this fall, their labor reform needs have been given more attention.)

The bill requires eligible employers to start giving their employees a good-faith estimate of their work schedule when they’re hired. That doesn’t have to be a precise weekly schedule, but it must include things like the average number of work hours employees will be scheduled on each week, whether they’ll be needed for on-call shifts, and times they can and cannot be expected to work. Starting in 2020, eligible employers will also have to post detailed work schedules 10 days in advance; that time frame changes to 14 days in 2021. If hours aren’t included in the designated work schedule, employees can decline to work them.

What gives Philly’s bill teeth is that, if employers change the posted work schedule after that 10 or 14 day limit, they’ll also have to pay the employee a “predictability pay” fee, in addition to the employee’s hourly wage for the hours in question.

The bill is meant to solve problems for people like Symphony Hurst, who once worked on-call in a Philadelphia Macy’s. “It was so stressful figuring out whether to put my daughter in daycare for the days I wasn’t scheduled but hoped I could pick up, then where to find the money for that,” she said at a press conference earlier this year. “I had to plan my life around these what-if days.” Now, she works a unionized Starbucks job, with more stable hours.

Employers typically resist such measures, arguing that they’ll hinder job growth, cost more for businesses to operate, and end up hurting workers by limiting employee hours even more. “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,” Berkeley sociologist Daniel Schneider, one of the co-authors of the research brief, told CityLab in June.

At an October city council hearing, debate over the legislation stretched on for three hours. Managers from the Greater Philadelphia Hotel Association spoke in opposition, according to Philly.com, and two of the eight council members on the Committee on Law and Government members voted against the bill. But the six affirmative votes were enough to bring it through to the full council for a vote next week.

Pennsylvania has one of the lowest minimum wages in the Northeast, stuck at the federal floor of $7.25 an hour, and the state preempts its cities from raising it locally. A fair workweek law is one of the few things Philadelphia can do at the city level to help low-wage service workers, Gym argues. “In the absence of—or as a complement to raising the minimum wage—stable schedules are important,” she said. “You need to both be able to access hours and have a higher wage.” Since the state doesn’t control municipal salaries, Gym is also advocating for a measure that would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour for the city’s government workers. If both pass, Philadelphia’s “economic dignity package,” as she calls it, will be solid.

“When you’ve got 300,000 people reporting that they’re food insecure and 80 percent are working adults, we have to understand that the issue of poverty is about more than individuals,” Gym said. “It’s about institutions.”

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