Laura Bliss is CityLab’s west coast bureau chief, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
A new report reveals who is hit hardest by erratic hours and unstable incomes.
Many of the fastest-growing industries in the U.S. are supported by millions of workers who are paid hourly wages. It is a volatile foundation. Increasingly, these hourly employees are often notified of their shifts, or of cancelled shifts, within mere hours before they are set to begin—in turn causing unpredictable income. A 2014 Federal Reserve survey showed that about 30 percent of Americans struggle with income instability. A majority pointed to fluctuating work hours as the cause.
And as a new report from the Center for Popular Democracy finds, women are burdened most by the volatility of hourly work. They are more likely to work jobs that pay on an hourly basis, according to the report, at 61 percent compared to 56 percent of men. In particular, women of color dominate the hourly workforce: They are twice as likely to work in an hourly job as in a salaried one, while white women are 1.4 times more likely.
Working part-time (less than 34 hours per week) further exacerbates the domino effects of irregular scheduling. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, in 2010, 26.6 percent of women worked part time, compared to just 13.4 percent of men. About half of all women who work hourly part-time jobs do so because of childcare issues, family obligations, or their own educational commitments.
And yet, the “flexibility” of an hourly part-time job is a catch-22: It can actually make it harder to fulfill all of those other responsibilities. When you’re on call from your manager, how can you line up a babysitter, get to class, or pick up your dad’s medication on a consistent basis, and still get paid? The authors write:
For example, the Current Population Survey shows that each week over 80,000 part-time workers had to take unpaid leave because of school or family obligations, over double the number of full-time workers who had to do the same. Among full-time workers, such breaks in employment were much more likely to be paid—but they were also less likely to be absent from work for these reasons in the first place.
Such work/life volatility amounts to tremendous stress, which in turn can impact a worker’s ability to sleep, and her overall health—plus, that of her children. A 2007 study cited by the report found a link between children’s worsened cognitive, behavioral, and mental health and the stress of their parents who worked irregular hours.
And who’s still significantly more likely to care for those children, in addition to juggling other responsibilities? Women.
And these problems will only worsen, as the sectors most heavily concentrated with hourly female employees—retail, healthcare, and food service—are also projected to be some of the fastest growing in the next decade.
“These trends are undermining women’s earning potential and bargaining power to achieve equal pay, higher wages and advancement,” the authors write. “New policies that ensure predictable schedules, give employees a voice in their schedules, ensure quality part-time employment and access to stable, full-time schedules will improve the lives of everyone—especially working women and their families.”