Unpredictable work schedule? Help may be coming

Taj Bell knows what it’s like to cope with uncertainty. After finishing high school, Bell, now 22, landed a job as a retail sales associate and soon found himself on a financial roller coaster.

The number of hours he was allowed to work varied so much from week to week (and sometimes day to day) that Bell had to get a second job to support himself.

“Even though I was scheduled to work a certain number of hours, I didn’t necessarily get those hours,” said Bell, explaining that his scheduled hours were sometimes cut back when store foot traffic was low.

Now that he’s a store manager, Bell gets a minimum number of hours per week and is working extra hours during the busy holiday season, although he worries that his additional hours may be cut after the holidays. And rightly so.

Even with a more stable work schedule and higher hourly wage as a manager, he’s still scraping by. “I have to pick days that I don’t eat so that I can eat another day,” said Bell, who works for a large sporting goods chain at its Bloomington, Minnesota, store.

His is a familiar story across America. Erratic work schedules, often coupled with low wages, are a fact of life for millions of workers, particularly in the retail, fast food, hospitality and other service-related industries.

Some workers gravitate to these sectors because they want flexible schedules. But for many others, erratic scheduling practices create hardships, making it difficult to juggle multiple jobs, attend school, schedule child care or meet ordinary expenses.

The problem isn’t new. It first surfaced in the 1990s -- when many big retailers began relying more heavily on part-time workers -- and it now affects workers in a number of different sectors, said Stephanie Luce, a professor of labor studies at the City University of New York.

Part-time employees -- whose ranks have grown in recent years -- put in about half as many hours each week as full-time workers, according to a report by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. They’re also more than twice as likely to have work hours that vary from week to week.

Many large retailers not only rely more heavily on part-time workers than they once did, but also try to hold down costs by operating at bare-minimum staffing levels, explained Luce. Some use sophisticated software to predict sales and store traffic -- down to an hourly basis -- and make staffing decisions that reflect those patterns.

Many workers have had enough. Represented by unions and other advocacy groups, some have lobbied successfully in a handful of cities for passage of so-called predictive scheduling laws. The measures aim to provide employees with a greater level of certainty in terms of how many hours they can expect to work and what days and shifts they’ll work.

Earlier this year, Seattle and Emeryville, California, followed in the footsteps of San Francisco, which in 2014 passed the country’s first-ever, predictive-scheduling law. Seattle’s law, championed by large numbers of baristas and other shift workers, will apply to big retailers and quick-serve food and drink establishments with 500 or more workers, and to full-service restaurants with at least 500 employees and 40 locations.

Expected to take effect in July, the law requires employers to provide newly hired workers with a good-faith estimate of the hours they can expect to work, post work schedules two weeks in advance and compensate employees for schedule changes. For instance, an employee who’s sent home before the end of a scheduled shift must be paid for half the hours not worked.

The law also addresses the much-loathed practice of “clopenings,” or requiring a worker to close up shop at night and reopen the next morning. Under the law, if the gap between a closing and opening shift is less than 10 hours, an employee is entitled to be paid time-and-a-half for the difference.

New York City may be next. In September, Mayor Bill de Blasio said he would support legislation requiring the city’s fast-food workers (who number roughly 65,000) to get advance notice of their schedules and “penalty pay” for last-minute changes. Earlier this month, New York’s City Council introduced “fair workweek” legislation that provides protections for both fast-food and retail workers. 

Other states are also taking steps to halt punishing scheduling practices. Attorneys general in seven states and the District of Columbia on Tuesday announced that half a dozen U.S. retailers, including entertainment giant Disney (DIS), have vowed to stop using “on-call shift scheduling.” Under that practice, workers must call an employer as little as one hour before a scheduled shift to find out if they must report to work. 

The other retailers that, under pressure from state prosecutors, agreed to halt on-call scheduling are apparel makers Aeropostale, Carter’s (CRI), PacSun and Zumiez (ZUMZ), as well as David’s Tea. They join brands including Abercrombie & Fitch (ANF), Gap (GPS), J.Crew, L Brands (the parent company of Bath & Body Works and Victoria’s Secret), Pier 1 Imports (PIR) and  Urban Outfitters that have ended the use of such practices. 

While many business groups have opposed such measures, some retailers have taken steps on their own to address scheduling issues that can make life hard for workers. In 2014, Starbucks announced changes to its scheduling practices, saying it wanted to improve “stability and consistency” in work hours. The java chain decided to curb clopenings and commit more firmly to posting work hours at least a week in advance, among other planned changes.

“Some retailers have proactively made shifts in their own policies, but the industry, as a whole, objects to the regulations,” said Luce.

Earlier this year, the National Retail Federation wrote a letter to Washington, D.C.’s city council opposing a predictive-scheduling bill under consideration at the time. Such “scheduling mandates” tie the hands of employers and do away with “the flexibility and opportunities” many workers seek when they opt to work in retail, according to the NRF letter. The council eventually tabled the bill but may revisit it next year.

According to Luce, about a dozen cities and states are currently considering predictive-scheduling measures. She said that’s an unexpected development, given the prevailing antiregulatory sentiment in many parts of the country.

 “I’ve been surprised,” Luce said, “by how much traction the issue has gained in the last five years.”