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The 29-Hour Work Week

David Callahan

When fast food workers went on strike recently in Washington State, they weren't just protesting low wages. They were also protesting the lack of enough work hours and reliable schedules. 

Like low-wage employers everywhere, restaurant chains in Washington go to great lengths to limit their workers to under 30 hours a week. Once an employee goes over that threshold, they qualify for benefits that even low road employers feel they have must offer. So many of these businesses try to have their cake and eat it too: They trumpet their benefits for full-time workers and then make it very difficult for anyone to actually be such a worker. 

When an Arby's employee in Washington was asked how long her work week was, she replied "29.75 hours. Exactly." 

The problem isn't just a lack of benefits or enough pay. It's the crazy scheduling that employers engage in to keep businesses open as much as 80 hours a week -- or even 24/7 -- while trying mightily to stop any single worker from putting in more than 30 hours. 

Demos wrote about the insidious practice of "just-in-time" scheduling in a 2011 report:

Used widely in the service sector, employers rely on scheduling software and measures of demand (such as floor traffic, sales volume, hotel registrations, or dinner reservations) to match workers’ hours to labor needs. In doing so, they often change posted schedules at the last minute even if it means sending workers home after they arrive for work or asking them to stay beyond the end of their shift.

Such practices can wreak havoc in the lives of workers and their families, complicating child care arrangements, transportation, and eligibility for both employer-sponsored and government benefits. These conditions are challenging not only for parents but can create tremendous chaos and stress for children as well.

Just-in-time scheduling has grown rapidly in recent years, thanks to the new software, and is likely to increase further when the Affordable Care Act kicks in, which uses 30 hours as the cut-off point for mandating insurance coverage.

So what can be done about such abusive practices? The Demos report advocated enacting federal minimum hour legislation:

Part-time workers should be guaranteed a minimum number of hours when they are hired, whether it’s 15, 20, 25, 30 hours or something else. They should also be paid for a minimum number of hours if they report to work but are sent home.

If that sounds like another compliance headache for employers, you're right, it probably is. And herein lies the problem with capitalism and regulation. The private sector keeps complaining about too much regulation, and then invents new ways to hurt workers, consumers, investors, or the environment that demand a regulatory response. 

The solution to too much red tape is a business sector that proactively embraces doing the right thing and regulates itself. One way to create such a sector is to raise the bar for corporate charters, demanding that publicly held companies serve multiple stakeholders, including their workers.