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How to Get Out of Work Schedule Hell

Amy Traub

In a blockbuster article  this week, Jodi Kantor of the New York Times spotlighted the work and life of Jannette Navarro, a 22-year-old Starbucks barista and single mother, whose erratic and unpredictable work schedule wreaked havoc on her efforts to seek childcare, pursue an education, and generally get by day-to-day. “Ms. Navarro’s fluctuating hours, combined with her limited resources, had… turned their lives into a chronic crisis over the clock” governing everything from how much sleep her 4-year-old son would get before she had show up for a shift and to hustle him to child care to what groceries she could afford to buy.

Navarro’s struggle is far from an isolated one. As I documented in a recent study Retail’s Choice: How Raising Wages and Improving Schedules for Women in the Retail Industry Would Benefit America, workers at many of the nation’s largest and most profitable employers struggle to get enough work hours (and sufficiently stable hours) to make ends meet, making fair scheduling as important as raising wages for millions of workers. The burden of unstable schedules falls disproportionately on women—particularly mothers like Jannette Navarro—both because they are disproportionately likely to work in low-paid, part-time jobs and because they disproportionately bear responsibilities for child care and elder care.

In response to the Times’ scrutiny, Starbucks vowed to improve its scheduling policies. It was a smart corporate move both from a public relations perspective and because, as I highlight in my report, improved scheduling can have substantial benefits for employers themselves. Drawing on the work of MIT business professor Zeynep Ton, as well as an in-depth multi-year study by researchers at the University of Kentucky, I note that retailers’ efforts to precisely match labor supply to consumer traffic often fall short because just-in-time scheduling strategies fuel employee turnover, absenteeism and tardiness. In contrast, less erratic scheduling of hourly workers can benefit the bottom line of companies, for example promoting employee productivity, cultivating quality customer service, and reducing costs associated with turnover.

But Annie Lowrey points out in New York Magazine, steps taken by “enlightened” employers only go so far. The fundamental problem at Starbucks and beyond is workers’ fundamental lack of bargaining power.  “If Starbucks employees like Navarro could quit, or could refuse to work insane shifts on short notice, or could demand more accommodation of their needs, they would,” Lowrey points out. “They can’t. So they don’t.”

A tight economy with low unemployment gives workers more bargaining power. So, Lowrey points out, does joining a union, an uphill effort currently being pursued by some Starbucks employees through the Starbucks Workers Union.  Meanwhile, workers at Walmart -- another employer notorious for its low wages and unstable work schedules -- have banded together as a non-union organization, the Organization United for Respect at Walmart, and declared at least partial victory in their efforts to get greater access to work hours. At unionized stores, workers often have far more control over their work hours and a right to advance notice of schedules.

A third method of leaving the chaos of unstable schedules is legislative. The Retail Workers Bill of Rights, recently introduced in San Francisco, would guarantee workers at chain retail stores, restaurants and banks in the city the right to be offered more hours before an employer may hire additional part-time workers. The bill, promoted by Jobs with Justice and its coalition partners, would also equalize treatment of full- and part-time employees and mandate that workers be paid if they are required to be “on-call” for a shift. Another effort is being pursued nationally through the Fair Workweek Initiative led by the Center for Popular Democracy. They are promoting the Schedules that Work Act  a smart bill that could gain traction in a future, less business-dominated Congress.

Legislation, worker organizing, and employers open to making changes for their workforce are mutually reinforcing. It’s also critical to have good journalism that casts a light problems hidden from those fortunate enough to enjoy stable employment. Together, these efforts may begin to move the needle, improving scheduling and pay for workers like Jannette Navarro.