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Stable Schedules, Stable Lives: How Collective Bargaining Can Address the Problem of Unpredictable Work Hours

The problems posed by unpredictable work schedules are starting to get attention, and it's about time. As Susan Lambert recently wrote in a New York Times op-ed, such schedules are increasingly the norm for low-income workers.

Temporary workers, on-call workers, and other types of precarious workers have schedules that are intermittent and whose hours are short and variable, making it nearly impossible to arrange adequate child care or otherwise organize one's life. As Lambert writes:

Sales associates and restaurant servers might be scheduled for 7 hours one week and 32 the next. Hotel housekeepers might work Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday one week, and then Sunday, Thursday and Saturday the following week. Schedules are often posted just a few days in advance. And women in hourly jobs are likely to have less input than men in determining their work schedules, according to national surveys.

Demos explored the devastating effects of "last minute, just-in-time scheduling practices" in a report last year written by Nancy Cauthen. Among other things, the report noted that such schedules "are challenging not only for parents but can create tremendous chaos and stress for children as well."

One solution to this problem can be found in the collective bargaining model pioneered by flight attendants unions over 50 years ago. Those workers achieved, though collective bargaining, an effective system by which each month the workers bid on their preferred monthly schedule and the bids are awarded by seniority. In this way, the workers have been able to achieve predictability in their schedules and plan their lives accordingly. Their contracts also limit on-call work and require a minimum hour guarantee for those workers who are on call.

All workers in industries that impose variable hours and use short shifts and on-call workers should consider emulating that model.

Katherine Stone is a professor of law at UCLA and a Senior Fellow at Demos.