Rescheduling—now is a good time for its reintroduction!

While the new administration in Washington appears to be in a rush to use its executive branch power to undo all the efforts of the previous administration to protect hourly paid employees, a more worker-friendly, forward-looking group in the U.S. Congress has decided it’s time to push back by offering a clearer, alternative approach—by re-introducing the Schedules That Work Act (SWT)—previously S. 1772 and H.R. 3071. The purpose is to address both the causes and consequences of the intensifying use of more unpredictable, last minute scheduling of work—well documented recently in an article in The New York Times.

The national bill attempts to create elements of what some other states and cities in the United States, and developed countries around the globe, have already proposed, legislated or implemented. The Schedules That Work Act entails three main features, with the overarching idea of setting a minimum floor standard that reduces any short-term cost advantage for employers who rely on scheduling practices that shift all the costs of uncertainty in their business on to hourly paid employees.

One, it grants an employee the right to request that his or her employer modify the number of hours or times the employee is required to work or be on call, the location of work, and the amount of notification time he or she receives of work schedule assignments. The process would ensure that employers give due consideration to these requests, in a timely, good faith, and interactive manner. And it protects against employer retaliation for making such adjustment requests. It outlines the grounds for denying a change, if there is a bona fide business reason for denying it, particularly if the request is made because of the employee’s serious health condition, caregiver responsibilities, or enrollment in a career-related educational or training program, or if a part-time employee requests such a change for a reason related to a second job. Such a right to request has worked well in countries such as the U.K. and Australia, and is so successful and harmless for employers that it has been expanded to cover all employees, not just those with caregiving responsibilities. With a recent national survey showing that almost half of U.S. workers have no input into their work scheduling—and only 15 percent can set their own daily start and end times for work—this will help provide workers some voice, if not say, in the scheduling of their daily and weekly work schedules.

Second, it outlines employer requirements for providing sufficient advance notice time of work schedules for retail, food service, or cleaning employees (except for those in bona fide executive, administrative, or professional capacities who are “exempt”), such as posting schedules 2-weeks in advance. Some professional and technical occupations, by their nature, have fluctuating, unpredictable or even on-call work required. However, this is an understood part of that occupation, and they are typically paid a steady salary that does not nose-dive when work hours are temporarily down, as would the hourly-paid, non-exempt employees. Importantly, an employer will have to disclose the minimum weekly hours for a job, upon hiring—not a specified minimum number, just any number —so that the new hire is not misled into thinking they will always receive, say, at least 25 or 30 hours per week.

Third and finally, and most crucially from our economic standpoint, it puts a price tag on cost-shifting practices, so as to both disincentive it and properly compensate employees who endure them, referred to as, “predictability pay.” If an employee is required to call in within 24 hours to find out if they are scheduled to work that day or not, the bill would entitle the employee to one hour’s worth of pay. One hour. When the employer alters their scheduled within 24 hours of their next shift, the can do so, but pay an extra hour. One hour. If they are scheduled two shifts in a day, with an unpaid, sustained gap of time in between (a “split shift”), the employer would pay one hour’s worth of pay. One hour.

We understand that the restaurant and retail business can be a tough, competitive, and unpredictable sector. That is why a minimum floor is needed, so that the employers in those sectors that shift to the cost of this uncertainty on to its employees do not get any advantage over the employers that, more graciously, choose not to engage in that, despite the great temptation.

As much as we might like, in our roles as customers, to have staff available at our beck and call, we also understand that these are real human beings, trying to earn income to support themselves, their schooling and/or their dependents, and they should be subject to only so much disruption in their daily lives by the jobs they must take and keep.

What are the potential benefits, if the STW is implemented? These are being studied currently in the locations where they have recently become law. However, my recent empirical analysis (with Jaeseung Kim) finds that the frequency with which employees report work-family conflict is worsened not only by longer weekly hours, but also by having irregular shift and on-call work. Employees who work irregular shift times, in contrast with those with more standard, regular shift times, experience greater work-family conflict (see chart) and in some cases, also greater work stress. While there is less frequency of work-family conflict for those with part-time jobs, however, this is entirely attributable to their shorter working hours. Part-timers are far more likely to face the wildly fluctuating shift lengths and just-in-time scheduling, which leads to them experiencing more bouts of underemployment – a state of constantly wishing more hours of work, for the income.

Figure A

Frequency of work-family conflict on a scale of 1 (“never”) to 4 (“often”)

Response Frequency of response
Day shift 2.24
Afternoon/night 2.32
Split/rotating 2.54
Irregular 2.65
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The data below can be saved or copied directly into Excel.

Source: General Social Survey, Quality of Worklife module data, 2002-2014  (Golden and Kim, 2017)

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Moreover, our analysis finds that the adverse effect of irregular and on-call shifts can be quite moderated by a worker having access to just the kind of scheduling flexibility that the SWT attempts to spread to more employees. Indeed, an employee having either the ability to take time off during work or modify their daily start and times of work offsets at least some of the adverse negative effect of irregular work schedules on their perceived work-family balance.

The STW is not a case of over-regulation, indeed, it is a case of under-regulation, in our evolving labor markets, particularly but not exclusively in retail and food industries. Enough evidence has been accumulated that fluctuating, particularly unpredictable and last minute (“just-in-time”) scheduling of work can be curbed with little if any harm to employers but much to gain for employees in their work-life and work stress. Timing is key, not only in work scheduling and work-life navigation work (and in good comedy), but in legislation—the time is ripe for this innovative policy. Many workers could use our help right now.