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News from EPI At Least 17 Percent of Workers Have Unstable Schedules

At least 17 percent of the U.S. workforce has an unstable schedule, according to new research from EPI research associate and Professor of Economics at Penn State Abington Lonnie Golden. In Irregular Work in the U.S. and its Economic Consequences, Golden analyses data from the General Social Survey (GSS) to paint a comprehensive picture of the difficulties posed by irregular, work schedules.

At least 10 percent of the workforce has an irregular or on-call, often unpredictable, work schedule, and an additional 7 percent work split or rotating shifts. Such irregular shift time work is more common among low-income workers, and also involves longer average weekly hours of work. Such workers are also much more likely to report conflict between their work and family lives. 26 percent of irregular and on-call shift employees and 19 percent of rotating and split-shift workers reported “often” experiencing work-family conflict, in contrast with less than 11 percent of workers with regular schedules.

“With the rise of advanced scheduling software that matches staffing with hour-by-hour customer demand, we have started to see policymakers and advocates paying greater attention to the difficulties created by irregular and unpredictable work schedules,” said Golden. “This study is unique in that it uses nationally representative data of all workers to examine how workers dealing with unstable schedules fare in contrast to other workers, especially in terms of what the adverse consequences may be.”

Irregular scheduling and variable workweeks are most prevalent in industries such as agriculture, personal services, business/ repair services, entertainment/recreation, finance/ insurance/real estate, retail trade, and transportation and communications. Union members, married workers, government employees, whites, men, and workers with a higher level of education are less likely than others to work irregular schedules.

There are policies that can be enacted to address the most damaging aspects of irregular scheduling practices. For example, in San Francisco, many retailers are required to provide employees two weeks advanced notice when setting and changing work schedules, and workers who have not received sufficient notice of last-minute schedule changes must be compensated for a portion of their lost or on-call work hours. An even more comprehensive approach has been proposed in Minnesota and four other states. Meanwhile, some employers have adopted voluntary arrangements to curb or minimize irregular scheduling practices, which could be used as a model for the overall economy.

Importantly, the GSS and its “Quality of Worklife” module provide a conservative estimate of the number of workers who are forced to deal with irregular scheduling. For example, in the survey workers were asked whether they worked “day, afternoon, night, split, rotating or irregular or on-call” shifts. It is probable that many of those surveyed indicated that they worked day, afternoon, or night shifts when in fact their schedules are not necessarily or always “regular.” More research is needed to elucidate the depth and breadth of scheduling issues in the United States, their consequences and potential remedies.

This paper is part of EPI’s Raising America’s Pay project, a multiyear research and public education initiative to make wage growth an urgent national policy priority. Raising America’s Pay seeks to explain wage and benefit patterns—and the role of labor market policies and practices in suppressing pay—and identify policies that will generate broad-based wage growth.