The Conversation

Fight over low pay, unpredictable work schedules

Workers protest outside Sacramento fast-food businesses in 2014. This Wednesday, led by a coalition calling itself Fight for $15, fast-food workers nationwide plan a walkout to push for $15 an hour and the right to join a union without retaliation.
Workers protest outside Sacramento fast-food businesses in 2014. This Wednesday, led by a coalition calling itself Fight for $15, fast-food workers nationwide plan a walkout to push for $15 an hour and the right to join a union without retaliation. Sacramento Bee file

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Usually, Shellby Lippencott says, she gets one day’s notice of what her $9-an-hour shift will be for the upcoming week at a fast-food restaurant in Sacramento. Sometimes, when she calls to learn her schedule, she says no one answers the phone, so she has to call again.

At night, the 22-year-old single mother often lies awake, worrying about what the future holds for her and her 3-year-old daughter Andrea. The only predictable thing about her schedule, she says, is that she gets every Wednesday off.

“Living day to day is a struggle,” she told me. “I have asked for more hours to work, and it seems like they are taking hours away. They usually tell me they have enough people or are overstaffed.”

The hardships faced by Lippencott and others like her are attracting increasing attention. Bit by bit, lawmakers and the public are becoming aware of the plight of fast-food and retail employees as workers stage protests across America, venting their anger over unpredictable schedules and low pay. This Wednesday, fast-food workers nationwide, led by a coalition calling itself Fight for $15, plan a walkout to push for $15 an hour and the right to join a union without retaliation.

There is much to be angry about: This shift squeeze – characterized by unpredictable schedules featuring low pay and often inadequate hours – is helping trap millions of Americans at or near poverty level, blocking them from climbing upward into the middle class. Shackled by unpredictable schedules, workers face chaos when trying to arrange for child care, assist family members, go to the doctor or work a second job to make ends meet.

“You have no assurance what schedule you’ll be working or when you’ll be home,” Andrea Bell, a 28-year-old Oakland single mother who has an 8-month-old daughter, told me, describing her job hunt. “We can never get ahead with the way corporations treat us.”

Then there’s this sad fact: The trend points to businesses using more part-timers. Meanwhile, a recent Gallup Poll found more than half of U.S. workers are not enthusiastically engaged in their jobs.

This issue involving what I call “the broken workplace” is becoming a central part of the political dialogue as the nation rolls toward the 2016 presidential election, and I find that extremely gratifying.

Why is this fight so important? It is about much more than the difficulties faced by workers. If the stories of the turmoil caused by unpredictable schedules aren’t compelling enough, consider this: The nation’s economy cannot flourish when millions have trouble gaining predictable hours or enough hours, and adequate pay to cover the most basic of needs.

“The reason this issue is coming up now is because the number of part-time workers is growing,” said Luke Reidenbach, a labor and economy analyst for the California Budget & Policy Center, an organization studying how policies affect the lower and middle classes.

“In 2006, about 17 percent of California workers were part-time – 2.9 million people,” Reidenbach told me. “In 2014, about 20 percent of workers worked part time – 3.5 million people.” Additionally, last year almost 7 percent of workers were classified as “involuntary part-time” – meaning they settled for part time but wanted a full-time job. In 2006, that number was 3.6 percent.

Usually, as the economy edges out of a recession, the number of part-timers hired by companies diminishes as more full-time hiring occurs, but so far, “the share of workers who are involuntary part time is declining very slowly and remains very high” in the wake of the downturn that began in late 2007, Reidenbach added. “The debate around scheduling represents an effort to get ahead of a growing problem – industry having a small army of part-timers they can call any time.”

The problems posed by reduced hours and low wages have been the subject of studies, including these two:

▪ “Unpredictable, precarious work schedules are transforming the nature of employment across the economy,” Susan Lambert, an associate professor in the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration, and two of her colleagues stated in a 2014 study. The researchers found “workers paid by the hour, of color, and in part-time jobs are at high risk of … short schedule advance notice, large fluctuations in work hours and little or no input into the timing of work.”

▪ Retailers’ scheduling practices “take advantage of sophisticated software and an increasingly desperate workforce to cut labor costs to the bone,” noted a 2014 “Short Shifted” study by the City University of New York, the Retail Action Project, and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. “Without full-time hours, a higher minimum wage is not enough to lift families above poverty,” the study stated.

These findings don’t occur in a void.

Pointing to the multiple roots of workers’ predicaments, Robert Reich, a University of California, Berkeley, professor of public policy who served as secretary of labor in the Clinton administration, told me in an email that there are two structural causes – “the growing use of outsourcing abroad and of labor-replacing technologies.” Reich added that along with the demise of labor unions, “there’s also still a large reserve of hidden unemployed, and mounting economic insecurities among the vast middle class. And because payrolls are the single biggest cost of business, corporations continue to push wages down as low as possible. Lower payrolls mean higher profits.”

Ordinarily, labor’s battle for more predictable schedules, better pay and longer hours for employees seeking such shifts would have been waged at the bargaining table. But with union membership at a very low level – about 11 percent compared to a third of the workforce in the 1950s – labor and its allies look to cities, states and Congress for action.

Last year, San Francisco became the first city in the country to require businesses with 20 or more locations to post workers’ schedules at least two weeks in advance. David Chiu, who authored the legislation while on the Board of Supervisors, is now a member of the state Assembly. He has introduced Assembly Bill 357 – the Fair Scheduling Bill of 2015 – requiring companies with at least 500 employees and 10 stores nationwide to provide at least two weeks’ notice of their schedules and requiring more pay for last-minute schedule changes.

“In our state there are over 3 million hourly workers who have zero protection from unpredictable job schedules,” Chiu told me. “In recent years, there has been an increased reliance on software that treats workers as variables in a cash-flow situation with no accounting for the needs of workers.”

Charles DeWitt, vice president for business development at Kronos, a workplace management firm with hundreds of client companies using scheduling software, says that the software is not some evil entity. “People want a bad guy, and they want it to be technology,” he said. “It’s not technology: Scheduling is a super-powerful tool that can do whatever customers, business and society want it to do.”

DeWitt said a lot of Kronos’ forward-thinking clients in retail, health care, manufacturing, public sector services and distribution businesses “know there are a lot of studies showing if they do a good job with their employees, they see improvements in less turnover and absenteeism, more profitability, customer satisfaction and revenue growth.” He added that a lot of clients “are really kind of embracing the concept of employee engagement – starting to understand employees are the lifeblood of their business.”

As the fight over Chiu’s measure begins, Ken Jacobs, chair of the University of California, Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education, sees as significant the fact that San Francisco already adopted a similar Chiu measure.

“Starting in the 1990s, San Francisco has passed a series of labor standards, and many of those policies have spread and been adopted in large parts of the country,” Jacobs said. “It was the first city to require benefits for domestic partners, and after that many corporations, cities and states followed. It was the first city to do paid sick leave, and it was one of the first to increase the minimum wage. In the area of labor standards, it has been a real incubator for the rest of the country.”

Jacobs believes corporate headquarters often pressure managers to minimize work hours, and “managers respond by waiting until the last minute to get the most information possible before scheduling their workers” – an approach that he says has not been proven to be necessary to save money. He noted that Starbucks, facing bad publicity about workers’ unpredictable shifts last year, moved quickly to give employees more notice.

In Sacramento, Chiu faces a tough fight over his legislation to increase schedule predictability. Led by the California Chamber of Commerce, more than 40 organizations, including the California Retailers Association and the California Restaurant Association, have branded Chiu’s measure a “job killer” and formed a coalition to jettison the bill. They argue AB 357 would increase their costs dramatically.

“We feel there will be cut hours for employees because of the penalties included in the bill if schedules are changed,” said Janna Haynes, communications manager for the California Restaurant Association. “These kinds of penalties make it very hard to staff effectively for the variable demands that restaurants face.”

The battle in Sacramento will be watched closely.

“This is a new issue that has taken off like wildfire,” Carrie Gleason, who directs a nationwide Fair Workweek Initiative for the Center for Popular Democracy, said. “The fact that San Francisco has passed these protections has really increased interest.” She added that lawmakers in Oregon, Minnesota, Connecticut and Massachusetts are also actively pushing predictable scheduling legislation.

Action is occurring locally as well. Already in Silicon Valley, Elly Matsumura of Working Partnerships USA, a community-labor organization, says her group led a successful drive last year to get the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors to adopt an ordinance requiring contractors doing business with the county to pay their workers at least $19.06 an hour.

For Shellby Lippencott, the Sacramento fast-food worker, knowing others are fighting for predictable schedules and more pay is reassuring. “If workers see one person stand up,” she said, “they don’t need to be so afraid, and now there are people standing behind us.”

Susan Sward is a writer who lives in San Francisco.