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  • The percentage of workers on unpredictable schedules could fall anywhere between 3% to 17% and possibly higher if we include a certain level of unpredictability for workers on regular daytime schedules.  Tweet This
  • Such laws may help workers in the short run. Yet in the long run, managers may be more reluctant to definitely offer shifts and hours to employees if there is a risk of a slow period. Tweet This

The U.S. labor market continues to be strong, according to the latest jobs data. Job growth has averaged 167,000 per month in 2019 and averaged over 200,000 the previous year. The official unemployment rate is 3.6%, and the U-6 rate—which captures involuntary part-time workers and marginally attached workers—has been steadily trending downwards and is now at 7 percent.  

However, the fact that most people have jobs does not necessarily translate into economic security for many families. One aspect of this insecurity stems from workers who face unpredictable schedules that vary day to day or week to week. Such scheduling practices, known as “just-in-time” (JIT) scheduling, rely on software to measure times of high and low demand for businesses and adjust employee hours and schedules as needed. This practice is more common among those employed in the retail and food-service sectors. A recent study by sociologists Kristen Harknett and Daniel Schneider, which surveyed 30,000 workers in these sectors, finds that JIT scheduling is common and typically associated with unstable incomes, hardship, and food insecurity, and poses a tremendous challenge when it comes to providing child care within the home. 

What is the best solution to this problem? Is federal legislation, such as the reintroduction of the “Schedules That Work Act of 2019” by U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), the answer?

How Many People Work Irregular Schedules?

To put this in perspective, it is helpful to look at how many workers across the U.S. face these types of schedules. This is not necessarily clear-cut since unpredictability can exist among both regular, full-time workers and irregular, part-time workers when it comes to hours worked per week. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that about 16.4% of the workforce works a non-daytime schedule, as opposed to a “regular daytime schedule.” Within these, approximately 6% work an evening shift and about 4% work a night shift. Another 3% switch between rotating and split shifts. However, there is an additional category of workers facing an “irregular” shift, making up about 3% of the workforce. As per a recent study by the Economic Policy Institute, approximately 10% of the workforce faces irregular and on-call work, and another 7% face rotating or split shifts, putting this number closer to 17 percent. In short, the number of workers on unpredictable schedules could fall anywhere between 3% to 17% and possibly higher if we include a certain level of unpredictability for workers on regular daytime schedules. 

Men are marginally more likely to be employed in these types of shifts than women, and Blacks are more likely to be in these types of jobs compared to Whites or Asians. Those with less than a high school diploma are also more likely to face such schedules. Finally, transportation and moving services, wholesale and retail trade, leisure and hospitality, and service industry occupations are all more likely to have irregular shifts compared to non-daytime schedule workers in other industries.

While such shifts are often viewed as a problem by researchers and policymakers, it is interesting that some workers opt for irregular or non-daytime shift schedules to accommodate certain needs. For instance, in a BLS survey, about 12% of workers who worked non-daytime schedules said that it allowed time for school or other jobs, another 19% said it was a personal preference, 10% said it allowed a better arrangement for the family, and 7% said that it afforded better pay. The most popular response was (39%) that it is the “nature of the job,” while 10% said they did it because they could not get any other shift. It’s hard to interpret what the response “nature of the job” implies in terms of job satisfaction. Does this indicate that workers merely recognize that for the type of work they are doing, this kind of irregular shift is the norm whether they like it or not?

Why Do Employers Offer Irregular Schedules? 

In her research, Susan Lambert notes that employers, and more specifically, front line managers, use irregular shifts to match worker hours to projected business demand and sales conditions. For instance, if they anticipate periods of peak demand, they add more shifts and more work hours. Surprisingly, many managers report that the real problem is not the ability to get workers when they face peak demand, but the ability to divide limited work hours among the same pool of workers during lean times. This translates into the primary problem for workers who face unpredictable schedules. Aside from childcare needs, the Berkeley survey concluded that the real problem for workers facing unpredictable schedules was the inability to get enough hours of work guaranteed to them per week, making it difficult to budget for family expenses. This is also supported by the finding in the study mentioned above—to no surprise, hourly workers who experienced work hour surgesabove45 hours a week reported lower levels of job insecurity. In fact, when work hour volatility resulted in positive surges in hours worked, it was associated with lower levels of financial insecurity as well. This is important to bear in mind as states and cities propose legislation to deal with unstable work schedules. The major problem with instability is not the volatility per se, but the lack of income associated with fewer hours of work offered to workers on these schedules.

Policy Proposals

Recently, a spate of new laws to address unpredictable scheduling have cropped up across the country. Last week, Sen. Warren reintroduced the “Schedules That Work Act of 2019” as one solution. Scheduling laws have been enacted in San Francisco, New York, Seattle. and other states and cities, and aim to transfer the burden and risk of unpredictability from workers to employers. Many of these laws mandate that employers pay workers for all the hours originally scheduled to them. Therefore, if schedule adjustments are made after a certain timeframe (typically a week to 10 days out from the scheduled work date), employers are required to pay employees for scheduled hours. This is true of the Warren-DeLauro legislation, which mandates employers to pay employees if they are put “on-call” without any guarantee that work will be available, are sent home early on “slow-days,” or receive a schedule change with less than two weeks’ notice. In San Francisco, if a worker’s shift is changed with less than seven days’ notice, the worker is entitled to “predictability pay” of 1 to 4 hours of pay at the regular rate. Any worker who is asked to be “on-call” for a certain shift needs to be compensated if the shift is cut by a few hours. 

Such laws may help workers in the short run. Yet in the long run, managers may be more reluctant to definitely offer shifts and hours to employees if there is a risk of a slow period. By raising the costs of hiring shift workers, managers may reduce the pool of workers hired, thus potentially reducing the number of hours offered, which is exactly the opposite of what surveys show employees need.

It is also worth noting that predictable scheduling laws are being introduced in cities and states where there is already a push to increase minimum wages to levels well above those that exist today. The combined effects of higher direct wage costs and reduced flexibility for employers is particularly worrying because the intended beneficiaries of these policies—low-skill, low-wage workers—also occupy the jobs most vulnerable to displacement and automation.

So, what is the solution? Predictability and flexibility are valuable not just for employees but for employers as well. Employers should adopt policies that make it easier for workers to meet their responsibilities at home as parents and caregivers, while also getting some stability in work schedules. At the same time, employees should be able to request this flexibility from their managers without the fear of retribution. Any legislation needs to balance the needs of workers and employers. If all costs are shifted onto businesses, as the current legislation aims to do, the ultimate penalty may be paid by workers. 

Aparna Mathur (@aparnamath) is a Resident Scholar in Economic Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.