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  • Conservatives focused on personal responsibility should consider how unfair workplace practices make that difficult. Tweet This
  • Irregular work scheduling creates a hardship for healthy family life and causes civil society to suffer. Tweet This

In our recent focus group with 10 working-class parents, the group of mostly Trump supporters all said that they would like to see Congress consider passing the “Schedules That Work Act,” a bill introduced in 2014 by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). The legislation would enable employees to request changes to their schedules without fear of retaliation, receive schedules at least two weeks in advance, and have some measure of stable and predictable hours. While the fight for “fair scheduling” is often taken up by progressives, here are five reasons why it should be at the heart of conservative concerns as well.

1. Irregular scheduling is a hardship for healthy family life. 

Scott, a 26-year-old man we interviewed in southwestern Ohio, told us that most of he and his wife’s arguments had to do with “stress.” According to Scott,

They way I work now—I don’t have a set schedule, and money has been real tight…. These last four weeks, I’ve been working so much overtime. I’ve been working 17-hour days sometimes. So I’d get home, and I’d just be dog tired, and I go straight to bed. And, really nothin’ is getting done around the house ‘cause I wasn’t there to help.

He says that the stress from his irregular schedule meant that he and his wife were “just constantly arguin’ about small things.” Though we don’t know how much this difficulty contributed, the couple did eventually divorce.

About a month before Austin’s wedding, his manager abruptly cut his already part-time and irregular hours—never more than 39.5, but usually around 30 hours—to about 20 hours a week. According to Austin, whom we also interviewed, the manager explained that they had to cut hours because they were “spending too much on labor.” And while his reduced hours and irregular schedule certainly weren’t their only challenge, only a few months after their wedding, Austin’s wife issued him an ultimatum: find a good job and a place for us to rent, or we’re finished. When those conditions weren’t met—he insisted that he logged almost 500 miles putting in applications—the couple separated and eventually divorced.

The Economic Policy Institute reports that “Less than 11 percent of workers on ‘regular’ work schedules report ‘often’ experiencing work-family conflict in contrast with as many as 26 percent of irregular/on-call shift employees, and 19 percent of rotating/split shift workers.” If the health of families is a measure of the health of the nation, finding ways to provide workers with as much regularity as possible in their schedules is important.

2. Lack of advance schedule notice de-incentivizes long-term planning.

One study from researchers at the University of Chicago found that 41 percent of respondents among a pool of workers ages 26 to 32 said that they receive their work schedules one week or less before the upcoming workweek. Those who live with irregular work schedules get very good at short-term survival skills and adaptability. The low-wage workplace prizes flexibility and a “go with the flow” attitude from employees. But long-term planning in one’s personal life is made difficult by an irregular work schedule, as we discussed in our previous post. Often the stress and uncertainty of a chaotic work schedule means dealing with the day-to-day instead of making plans.

This is particularly troubling since long-term planning is an important skill for those seeking to move up the socio-economic ladder. Acquiring new job skills, or continued education, or working a second job is nearly impossible if you don’t know when you will be scheduled to work from week to week. Budgeting and paying bills promptly is also more difficult if you don’t know how many hours you will work each week. We’ve talked to employees who may work 30-something hours one week, only to see their hours dip unexpectedly the next week to fewer than 10. Conservatives often emphasize personal responsibility, but sometimes fail to see the ways that workplace structures can make that personal responsibility difficult.

3. Civil society institutions suffer. 

We’ve talked with more than one person who says they wish they could go to church more regularly but they often have to work on Sundays. Employees fear that asking off could send the message to their employer that they are not flexible, and could provoke possible retaliation, such as a reduction in hours. A friend of Amber’s who was once an unemployed single mother wanted to join a weekly Bible study at our parish. When she later found a job as a waitress working split shifts, fitting church into her schedule became more difficult. Conservatives who want to combat a declining rate of church attendance among the working class ought to look into the possibility that irregular work schedules are partly to blame.

But it’s not just church involvement that is made more difficult by a work schedule that changes from week to week—involvement in any kind of organization outside of work can be a challenge. As Hannah, a 26-year-old wife and mother, whose former workplaces include McDonald’s, Kroger, a small grocery store in her Ohio hometown, Walmart, and Walgreens, put it, “You never have the same hours anytime, so it’s just hard to schedule to do anything.”

We learned this when we planned a neighborhood BBQ and bonfire in our backyard. Many of our neighbors work in the service industry, and we found that they could not RSVP because they seldom knew their work schedules far enough in advance. In a world of irregular work schedules, spontaneous get-togethers on the sidewalk are easier than planned dinners or events.

4. Rituals and routines are important for human thriving. 

Common knowledge says that routines, particularly sleep routines, are especially important for children, but they matter for adults, as well. One report from the University of Surrey found that the body is damaged at the molecular level when the sleep-wake cycle is altered. As one of the report’s co-authors explained, "Over 97% of rhythmic genes become out of sync with mistimed sleep, and this really explains why we feel so bad during jet lag, or if we have to work irregular shifts.”

Hannah recalls feeling this way when she sometimes had to work “clopenings” at her jobs.

I never have liked the hours of retail places. You don’t get weekends off ever and you might work morning one day and night the next day, morning the next day…. It’s hard to catch up on sleep and to really feel rested when you always have such a jumbled schedule…. So I always enjoy the customers of those types of jobs, but I don’t ever agree with the hours and the management.

5. It’s plain old-fashioned courtesy. Plus, treating employees with respect will likely result in better and more loyal employees. 

As one person in our focus group put it, fair scheduling legislation “makes bigger companies … show courtesy to their employees.” Employees who work hard for their employers expect basic courtesy in return. And if high levels of turnover are costly to companies, better scheduling practices could be one way to boost employee morale and reduce expenses associated with low employee retention.

However, when the “Schedules That Work Act” was introduced in 2014, some conservatives and those in the business community responded to the legislation with concern. Marc Freedman, Executive Director of Labor Law Policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, wrote that:

this bill is extraordinarily intrusive in how it would direct employers to run their operations.  It will not create new jobs, open up opportunities, nor spur economic growth. In fact, one potential consequence is that employers will cut back on the number of part-time and other non-full-time employees they carry.

But is economic growth—the increase in the amount of goods and services produced per capita—really the best measure of a thriving economy? Is it pro-family to sacrifice family wellbeing for the sake of economic growth? Wouldn’t it be better for everyone—families, civil society, and employees’ morale—if employers extended to workers basic courtesies like predictable schedules?

It is true, though, that legislation to help low-wage workers facing irregular scheduling and too few hours should take into consideration possible unintended consequences. For example, how might a fair scheduling law affect small businesses? How about student workers looking to work long hours during the summer months and cut back during the school year, or those interested in picking up additional shifts in order to make extra money? How might it impact seasonal employers, like the family-run Christmas tree farm down the road from us, or the amusement park closed in the winter, or retailers gearing up for a busy holiday season? Is unpredictability a necessity in some industries, like construction or roofing, in which the work schedule is determined by the project at hand and the weather?

The “Schedules That Work Act” attempted to address these concerns by focusing on industries in which evidence of unfair scheduling exists—like food service, retail, and cleaning services—and by allowing exceptions for “bona fide business reasons,” such as “the identifiable burden of additional costs to an employer, including the cost of productivity loss,” “a significant detrimental effect on the employer’s ability to meet organizational needs or customer demand,” “a significant detrimental effect on business performance,” and “insufficiency of work during the periods an employee proposes work.” While some business leaders still thought the exceptions weren’t enough, participants in our focus group worried that companies would easily find business reasons to exempt them from fair scheduling requirements. “They can come up with a legitimate business reason for anything,” noted one woman who feared that nothing would change because businesses would find ways to get around the requirements. “It sounds good,” added her husband, who once canceled their vacation plans because he was scheduled at the last minute. “But I just don’t know how you’re going to enforce [it].”

This points to the challenge of finding scheduling that works for everyone involved. And if the experience of San Francisco, which implemented the nation’s first fair scheduling law in July 2015, tells us anything, it is that legislating good corporate behavior is tricky, and can have unintended consequences for both employers and employees.

Still, conservatives concerned about the strength of families and of civil society should recognize the ways in which unpredictable work schedules can contribute to the decline of both—and then get serious about seeking solutions fair to employers and employees alike. Leaders in the business community can get started right away, finding innovative ways to implement fair scheduling policies for their own employees that do not hurt their businesses. Best practices can be shared, and these experiments can then inform the legislative process.

The bottom line is that we should not let practical difficulties, even great difficulties, deter us from creating fair workplaces policies that strengthen—instead of weaken—families.