Some of the biggest retailers in the US, including Best Buy, Macy’s, and Target, will be opening their doors to shoppers directly on Thanksgiving this year, getting Black Friday — one of the year’s biggest shopping days — started early. That means employees at those stores will have to leave their families and turkey dinners aside in order to come to work.
In a 2016 survey, nearly half of retail workers reported having to work on Thanksgiving, and big employers are far more likely to have their workers on duty than are smaller ones. Those who refuse or complain can face retaliation, leaving many to decide that putting up a fight isn’t worth seeing their hours cut or losing their jobs entirely.
Every year there are a flurry of stories that question whether that practice is worth denying workers a holiday at home. However, long holiday hours are just one of the myriad abuses employees face when it comes to their work schedules.
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Take, for instance, Aliyyah Miller, a housekeeping supervisor at a hotel in Philadelphia. She only receives her work schedule one day in advance, on Saturday for a workweek that begins on Sunday. “Literally, you know the day before which days you’re working,” she said. “You can’t make a doctor’s appointment because you don’t know if you’ll have the day off.”
The turnover at Miller’s hotel is high, and the housekeepers lose hours and income when they have to call out of shifts that conflict with their other responsibilities, thanks at least in part to the unpredictable nature of their schedules.
Nearly one in five workers experiences similarly unstable work hours, and those who are subjected to the worst abuses are disproportionately women and people of color, because they are more likely to work in the low-wage, part-time jobs that include the most haphazard scheduling.
Younger workers, too, are more likely to face abuses: According to research from the University of Chicago, nearly 40 percent of early-career workers receive one week or less of notice regarding their work schedules, with young part-time workers and workers of color experiencing rates even higher.
Other scheduling problems include the inability to ask for time off when it’s needed; split shifts, wherein workers have unpaid hours in the middle of their shifts; and being dismissed early when businesses isn’t high enough, meaning they aren’t paid for hours they were banking on. On-call work, when workers are put on notice that their services may be needed between particular hours, requires them to reserve time for which they may not be compensated.
The income volatility that comes with an unpredictable work schedule can lead to all sorts of adverse outcomes. After all, monthly bills stay the same no matter your hours, whereas service workers report weekly earnings fluctuating by 34 percent or more. Erratic schedules also make it difficult to commit to other paying work in order to make those ends meet.
Unpredictable scheduling also makes securing child care difficult, as it has to be done on short notice. It makes it harder for workers to access the health care system, as Miller noted, or to invest in themselves via more education, which requires predictability in order to choose and attend classes.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. When Miller previously worked as a kitchen manager, she knew that her staff members had lives outside of work. So she ensured they had regular schedules that were planned out ahead of time.
“We would rotate weekends and everyone had one day off during the week to take care of things,” she said. “I had zero turnover. Everyone was happy because they could attend to their children, they could have a life.”
Some national chains, such as Walmart and Starbucks, have taken steps toward improving scheduling practices, even if they fall short of what workers and activists have demanded. According to a study done in 2015-2016 at Gap stores, more regular schedules result in more productivity and higher sales. That finding jives with other data showing pro-worker policies improve the performance of the businesses at which they work.
Still, fair scheduling isn’t common practice. So cities and states have stepped in.
San Francisco was the first locale to pass a fair work schedule law, followed by New York City, Seattle, Emeryville, California, and others. Oregon has a statewide fair scheduling law. Though they differ in the details, the general thrust of all of them is to provide workers with some level of predictability, including knowing their schedules more than a week in advance, and providing compensation for erratic or unfair scheduling, such as paying workers for some portion of their time if a shift gets canceled. (There was also a federal bill introduced in 2017 by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) that never received a vote in the Republican-controlled Congress.)
Miller’s home of Philadelphia could be next. At the end of the month, the city council is expected to vote on a measure that would require employers at large firms to give their workers 10-days notice of their schedules (increasing to 14 days in 2021) and for those firms to compensate workers for last-minute schedule changes. If it becomes law, the legislation is expected to affect about 130,000 workers. According to a 2018 survey by the Shift Project, a joint effort between the University of California, Berkeley and the University of California, San Francisco, two-thirds of Philadelphia service sector workers report having unpredictable work schedules. More than a third say they receive less than one week’s notice regarding when they’re going to be on duty. Miller and her housekeeping staff, then, have a lot of company.
Philadelphia City Councilmember Helen Gym, who introduced the bill, described one Philadelphia worker she met who quit school because his ever-shifting schedule didn’t allow him to attend classes, and another who sat around all-day, paying for child care, while waiting for on-call hours that never materialized.
“I am trying to do more than pass a bill. I’m trying to change people’s understanding of a problem we’ve got and why this matters, and why this shouldn’t be left to the purview of the market,” Gym said.
No new law is going to help those employees who are stuck working on Thanksgiving this year, but far scheduling efforts like the one in Philadelphia can, hopefully, ensure that next year turns out better.