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“Workers Are Constantly on the Edge of the Knife“

Rep. George Miller (Photo: House Committee on Education and the Workforce Dem)

Picture your typical week: Maybe you have a doctor’s appointment or a child’s music performance to attend. You may have urgent errands to run on your day off from work. Now, imagine having to achieve these things without knowing your actual work schedule, knowing that at any moment you could be called in to work – or that you could hustle to get to your job and then be told that you’re not needed after all, or maybe sent home after only getting an hour’s work.

Under what is known as “just-in-time scheduling,” employers increasingly require that their employees remain constantly on call and give them little advance notice about schedules. Large retail employers have begun using digital scheduling systems that detect minute fluctuations in business throughout the day and tailor employees’ work hours to the precise times when customers are most likely to shop. Instead of using this technology to make life easier and more predictable for everyone, they are using it to maximize profits at their employees’ expense. These practices are making it impossible for employees to live normal lives.

Sometimes, employees have told researchers, workers don’t know what hours they are scheduled until they show up to punch in. Or, an employee shows up for a scheduled shift and is told to go home – effectively denying that person their day’s pay. The impact is a sense of constant precarious living. “Just-in-time scheduling” deprives employees of the ability to plan their lives, to schedule childcare, attend family events or take care of their own health. It also means many employees don’t get to work enough hours at one job to make ends meet. This unpredictability of such employment is especially problematic for the 7.5 million part-time workers who say they wish to have full-time positions.

The most abusive forms of “just-in-time scheduling” reflect a wider trend. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 47 percent of hourly-wage workers aged 26-32 say they get a week or less of advance notice about what hours they have to work.

Workers’ rights advocates say we can do better. So does Rep. George Miller, longtime Democratic California Congressperson and cochair of the House Education and Work Committee, who last month cosponsored a bill that would mandate that workers who are summoned to work on short notice be paid extra. It would also require employers to pay a minimum of four hours’ pay to a worker who is sent home after coming to work.

Miller and his cosponsors are hoping that, even with the current stalemate in Congress, the bill (dubbed the Schedules that Work Act) will make state and local lawmakers take notice of this issue – and pursue local solutions that can become models for nationwide action. I spoke with Rep. Miller about just-in-time scheduling and the opportunities that he sees for changing the situation low-wage workers face.

Amy Dean for Truthout: What’s the daily impact of “just-in-time” scheduling on people’s lives?

Rep. George Miller: Just-in-time schedules create a huge amount of stress for that individual employee. Then, if that employee has obligations in terms of healthcare or their education – or trying to have a second job to earn enough money to provide for themselves – or if they have family responsibilities, the just-in-time schedule just creates a huge amount of stress. One of the things we know is that stress can be very dangerous. So these workers are constantly on the edge of the knife as to whether or not they’re going to have enough hours, enough pay or enough time to take care of their families and their obligations to the employer.

It’s also disruptive in the workplace because that stress is then carried into the workforce, and we’ve all encountered employees from time to time that are under serious pressure.

How would the “Schedules That Work Act” begin to address these issues?

We hope to start a serious conversation around changing this policy and improving scheduling to the best extent we can. We recognize that there are a multitude of workplaces, and that they differ. But we say that a worker should be able to get their schedule two weeks in advance, and that if you have a very late shift and a very early morning shift [back to back], that you ought to be able to change that.

What we’re trying to do is to get employers to be able to sit down and have this conversation. We want to make sure that if a schedule is changed with less than 24 hours’ notice, that there’s some financial penalty. There’s a problem when an employee has already given up time to be ready to go to work on schedule, and then the shift is canceled. They may have given up a doctor’s appointment or a teacher’s appointment with their child. Additionally, if you show up for your work and you’re sent home, there’s a financial penalty for the worker.

Often, when an employee asks for a schedule change or inquires about a schedule in any fashion, they’re dismissed. They’re fired because they’re acting contrary to the status quo in that place of employment. These employees are people without any financial protections, without any employment protections, and they’re subject to arbitrary decisions by an employer.

In the same industries, however, we also see employers who are trying to do it right, and who are really taking into account the needs of their employees – in pay, and in job security, and notice of work hours. These employers tell us that they’re getting better job applicants, less turnover, and positive engagement from their employees with patrons.

Recently a study showed that women, African-Americans and Latinos are disproportionately impacted by Just in Time scheduling. What does that mean in terms of equity in our communities?

Many people in those populations are not only working for lower wages, but often for fewer hours, and hours determined in a more arbitrary fashion. So their ability to plan, to save money, to try to set aside money for an urgent family need, is just shattered. I think what you’re starting to see, even around the increasing the minimum wage discussion – it’s going on much more vibrantly in local communities than it is in Washington DC – is that people are recognizing that they’re not going to be able to build a strong community if a huge part of the work force is contingent and low paid. That’s a disaster for a community.

One other point about what the employers are doing: In scheduling people this way, they are also making the federal government, and the federal taxpayer, their partner. Because the wages are so low, the hours are so few and so arbitrary, that workers then have a higher reliance on Medicaid and a higher reliance on the Earned Income Tax Credit, a higher reliance on food stamps and housing vouchers.

You referred to Walmart, which joins other companies in saying that “the core of our success is our ability to have Just-in-Time scheduling, Just-in-Time warehouse distribution, and Just-in-Time manufacturing.” They claim that this kind of scheduling is critical to their bottom line. What is your response to that?

Is this really critical to them being a successful business, or is it critical for them to be able to extract the maximum amount of money out of that business? Those two things are not necessarily the same. If the purpose of the Just-In-Time scheduling and a contingent work force is so that the Walmart family, the richest people in the United States, can continue extracting billions of dollars rather than sharing some of the productivity of their workers with those same employees, then we’ve lost any kind of sense of economic justice in this country.

We see businesses where the owners decide that they’re going to treat their employees with a sense of justice, and those businesses thrive. Greed will keep you from providing many of the things that your employees need to help make your business successful.

In this deadlocked Congress, where it’s difficult to make anything happen, is there a different dynamic with this issue that could make it more politically viable than other issues?

Yes, and here’s why: If this issue isn’t taken up by the Congress, perhaps it will be by state legislatures, or maybe even by some cities. Because what you’re seeing now is a sense, among these very same workers who are among the lowest paid, most contingent, most arbitrarily treated, that they too can exercise some power. So you see adjunct professors forming unions on university campuses; you see McDonald’s workers and fast food industries starting to organize. In all these cases, they are starting to bring the issue to the American public if the Congress won’t.

This is about the dignity of workers within their cities, or within their states. I think this is a very different conversation than what’s going on in Washington DC, and I also think it’s growing in power every day and in the amount of attention it’s getting.

What does it mean that state and local governments are having to take the lead and act on issues that are stalled in Congress?

It means that the democracy is getting back some of its vibrancy. Congress is not much of an initiator, historically never has been, but Congress is responsive. Whether it’s a question of safety of nuclear power, or whether it’s the questions of minimum wage or the questions of foreign engagement in wars, changes come from the country. What you’re seeing, because Congress has been unable to respond to these concerns of millions of families and individuals, is that these people are going elsewhere. Congress can react, but people are not going to wait for Congress to screw up the courage to lead.

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