How unpredictable schedules hurt Philly service workers

There’s research to back up the Fair Workweek PHL fight.

A speaker at a 'Fair Workweek' rally in February

A speaker at a 'Fair Workweek' rally in February

Twitter / @fairworkweekPHL
Neilay Shah

On Tuesday, over a hundred low-wage workers in the retail and service industries marched on City Hall to demand “Fair Workweek” legislation. In a press conference that followed, a few shared stories of how unpredictable work schedules had derailed their lives.

Among those workers was Shaheim Wright. “I have to plan my life around my work schedule,” the 19-year-old Philly resident told Billy Penn in an interview.

Shaheim had wanted to become a veterinarian, he said, but he needed to continue supporting himself and his family while in school. He took a pet care associate job at PetSmart, thinking the job would not only enable him to help his family pay their bills, but also give him an opportunity to work with animals.

But PetSmart varies his schedule wildly — he works anywhere between 10 and 40 hours per week — and only gives him two days notice of his schedule before it starts. As a consequence, Shaheim struggled to attend classes and to make ends meet.

“Because of my inconsistent schedule and the way that everything fluctuates,” he said, “I can’t really pursue my goals.” This year, he had to drop out of college.

The ‘on call’ scheduling mess

Unfortunately, Shaheim’s experiences are quite common in Philadelphia.

Recently published research by the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment shows two-thirds of the 100,000 workers employed in the Philly metro area’s retail and food service industries have little idea when or how much they will work, week-to-week.

More than a third of workers receive less than one week advance notice of their work schedule, and 62 percent receive fewer than two weeks notice. The average worker reported a gap of 14 hours between the week they worked the most and the week they worked the fewest hours over the past month.

Front line managers in the modern service sector are expected to adjust staffing to the ebbs and flows of demand, sometimes on an hour-by-hour basis. To meet expectations, managers adopt practices like dismissing employees early from their shifts, asking employees to stay “on call,” and varying workers’ schedules on short notice and with little regard for predictability or regularity.

These practices keep a workforce “flexible” and can produce significant savings for companies. But not knowing when or how much you will work next week, tomorrow or even today can have disastrous consequences for workers’ health, relationships and financial stability, the IRLE report shows.

That’s because keeping your schedule open often means being unable to attend to other needs.

Imagine arranging for child care when you only get 48 hours notice of your work schedule, or booking a doctor’s appointment when you could get called into work at any moment. Nearly three-quarters of the workers surveyed experience conflicts between work and their caregiving responsibilities.

Having such an unpredictable schedule can also mean being unable to apply for other jobs. Although 83 percent of workers surveyed work part-time, only 15 percent reported having a second job.

“What we’re seeing with a lot with workers is that they have to be flexible for their employers — but the employers aren’t flexible for them,” explained Cecily Harwitt, organizing director of OnePA, a workers’ rights nonprofit that participated in Tuesday’s march.

She highlighted the case of Devante, an Art Institute of Philadelphia student who works at Dunkin’ Donuts and gets called in “randomly.”

“I going there just to make a little bit of money,” Devante elaborated. “That’s not helping me at all with trying to pursue the career that I want to do.” Plus, he added, “now I’m starting to repeat classes.”

An outdated model of ‘flexibility’

“Corporate flexibility” has become a mantra in American business, but in many cases, it’s workers like Shaheim and Devante who are doing the bending.

Variable scheduling has its origins in the “Just-in-Time” or “Lean” business philosophy, which Toyota pioneered in the early 1970s.

The idea was to avoid wasting resources and capital by producing just enough to meet immediate market demand and keeping all fixed assets consistently and fully utilized. To do so, manufacturers kept plants small and workforces adaptable. Facing greater competition from South Korean and Japanese manufacturers, American manufacturers started to import this philosophy in the late 1970s.

As low wage service jobs replaced manufacturing jobs as the mainstay of American employment, JIT philosophy made its way from manufacturing into the food service and retail industries.

However, JIT had different consequences for service workers than it did for those in manufacturing.

In manufacturing, workforce adaptability meant training workers to produce a wide range of products on the same assembly line so that they could rapidly change production priorities depending on relative demand for each product. In service industries, however, workforce adaptability has meant tailoring work schedules to meet the constantly changing contours of when customers want to shop.

Variable and short-notice scheduling have become ubiquitous in service industries.

Frank Felacori, store manager of Walmart in Philadelphia, acknowledged to Billy Penn that managers are constantly monitored for efficiently scheduling to demand. Accordingly, Bureau of Labor statistics show that the share of service workers choosing “hours vary” grew from 13 percent in 1994 to 25 percent in 2013.

But front line workers in retail and food service make too little to sustain weekly fluctuations in pay.

Dr. Amy K. Glasmeier of MIT has found that, assuming full-time, year-round work, a single person living in Philadelphia with no children needs to make $11.70 per hour to cover the cost of basic necessities. A single parent with one child needs to make $23.64 per hour. IRLE’s research finds the average service sector worker in Philadelphia makes $10.71 per hour — and the vast majority work less than full time. When these workers experience fluctuations in their income, it means they have to miss payments or borrow money from high interest lenders.

To provide more stability to workers, many states and municipalities are passing legislation to limit variable and unpredictable scheduling. San Francisco, Seattle, New York, and Oregon State have all passed legislation requiring advance notice of work schedules (usually two weeks), stipulating that workers be compensated if their schedules are changed on shorter notice.

The Fair Workweek PHL coalition is pushing for similar legislation in Philadelphia.

City Council member Helen Gym will host a hearing from 1 to 3 p.m. on March 6 on the impact unfair scheduling is having on children, families and communities in Philly.