America, or the vision of America that Democrats claim to offer, always relies on a simple promise: a good job as the foundation of a solid, stable middle class. For many years, America delivered on this promise, giving workers the stability and respect they deserve.
Today, however, many working-class Americans have a sense of dissatisfaction, of being left behind. We heard, even before the pandemic, about the anger, the frustration of the blue-collar, non-college educated worker, and how the Democratic Party was increasingly losing support of what used to be their base. To understand why this is happening, it is always a good idea to listen to what these voters have to say – and to understand how the economy looks like for many of them.
What we understand as the middle class is, in many ways, defined around stability. A decent wage, a comfortable house, a job to be proud of, and faith in a good future for our kids. It is a simple, powerful idea – and one that is increasingly out of reach for hundreds of thousands of Connecticut workers.
The reality is that many hourly workers in the state, especially in the retail, hospitality, and restaurant industries, do not have regular working hours. Their employers rely on a practice known as “on-call scheduling” that assigns shifts to their labor force dynamically based on anticipated demand. For the workers at the other end of corporate-speak, this translates to having their schedule change constantly from one week to the next, often with little or no advance notice. Instead of a job that offers them a reliable income and stability, they face erratic schedules, constant changes, and not knowing how much money they will be making any given week.
The impacted workers are not a small group. A recent report penned by two researchers at Harvard estimates that in Connecticut, more than quarter million workers are employed in the retail and food service sectors. A majority of them are people of color; most of them women. Two thirds reported having to deal with erratic or variable work schedules from week to week. More than half of these service sector workers knew when they were going to work less than two weeks in advance. Almost two out of five said they struggled as their income changed, often by wide margins, from week to week. The vast majority were stressed, struggling to find childcare and taking care of their families. Pretty much all of them (74 percent, in the survey) wanted more stability and predictability on their schedules.
Some wonder why so many working class voters seem to be so dissatisfied, so on the edge, so frustrated with where the country is going. Well, considering how many workers can barely see where they are going to be two weeks from now, it is hard not to see why this is the case.
The fact these jobs exist and so many workers have to live like this, constantly on the edge, is however a policy choice. Corporations treat workers as disposable because we let them treat workers as such. They respect shareholders more than their workers because we have allowed them to do so. Connecticut lawmakers could follow the lead of Oregon or cities like Seattle, New York and Philadelphia and mandate businesses to provide stable, predictable schedules to their workforce by passing a fair workweek bill, like the one that is currently pending a vote in Hartford.
The immediate impact of this legislation has been remarkable. In Seattle, researchers found that their Fair Workweek ordinance produced a meaningful reduction in erratic scheduling, and more important, workers reported being happier, having a much easier time making ends meet and slept much better. Knowing their schedules in advance lifted a cloud of uncertainty over their lives; instead of having to scramble constantly for finding a babysitter, figuring out how and when to go to work and figuring out what bills they could pay this week, they knew. Stability, that middle class idea, was back within reach.
The most surprising finding for many, once the bill passed, is that employers not only adjusted quickly, but liked the changes. It turns out that when workers are not stressed out all the time they are happier at work, and much more productive. Employee turnover decreased, as well as missed shifts and people coming in late for their shifts. This mirrored the experience of some large companies, like Walmart and the Gap, that have implemented fair scheduling in their stores nationwide.
Blue collar workers have many good reasons to feel dejected and angry, as the stable, middle class jobs they were promised become more scarce. The Fair Workweek bill can give them that stability back. If Democrats respect these workers, they should listen to them and pass this legislation today.
A political scientist by trade, Roger Senserrich has worked on issues relating to education, housing, healthcare, land use, housing, and social justice. He also wants Connecticut trains and the public transportation system in general to run on time. A resident of East Haven, he currently works as Communications Director at the CT Working Families Party.