Like many others across the state, I have spent much of my time this past weekend stressing out about gifts, presents, and all these fun things that come from holiday planning. This is in no small part because I am a fairly terrible gift-giver, no doubt (“lacks imagination”, “does not remember what I like”, said two influential critics), but also because sometimes it is just hard to get everything done, have a job, pay attention to your kid, and write columns for online newspapers all at once.
My sense of slight chaos and the stress associated with it, though, is balanced by the fact that I have a nine-to-five job, a reliable schedule, and the ability to work from home whenever I want. For many of the workers dealing with my lousy shopping skills, however, the idea of a stable, predictable schedule is an unheard luxury, especially during this holiday season.
Close to two-thirds of hourly workers in retail, hospitality, and food service in our state have irregular or variable work schedules. Frequently at the start of the week, these workers don’t know how many hours they are going to be working any given day, if they are even going to be called to work, and when their shifts are going to be. Even for those that have their schedule in advance, their employers can change it without any advance notice, either by calling them in for a late shift or canceling one or cutting their work hours (and the associated wages) right on the spot.
These scheduling practices have a real impact on these workers and their families. For starters, they do not know how much money they will be making any given week, as they cannot predict if any of their shifts will get canceled. A late call for a shift can mean having to scramble to find childcare or transportation to work, disrupting family plans. These days, it might mean missing a school function for their children, a family celebration, or a last chance to finish the holiday shopping.
For most of us, a stable schedule is pretty much a fact of life. We know when we are supposed to be at work, we know when we must pick up our kids, we know when we can run errands, go to the grocery store, and so on. The few occasions when routine breaks (around the holidays, early days of the pandemic, when we travel or move) stick up because they are so stressful; we are just not built to live under constant uncertainty. For the more 250,000 hourly retail, restaurant, and hospitality workers in Connecticut with unstable schedules, most of them women and people of color, routine is an afterthought, and they have to deal with that stress all year long, all the time, and twice over during the holiday season.
There is, however, an alternative: we can require employers to treat their workers with respect and tell them their schedules ahead of time. New York City, Seattle, Philadelphia, Chicago, and (to a lesser extent) Oregon have passed Fair Workweek laws that do exactly that, and the results have been remarkable. For instance, one of the consequences of erratic scheduling is that workers are much more likely to be food insecure (that is, have trouble putting food on the table), even compared to other workers with the same income. In Seattle, the Fair Workweek ordinance reduced material hardship by 11 points. Other studies have shown considerable decreases in homelessness, improved performance of children in school, and even workers saying they sleep better at night. Just because they know what their schedules will be.
Businesses who had been using unstable schedules for their own convenience, of course, complained about the new laws. The thing is, there is no good reason for employers to treat workers this way – and in fact, the few companies that have decided to treat their employees with respect have realized that it helps their bottom line. The Gap clothing retailer, for instance, quickly realized after a short pilot program in a few stores that employees were happier, more productive, and more likely to stay with the company, so they ended up saving money due to reduced turnover. Walmart, not exactly known for their pro-worker stances, adopted predictable scheduling company wide as well, following similar results. Businesses in all the cities that have passed Fair Workweek bills are also doing just fine.
So this holiday season, as we race around doing last-minute shopping, picking up relatives at the airport, and spending time with our families, we should spare a thought for those workers that will find themselves called in for one last minute shift, or realizing they will struggle to pay rent because their store or restaurant canceled work hours at the very last minute. Connecticut can do better, and we should do better.