A Tale of Two Methods for Scheduling Work


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A couple of years ago, a team of researchers started a project to evaluate how two groups of workers in Washington state were faring. The groups had some important commonalities: the same income and wages, and the same hours of work each week. Both groups included men and women, married and single, with kids and without them. They had similar jobs, in similar sectors (retail, fast-food, and hospitality), along with other service jobs.

The results showed that one of the groups was doing much better than the other across the board, in all their survey results. They were much happier than their counterparts. They sleep better at night. They were less stressed, less anxious, and in fact felt more hopeful. They were also much less likely to say they had trouble paying their bills, from rent to medical care, or putting food on the table. They were also much less likely to be homeless.

There was only one difference between both groups: those that had all these positive, happy outcomes were working within the city of Seattle and were covered by a predictive scheduling ordinance since July 1, 2017. By law, their employers had to tell them when they were going to work at least two weeks in advance or compensate them if they made any changes. They had predictable schedules and knew when they had to show up for work, and how much money they would make. They could plan their lives accordingly.

Allow me to stress this point again: workers in both groups had the same type of jobs; fast-food, retail clerks, hospitality. They were all hourly workers, making broadly the same income. The only difference between them was their scheduling! Predictable scheduling vs erratic scheduling made the difference in their lives. This difference, by itself, reduced the share of workers facing material hardships by ten points. The share of workers sleeping well at night rose by eleven points, just because they knew when they would be working. The researchers found that happiness rose six points with this legislation. I’d bet there are not many bills out there that can make tens of thousands of people sleep better at night. Predictable scheduling legislation did that.

Next week, the Labor and Public Employees Committee will hold a hearing on a Predictable Scheduling bill, broadly along the lines of Seattle’s ordinance. The legislation will cover workers in hospitality, retail, food services, and long-term care facilities in businesses with more than five hundred employees or restaurant chains with more than thirty locations, including franchises.  Like in Seattle, employers will have the obligation to give employees their schedule at least two weeks in advance and compensate them if they have a schedule change with less than a week’s notice. Employees will get an extra hour of pay if they get more hours or receive half pay if their hours are reduced.

This is a simple, straightforward bill that sets basic standards, with decent pay and hours they can count on. It respects workers’ time and gives them the chance to take care of themselves and their families.

Because of the experience in Seattle and other communities, we know that businesses can easily implement Predictable Scheduling, and more often than not, even thrive under it. In a follow up report about Seattle, the same team of researchers reached out to employers and managers, conducting dozens of interviews with store managers, franchise owners, and supervisors. The consensus? They just do it. Managers consistently found workers like knowing their schedule to the point it helped them hire and retain workers; implementation quickly became second nature, even during the pandemic.

This should not come as a surprise. For the past few years, some companies like Gap and Walmart (admittedly not always a company we praise for worker treatment!) have quietly been testing predictable schedules in their stores – and realized that it saves them money thanks to lower staff turnover and higher productivity, so they quickly expanded the practice company-wide. We also know that the vast majority of small businesses, from neighborhood restaurants to small mom-and-pop stores, already implement something very close to predictable scheduling – they run on thinner margins, they need the best employees to stay, and they know they need to treat them well to thrive.

On-call scheduling, it turns out, is yet another product of “consultant capitalism”, the brainchild of some MBA with little contact with reality. It is the kind of management approach that sees workers as yet another input or interchangeable piece of machinery, a “thing” where any excess of inventory must be minimized. The reality is that workers learn and get better if they stay in their jobs, and work better if they are treated with respect. Replacing them turns out to be quite costly.

The Predictable Scheduling bill should be a no-brainer. It is the kind of legislation that will help tens of thousands of workers in the state sleep better at night, ensure that they can take care of their families – and make the businesses that employ them stronger. All by telling people in advance when they will have to work.