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By Lauren FrohlichElizabeth Johnston and Liz Watson, National Women's Law Center
Cross-posted from NWLC's blog

When policymakers discuss solutions to help nearly 20 million low-wage workers make ends meet, the focus is often on raising wages. Raising the minimum wage and tipped minimum wage would go a long way to help these workers, but policymakers should also be concerned about curbing abusive scheduling practices that create incredible uncertainty for workers and their families about whether they will be given enough hours on the schedule to make ends meet and the timing of those hours.   

Women are disproportionately affected by challenging work schedules because women hold the majority of low-wage jobs and often have significant caregiving responsibilities outside of work, but men in low-wage jobs also suffer as a result of often difficult, and sometimes abusive work scheduling practices. A new issue brief recently released by NWLC describes five of the most common scheduling challenges faced by workers in low-wage jobs and the collateral damage they impose on workers and their families. Here are some highlights:

1.       Lack of control over work schedules: A large majority of full-time low-wage workers report that they can’t change the start and end times of their work days. So a worker who needs to leave at a certain time to pick up a child from day care or who needs to attend a job training course may be unable to do so, simply because that worker is unable to alter her schedule.

2.       Unpredictable work schedules: Many low-wage workers only receive their schedules one week in advance, and one-fifth of retail workers surveyed said they only get their schedules three days beforehand. And some workers report working call-in shifts—being required to call in to find out whether they will work that day, and if so, they must often report within two hours. Because of unpredictable scheduling practices, workers are left to cobble together child care with almost no notice at all, relying on family, friends, and neighbors who may also be juggling a similarly difficult work schedule. This leads to significant instability in child care arrangements, which is difficult for children, and when workers are unable to make last-minute arrangements, sometimes they have to miss work, lose pay, and face other penalties.

3.       Unstable work schedules: About one quarter (between 20 and 30 percent) of low-wage workers reported a reduction in hours or a layoff when work was slow. This produces tremendous instability and uncertainty in income, leaving workers with little assurance that having a job will actually mean that they are able to meet their basic expenses. It also makes it difficult for workers to access work supports like child care subsidies that are tied to work hours.

4.       Involuntary part-time work: Workers in low-wage occupations (those that typically pay $10.10 per hour or less) made up one-third (33 percent) of all involuntary part-time workers in 2012, despite these low-wage workers only making up 14 percent of all workers. Women working part-time involuntarily are about twice as likely to live in poverty as women working part-time voluntarily (12 versus 25 percent).

5.       Nonstandard work schedules: Many low-wage workers work nonstandard or “unsocial” hours, working evenings, nights, weekends, or working on rotating shifts, irregular schedules, or on call. These work schedules make it hard for parents to maintain routines around meals, bedtime, and schoolwork, and produce incredible stress in family life.

The collateral damage to workers and their families that is caused by abusive work scheduling practices is simply undeniable. Future issue briefs from NWLC will describe solutions to this growing problem.


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