Employment and Jobs

Beyond Clocking In: Understanding the Impact of Unstable Work Schedules

November 29, 2023  • Frances Almodovar

Having a stable and predictable work schedule is one of the defining features of a good job. It gives people a clear sense of when and how much they’ll be working, which offers the opportunity to secure enough hours for a steady income and align personal and family commitments around work hours. However, the holidays bring to light the complexities and hurdles in scheduling faced by millions of workers in the United States. A recent virtual event hosted by the Aspen Institute Economic Opportunities Program, “Unstable Schedules: Unwrapping the Challenges and Solutions for Service Workers,” sheds light on these issues.

Panelists included Daniel Schneider, co-executive director of The Shift Project and the Malcolm Wiener Professor of Social Policy and Professor of Sociology at Harvard; Terrysa Guerra, co-executive director of United for Respect; Silvija Martincevic, CEO of Deputy; Elizabeth Wagoner, deputy commissioner for New York City’s Office of Labor and Policy Standards; and writer and journalist Shalene Gupta, who served as moderator. The conversation delved into the reasons behind unstable scheduling, recent research on workers’ experiences, and potential solutions, including both policy changes and modern technology that can help to create more worker-friendly scheduling systems.

Shedding light on the severity of the issue, Schneider highlighted a significant aspect of inequality experienced by workers, emphasizing that while we often focus on income or wealth disparity, we overlook the profound inequalities related to scheduling. He explained that certain actions taken by companies, such as reducing payroll costs by cutting workers’ hours or pay, ultimately transfer the risk and uncertainty from the company to the employees and their families. This shift impacts workers by reducing income and control over their time. And despite widespread claims of labor shortages, erratic scheduling persists, denying workers access to sufficient hours.

This exploitation of workers’ flexibility impacts millions of retail, food service, and healthcare workers. Such unpredictable scheduling disrupts lives and undermines workers’ control over their time, illustrating a systemic challenge ingrained in these industries. The adverse effects extend beyond the workplace, affecting families and children, as parents struggle to maintain stable childcare arrangements and spend quality time with their families due to irregular work hours, exacerbating the negative impact on child development and family well-being.

Furthermore, Guerra elucidated, “often, larger employers will recruit by promising workers the benefits that come with at least 20 or 40 hours per week, and they dial down their hours in order to avoid paying those benefits.” These aren’t just isolated cases of bad apples in management. More than half of hourly workers in food service and retail experience last-minute changes and nearly half of these employees are frequently “clopening” shifts — those in which the same workers who close a store late at night are expected to open it early the next morning. “This is how companies, the ones we work with at least, are being run. And that’s how they’re being operated. This is the industry standard,” says Guerra. She highlighted fair workweek policies as a means to raise the standard, emphasizing the potential impact on millions of families and the profound transformative power of such reforms.

Wagoner offered insights into enforcing such policies, drawing from her office’s experience upholding fair workweek laws for New York City workers. Establishing fair workweek laws is a crucial initial step toward stability for workers, but it’s just the first step. According to Wagoner, “it’s very important for any jurisdiction considering this type of law to ensure that there is a carefully thought through enforcement apparatus behind it.” That’s because the ingrained unpredictability and assumption of worker availability based on company needs don’t vanish overnight. Wagnor suggested that overcoming these challenges requires leveraging technology’s capabilities to track noncompliance, hold management accountable, prompt necessary changes, and automate tasks. This approach, she implied, could aid in addressing some of these persistent challenges in fair workweek regulations.

Martincevic observed that over the past decade, technology has significantly transformed the world of office work, enhancing already predictable schedules with collaborative tools like Zoom, LinkedIn, and Slack. However, this technological revolution has largely bypassed hourly workers in the service sector, leaving their work environment largely unchanged since the 1980s. That’s where platforms like Deputy come in. Deputy positions itself as a solution by aiming to prioritize hourly workers’ needs with an emphasis on empowering the workforce. As Martincevic stressed, “technology investment is crucial in bridging this gap and addressing the inequality in the workforce.”

In summary, this event highlighted the pervasive issue of unstable scheduling faced by workers, especially those in the service industry. Panelists emphasized the detrimental effects of unpredictable work hours on individuals and families, advocating for fair workweek policies and robust enforcement and a leveraging of the technological advances at our disposal. The dialogue underscores the necessity of recognizing scheduling stability as a crucial aspect of job quality. Here lies an encouragement of positive change in workforce practices that will enable us to foster a more equitable and supportive work ecosystem for all.