What Follows the Fight for $15?

After raising its minimum wage, Seattle is turning its attention to on-call scheduling.

David Ryder / Reuters

In recent years, low-wage workers and labor groups have agitated for higher wages, paid sick days, and other rights and protections that typically aren’t afforded to those working in industries such as fast food, big-box retail, and janitorial services. In Seattle particularly, this labor movement has had a great deal of success in generating not just public support, but legislation. In 2012, the city enacted an ordinance mandating sick leave for all workers. More controversially, the city passed a law that will gradually move the minimum wage towards $15 an hour for workers citywide.

After these successes, labor activists in Seattle have set their sights on a facet of low-wage work that sounds dull but is critically important to workers’ quality of life: how employers schedule their workers’ hours. As a result, Seattle’s city council has recently begun drafting scheduling regulations, and since the initiative has the public support of a majority of councilmembers as well as the mayor, it’s expected to pass sometime this summer.

Scheduling can seem like a prosaic issue, calling to mind day planners and email back-and-forths. But for a large number of workers in the United States, schedules are sources of great stress. It's pretty simple: Often, hourly workers don't know when, or how much, they're going to work during any given week. Many workers, particularly in the hospitality and retail industries, are asked to show up at only a few hours' notice; some find themselves receiving such calls on days they didn’t expect to work. And an even larger number of workers are unaware of their schedules until a couple days before they’re to report to work, making it difficult for them to coordinate childcare, medical appointments, and schooling.

This sort of scheduling insecurity is increasingly pervasive, especially among young workers. According to a 2014 University of Chicago study, 41 percent of workers aged 26 to 32 don't know their work schedules at least a week in advance. And, 74 percent of workers in the same group report that they work a different number of hours week to week: One week, it might be 12 hours. The next, it could be 40. Recently, The Wall Street Journal reported that attorneys general in eight states and Washington, D.C., have started scrutinizing the scheduling practices of more than a dozen large retailers.

It’s easy to see why this can be burdensome for workers, but what do employers gain from it? According to Susan Lambert, one of the authors of the University of Chicago study, variable scheduling has risen out of pressure for companies to cut the front-line labor costs of their operations. Some of this pressure has come from a corporate imperative to maximize shareholder value, but it also has to do with the rise of sophisticated scheduling software. Many companies, especially fast-food and retail chains, have programs that use previous sales data to forecast labor needs down to the quarter hour—a forecast that even can be issued day of. Those demand-based projections determine the number hours that store managers are given to assign to their staff.

The impacts of unpredictable scheduling extend beyond complicated childcare arrangements, missed college classes, and cancelled medical appointments. Workers' incomes, too, can vary widely from month to month, which makes budgeting difficult and can affect eligibility for public benefits. "A lot of social-benefit programs are very much conditioned on the hours people work," explains Lambert. "Under the Family and Medical Leave Act, people have to work 1,250 hours for the same employer and have stayed with that employer for at least a year before they are covered by the FMLA." She also notes that unemployment insurance and Social Security benefits can fluctuate based on the number of hours a beneficiary was most recently working—a number that he or she might not be able to accurately provide, due to schedule variation.

So far, San Francisco is the only city that has implemented legislation attempting to address the issue of scheduling. That legislation, known as the Retail Workers Bill of Rights, went into effect in the summer of 2015 and requires schedules to be given out with 14 days’ notice, with extra pay given to workers dealt last-minute scheduling changes. It also requires employers to compensate on-call workers for standing by, as well as workers who are cut early. Additionally, retailers must offer full-time schedules to part-time employees (which the part-timers may decline) before bringing on any more part-timers.

However, the San Francisco legislation only applies to what the law terms "formula retail establishments"—national and international chains. Seattle's ordinance is likely to be scaled differently, probably similar to the way its minimum-wage legislation is being implemented: The $15 hourly wage currently only applies to chain workers, but the next several years will see gradual wage increases for workers at all businesses, with the full $15 applied across the board in 2019.

This ambitious scheduling agenda—which eventually will cover all businesses, instead of just chains—faces some logistical challenges. While the large chains regulated under the San Francisco law are the most likely to use demand-based scheduling systems and cause disruption for their workers, small businesses and local chains’ methods can be burdensome too.

For their part, many managers and owners of Seattle’s small businesses think that regulation is unfeasible, not to mention undesirable. Some of those managers (and many restaurant workers I’ve spoken to) have pointed out that plenty of workers are fine with short-notice scheduling. In particular, restaurants have strong incentives for workers to come in day of, based on demand, and there are plenty of tipped workers who earn most of their income from gratuity, not hourly wages, and who have no problem swapping shifts or giving up hours last-minute if they’ve met their weekly financial goals. These workers might find that the status quo is fine, and implementing strong scheduling regulations might limit their ability to customize their schedules.

With those constraints in mind, Seattle City Councilmember Lorena González, who is involved in putting together the legislation, says that it is likely to be scaled to allow small businesses some time to implement the new policy. But she wants to make sure that larger companies that can afford to implement the regulations right away are above the size cutoff they establish. "If we want this legislation to impact workers who are most susceptible to these practices, where do we draw the line?" González says. "Is it going to be 250 full-time employees, 250 employees or more? Is it going to be 500 employees or more, or is the number somewhere else?” She also has pledged to allow workers to swap shifts and maintain the flexibility they desire, but achieving that goal while regulating businesses citywide will be a hard balance to strike.

When Seattle produced its minimum-wage legislation, its mayor and city council put together a committee comprised of labor and business leaders to hash things out. The process was difficult, but it did produce a piece of legislation supported by a citywide consensus.

But while city leaders are trying to put together a similar process to regulate scheduling, it hasn’t yet been as productive as the minimum-wage effort. At recent city council meetings, some restaurateurs disputed the notion that insecure scheduling is even a problem in the first place. Other business leaders acknowledge the difficulties that hourly workers face in scheduling but are dubious about the push to regulate the practice. For instance, Howard Wright, who is on the board of directors of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and is a co-owner of the Space Needle, was a member of the minimum-wage committee, but wants the council to stay away from passing a scheduling ordinance. In particular, Wright points to the need of businesses to deal with unexpected surges in demand. He says that if the law is inevitable, he hopes the Chamber and other business groups will get to weigh in.

However, as Lambert points out, making schedules more predictable might actually benefit managers in ways they might not expect. Businesses with more worker-friendly scheduling policies might enjoy lower turnover, as well as gains in employees’ morale, health, and job expertise. It's also possible that businesses with reputations for good scheduling practices might be able to attract more loyal and talented employees than competitors without them.

"Businesses tend to be against [new regulatory] legislation,” Lambert says. “But we need to change that. They should be partners in this, setting basic work standards." Lambert herself is involved in a collaborative effort with Gap to create new scheduling policies. Gap approached Lambert, along with academics from the University of North Carolina and the University of California Hastings College of the Law, seeking their help in designing better scheduling practices. A pilot project that emerged from this initiative is currently in place at several Gap stores.

As more and more workers across the country face unpredictable hours, and enter fields with variable hours, scheduling rules will become more and more important. With luck, and with an honest effort by both business and labor to come to a consensus, Seattle could provide a model to the rest of the country.