At 4 p.m., when Veronica Marentes gets off work, she rushes to pick up her 4-year-old from daycare and her 12-year-old from school. If she’s late for the little one, she risks being charged a dollar for every minute she’s tardy. If she’s slow to pick up the older one, who waits for her in his school’s library, his homework will suffer because there’s no one there to make sure he completes his assignments.
Still, Marentes is often late to pick up her sons, because her manager sometimes asks her to do extra tasks at the end of her shift. As a single mother, these changes add to other stresses in her life. She works 35 hours a week, receives no child support, and lives with her three children in a garage that she rents.
Marentes, who came to America from Mexico roughly 12 years ago, now says she’s angry with McDonald’s because the franchise “doesn’t respect their own schedule—it affects my son a lot, when he doesn’t know when I am coming to pick him up.” (McDonald’s did not respond to a request for comment.) Recently, one of his assignments asked him to make a model the solar system, with small, painted balls as the planets. But when her boss changed her schedule at the last minute, she came home late from work and wasn’t able to help him get the materials he needed for the project. Lately, his grades have been getting worse because he’s been missing assignments.
Much has been written lately about homework: There’s too much of it; it’s stressing out parents, kids, and teachers; the time it takes is overwhelming. Many of the critiques of homework focus on how valuable it actually is: Do rote teaching-to-the-test worksheets truly improve students’ understanding? But far less discussed is how some children do their homework without the luxury of parental attention and assistance, or even just quiet time at home to complete assignments. There is not nearly as much being said about how increasing amounts of homework unduly affect poor families and exacerbate inequality.
According to a recent OECD study, higher-income 15-year-olds tended to do more homework than lower-income 15-year-olds in almost all of the 38 countries surveyed, and kids who were doing more homework also tended to get higher test scores. Parents inevitably play a role in managing their kids’ schoolwork, but many find themselves stretched. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center study, close to half of parents with school-age children say they wish they could be more involved in their kids’ education, but aren’t able to be. Many complain that they don’t have the time to keep tabs on their children’s assignments, and that wealthier families with stay-at-home parents or nannies are more likely to. On top of that, parents, especially wealthier ones, frequently hire tutors to help their children along.
But for many working-class parents, especially those with on-call or non-traditional schedules, today’s homework load can be impossible to manage. Journalists and academics already refer to a “homework gap”—a divide between families who have computers and access to the internet at home, and those who do not. But there is also a chasm separating students with parents who control their own work schedules and those whose parents don’t. A 2014 report from the Washington Center for Equitable Growth noted that nonstandard work schedules affected children’s cognitive development and success.
Unpredictable work schedules like Marentes’s and others govern the lives of 17 percent of American workers, according to the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. As Joshua Freeman, a professor of history at the City University of New York Graduate Center, puts it, “only a tiny number of Americans now have a normal five-day, 40-hour workweek.” Many companies ask their employees to make themselves available at the last minute, with little regard for how such scheduling affects their workers’ family lives. As a result, their kids’ science projects are less likely get done properly, and their math worksheets may never be surveyed by parents’ eyes.
Parents who push back against schedules that don’t give them enough time with their kids often find that their employers are resistant. When Nique Williams started working at a Target in Emeryville, California, she says she told her employer that she need a “very strict” daily schedule, from 10 in the morning to 2 in the afternoon, so that she could drop off and pick up her 5-year-old, Nyla, from school every day. Williams, who is 27, and her partner, who works for Greyhound cleaning buses, couldn’t afford a car until recently, so at the time Williams could only work those hours because they would allow her to catch two buses to travel between Nyla’s school and her job. In return for those weekday hours, she says she told her manager, she could work whenever she was needed on weekends.
Soon, though, Williams says, she was asked to work later and later, which in turn hurt Nyla’s performance in school. While the demands of kindergarten can seem light, Williams herself has a learning disability, as do her partner and Nyla. This requires Nyla and her mother to put in extra effort to keep up with schoolwork, and it will only get harder as Nyla gets older and her homework grows more challenging.
Williams told me that in the end, she lost her job for refusing to work the schedules she was presented with. Anya Svanoe, an Oakland-based organizer for the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment believes that Target let go of Williams, along with other workers, because the chain was displeased that their employees’ schedules were, in Svanoe’s words, “dictated by childcare needs.” It’s flexible scheduling that only goes one way, Svanoe says: in the employer’s direction. (Target declined to comment on Williams’s employment beyond clarifying that she was a seasonal hire.)
That’s why, alongside vocal campaigns for states and cities to raise the minimum wages, another movement focused not on pay, but time and hours, is gaining traction. While some companies—J. Crew, Urban Outfitters, and the Gap—have recently ended computerized, on-call scheduling and a proposed federal bill and pending bills in seven states would require that employers take measures to stabilize their workers’ schedules, erratically scheduled jobs remain widespread.
Last-minute scheduling and extreme hours represent a reversal of gains won decades ago by the labor movement, according to Freeman. “One of the workers’ central demands back then were shorter and more predictable hours,” he says. The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 imposed overtime rules and helped regularize hours. Unions built on that success, but, Freeman says, “One of the big changes from the 1970s onward has been the breakdown of the old-fashioned hours and the defined workweek.” Freeman, though, is optimistic, believing that the movement for a better-defined workweek will follow the relative success of the fights for family leave and a higher minimum wage.
Nique Williams now makes less per hour as a teller at a credit union than she did at Target. But she says she loves her job. It’s within walking distance of her house and her new boss has been understanding of her parental obligations, especially when it comes to Nyla’s education. Williams has accepted a pay cut—her job at Target paid nearly $15 an hour—for the stability that allows her to focus more on her daughter’s homework after school. “Nyla is my number-one priority,” she says.
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