Schedule Instability Reflects Changes in How Work Is Conducted

By Kathy Gurchiek Sep 1, 2016
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Many of the jobs lost during the Great Recession have been replaced with positions that not only offer lower wages and no benefits, but have unpredictable schedules and unstable hours, according to various studies.

"We're more in a 24/7 type of [work] rhythm, where corporations and employers are trying to match the efforts of employees to [the] services" they offer, said Ryan Finnigan, Ph.D., associate professor at the University of California, Davis, and lead researcher for a new report on work variability.

For example, an employee may be scheduled to work 15 hours one week, 25 hours the next week and 20 hours the following week—with little advance notice of each coming week's schedule. In some industries, such as retail, workers may be sent home after only 15 minutes on the job, Finnigan said.

Part-time hourly workers in the construction, service and retail industries—as well as temporary and contract workers—are especially affected by variable work schedules, according to the report.

The results: Wage fluctuation, job insecurity and a disrupted personal life, all of which make it difficult for workers to arrange child care, take classes, participate in family events, or arrange medical and other appointments, Finnigan told SHRM Online.

Findings are from data on hourly workers from the 2001, 2004, and 2008 panels of the Survey of Income and Program Participation by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Struggling to Make Ends Meet

Workers with the lowest incomes—those paid less than $22,500 annually—are more likely to work irregular schedules than those in the income bracket above them, according to a 2015 report by the Economic Policy Institute

Finnigan noted that fluctuating schedules—which translate into fluctuating wages—make it "almost impossible" to save or to take on a second job to augment earnings.

"Much like unemployment, variable working hours from week to week reduce total earnings and income, especially among hourly workers. Even with relatively high wage rates, workers will struggle to make ends meet with few hours," Finnigan and colleague Jo Hale write in their report.

Variable working hours result, in part, because managers often are under pressure to keep labor costs as low as possible, Finnigan told SHRM Online.

"Especially in service industries where [employee] demand can vary by season, month or weather conditions, they're trying to stay as flexible as possible until they have the clearest idea of what the demands might be."

That is compounded by "just-in-time" scheduling that uses computer software to help employers make the most accurate predictions they can for their workforce needs. Call centers, for example, used to operate on a 9-to-5 schedule but now are 24/7, and employers schedule their employees accordingly, often with little advance notice, Finnigan pointed out.

The research looked closely at the differences in work variability between union and nonunion members.

He and Hale write that "the shift of power from workers to employers" is "starkly evident" in the decline of labor unions. They found that, in states with a strong union presence, union members "were significantly less likely to report varying hours from week to week or mixed full-time/part-time/no work within the same month but [were] more likely to report irregular schedules."

"Mixed full-time/part-time/no work" refers to full-time work at least one week in a month but part-time or no work another week in the month, Finnigan explained in an e-mail.

Employees with irregular schedules "still work a fairly consistent 35-40 hours per week. So union members had more consistent numbers of hours per week than nonmembers, but the arrangement of those hours might have been more irregular." 

However, the schedule differences between union and nonunion members was only in states that were highly unionized, according to the report. Employees most affected by unpredictable scheduling often work in industries—such as the restaurant industry—where union representation is uncommon or that employ temporary workers and independent contractors, who are excluded from union representation.

Creating a Better Work Model

Susan Lambert, Ph.D., associate professor in the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago, has conducted similar research on work variability. Her work examines the possibility of creating "a better model of work for both hourly low-wage employees and employers," according to her university biography.

In a report that she and colleagues Peter J. Fugiel and Julia R. Henly wrote, they note that "unpredictable, precarious work schedules are transforming the nature of employment across the economy."

"As employers wrestle with pressures to minimize labor costs, they are increasingly using daily scheduling practices to pass variations in demand onto workers. ... Understanding how managers are structuring and scheduling jobs is crucial to determining new directions for both social policy and employer practices," Lambert stated on her website.

Finnigan recommended that workers who are affected by unpredictable scheduling consider how forming or joining a union might benefit them, especially in guaranteeing a minimum number of hours. Union negotiation, though, isn't the only way to make that happen, he added.

The Seattle Mayor's Office introduced a proposal Aug. 9 that would require certain large employers operating within the city limits to give their hourly workers advance notice of their schedules and to pay workers extra for being required to work on call, SHRM Online reported Aug. 22.

If approved, it would apply to retail establishments with at least 500 employees worldwide, quick and limited food service establishments with at least 500 employees worldwide, and full-service restaurants with at least 500 employees and at least 40 establishments worldwide.

Finnigan acknowledged that trying to manage unpredictable work demands is difficult for some employers.

"But if they can provide some measure of predictability" with more advance notice of work schedules, "even if they can't provide more hours, it goes a long way to making [employees'] lives easier."

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