Research Findings

Unstable and unpredictable work schedules are an occupational hazard

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June 17, 2019

The rallying cry for millions of fast food and retail workers is $15 an hour.  But, low pay isn’t the only occupational hazard that baristas, servers, and cashiers face.  These workers also contend with work schedules that are unstable and unpredictable. 

Long gone are the days of 9-5 shift, and so too are even regular night or evening shifts.  Instead, workers contend with schedules that vary from day-to-day and week-to-week often with little advance notice. Workers are required to be on-call – paid if asked to work, but otherwise uncompensated.

Employers cancel shifts at the last minute if customer traffic is slow, or ask workers to stay late if stores are busy in an effort to precisely align staffing with demand and so transfer risk from company payrolls to household balance sheets.

The Shift Project

These practices can introduce far-reaching instability into the lives of workers and their families. But, a lack of data has limited our ability to understand the implications of just-in-time scheduling and routine work schedule instability for workers’ health and wellbeing.

In a recent study, we use newly available data from The Shift Project to fill this gap. Since 2016, The Shift Project has collected survey data from workers employed in food service and retail at large chain stores — firms that are the focus of recent labor regulation efforts in select cities and states around the country. We ask these workers about their work schedules, household economic security, health, and wellbeing.

Precarious  Schedules and Worker Wellbeing

About two-thirds of workers receive their work schedule with less than two weeks’ advance notice, and about one-third receive their schedule with less than one week’s notice. 

On-call (26%), cancelled (14%), and “clopening” (50%) (in which one closes and then opens with only a brief rest period in-between) shifts are a common occurrence. Only 1 in 5 workers report working a regular daytime schedule.  In the month prior to being surveyed, workers experienced a 32% variation, on average, between the hours worked in the week with the most hours and that with the fewest.

We find that this routine work schedule uncertainty is a strong predictor of worker health and wellbeing.  Workers with variable shifts, volatile work hours, and limited advance notice are more depressed, less happy, and sleep less well than those who have more predictability. On-call and cancelled shifts are also linked to lower wellbeing. 

For example, 64% of workers who have had shifts cancelled report psychological distress, compared with less than half of those who have not. We find that 82% of workers who had a cancelled shift report poor sleep quality, compared to 72% of those who have not had a shift cancelled. We see similar results for workers who have worked a “clopening” shift and those who work on-call. Workers with less than one week’s advance notice are significantly less happy than those with at least one week’s advance notice.

Policy Response

City and State governments are already considering and passing laws regulating scheduling practices for hourly service sector workers. Laws to require two weeks advance notice of work schedules, regulate “clopening” and on-call shifts, and encourage access to full-time hours have passed in San Francisco, Seattle, New York City, and Philadelphia and are being considered in Los Angeles, Washington State, and Connecticut. 

Our research provides evidence consistent with the idea that requiring 72 hours of advance notice is beneficial to workers, and that requiring a week of advance notice would be better still, and that in some contexts, two weeks of advance notice would be best of all. Our estimates are also consistent with the idea that reducing on-call and “clopening” shifts would improve the lives of retail workers by improving workers’ mental health, sleep quality, and happiness.

We also simulate how health and wellbeing outcomes may change in response to work scheduling laws or minimum wage increases. We compare these two labor regulation mechanisms in a series of policy-relevant scenarios, evaluating the impact of several common components of secure scheduling laws that have been implemented in recent years against policy-relevant sized increases in wages.

We find that such changes to scheduling have a substantial impact on worker wellbeing. For instance, in our predicted estimates, eliminating on-call shifts would reduce affected workers’ psychological distress by 15 percentage points on average, improve sleep quality by 8 percentage points, and raise self-reported levels of happiness by 9 percentage points. Eliminating “clopening” shifts would have similar effects, and requiring 72 hours of advance notice would reduce affected workers’ psychological distress by nearly 5 percentage points.

We then contrast these scenarios with increases from the federal minimum wage of $7.25, based on actual state and local increases that occurred between 2015 and 2018. We find that, while both wage increases and more stable schedules are associated with improvements in psychological distress, sleep quality, and happiness, there is a stronger association in the case of scheduling.

Work schedules are a crucial element of job quality. Schedule instability and unpredictability are common and reduce wellbeing for millions of service sector workers.  Innovative local labor laws have the potential to regulate these practices and improve fundamental aspects of worker’s health and wellbeing.

Work schedules are a crucial element of job quality. Schedule instability and unpredictability are common and reduce wellbeing for millions of service sector workers.  Innovative local labor laws have the potential to regulate these practices and improve fundamental aspects of worker’s health and wellbeing.

Read more

Daniel Schneider and Kristen Harknett, “Consequences of Routine Schedule Instability for Worker Health and Wellbeing,” American Sociological Review 2019.

Image: pxhere (CCO)

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