Research Findings

What explains racial/ethnic inequality in job quality for low-wage frontline workers in the service sector?

February 11, 2021

In the wake of George Floyd’s death and the resulting Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020, many in the United States have become increasingly concerned not only with police brutality, but with the impact of systemic racism in the United States.

One important aspect of systemic racism comes in the form of job quality. There are significant gaps between white and Black or African American, Hispanic or Latino/Latina, and other racial/ethnic minority workers in the United States in this regard. White workers, for instance, tend to receive better pay, more fringe benefits, and have an easier time getting hired than workers of color.

Schedule quality has emerged as another exceedingly important dimension of job quality for all workers in the 21st century, yet racial/ethnic gaps along these lines have not been fully explored.

Why are schedules so important?

For professionals, schedule quality may come in the form of desirable flexibility, such as the ability to work from home. However, in low-wage service jobs, schedules are a source of involuntary instability. Frontline workers have their shifts cancelled at a moment’s notice, are typically asked to stay late or come in early and cannot get time off when they need it.

These and other aspects of poor schedule quality make up a new form of precarity for workers—temporal precarity. This temporal precarity has important consequences for workers who need to arrange childcare, plan around school, or work a second job.

Differences in schedule quality

In a recent study, my coauthors and I identify significant gaps in schedule quality between whites and non-whites in the service sector. Non-white workers are more likely to have canceled shifts, to work on-call, to have insufficient hours, to have trouble getting time off, and to work clopening shifts (closing one night and opening the next morning).

The study analyzes data from the Shift Project, which collects data through Facebook. Accordingly, through Facebook we conducted surveys with over 30,000 frontline workers at 123 of the largest retail and food-service firms in the United States between 2016 and 2018.

What does the gap in temporal precarity look like? Workers of color are between 7 and 30 percent more likely to experience a precarious work schedule across the five outcomes we measured.

However, we go beyond just identifying a gap in schedule quality. We also identify a series of potential explanations for the gap, measuring how much of the gap is due to each of these different factors.

With the first set of measures, we account for what are we call traditional explanations. This includes differences in demographic characteristics, parental status, and human capital, such as the highest level of education a frontline worker has received. These also contain measures of worker power, such as labor union membership, and the strength of the local economy. These measures explain roughly 60% of the gap in schedule quality among whites and non-whites. 

We also consider four additional sources of variation: firm sorting (where non-white workers are disproportionately concentrated in occupations where all employees earn less and have fewer fringe benefits), having a manager from a different racial/ethnic group, occupational segregation, and unexplained sources of variation.

First, from a firm-sorting perspective, if employers have widespread racially discriminatory preferences, and all workers prefer firms that offer higher-quality jobs, white workers could end up working at better firms, and receive better schedules. This explanation accounts for about 15 percent of the gap between white and Black workers, but is not a significant factor for other racial/ethnic groups.  

Second, we consider the possibility that workers may receive in-group favoritism from managers. Workers of the same race as their manager, then, are more likely to receive favorable schedules. This is a potentially, impactful source of variation, since our research shows that non-white workers are over three times as likely to have a different-race/ethnicity manager than white workers. We find that this explains about 10 percent of the gap overall, and 25 percent of the gap for Black workers specifically.

Third, we consider occupational segregation as a potential explanation. This accounts for the possibility that firms themselves are racially segregated, with white workers appearing in occupations with less temporal precarity. However, we find little evidence for this explanation with the exception of involuntary part-time work. In that respect, occupational segregation accounts for 15 percent of the gap.

However, even considering all of these factors, between 15 and 20 percent of the gap in job quality between whites and non-whites cannot be explained. We attribute this unexplained discrimination to a fourth explanation – whites are part of a normative in-group. Even among individuals within a firm, a national racial hierarchy that puts white people above all other groups may bleed into an organization and put non-white workers at risk of worse treatment than whites.

Finally, we consider the intersectional nature of job quality inequality by considering differences between men and women separately. We find that women of color are the most disadvantaged in terms of temporal precarity, and that a larger portion of the gap is inexplicable than that of men.

In conclusion, this project brings new innovative data to bear on the topic of racial/ethnic gaps in job quality. Our study exposes the degree of racial/ethnic inequality in an emergent and important domain of job quality—precarious scheduling. We find that there are significant gaps, with women of color being the most disadvantaged. Looking specifically at racial/ethnic categories, we find that Blacks experience more discrimination at point of hire and from managers than other racial/ethnic groups.

Identifying these gaps in schedule quality is just the first step in creating a more stable and equitable workplace for frontline workers. If, for instance, firms worked to offer more stable and predictable schedules for their workers, workers of color would stand to benefit disproportionately.

Read more

Adam Storer, Daniel Schneider, and Kristen Harknett. “What Explains Racial/Ethnic Inequality in Job Quality in the Service Sector?” in American Sociological Review 2020.

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