Research Findings

Work-schedule instability increases turnover among low-wage workers, leading to lost earnings and horizontal mobility

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March 3, 2022

Over the last year, American workers quit their jobs at higher rates than ever before. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 4.5 million people quit in November 2021 – the most ever recorded since the BLS began publishing turnover data in December 2000. While the “Great Resignation” spans across the economy, quit rates were highest in the retail and food service industries, where workers have been resigning in droves since the beginning of last year.

Why are so many workers in retail and food service quitting their jobs? In addition to concerns over their risk of infection from COVID-19, many workers are quitting because they are dissatisfied with their poor working conditions and they hope to find better opportunities elsewhere. In particular, retail and restaurant workers report that frustration with inflexible and unpredictable hours is a primary motivation for quitting.

In a recent study, we investigate how and why unstable schedules might lead retail and food service workers to leave their jobs and assess if workers leaving these jobs are really able to find better opportunities after.

Our study characterizes the effect of schedule instability on turnover and the consequences of turnover for mobility as a cumulative disadvantage process. Using survey data collected from 1,827 hourly workers in the US retail and food services sectors, we demonstrate that work schedule instability increases workers’ likelihood of turnover by reducing job satisfaction and increasing work-life conflict. Workers who leave jobs with highly unstable work schedules experience earnings losses while unemployed and see no increase in earnings upon finding new work. Unstable schedules, work-life conflict, and turnover form a cycle of disadvantage for hourly workers.

Turnover is higher among workers with unstable schedules

Many employers in the retail and food service sectors try to minimize labor costs by using work-scheduling practices that are designed to align staffing levels with hour-to-hour fluctuations in customer demand. These “just-in-time” scheduling practices include providing little advance notice to employees of their work schedules, making last-minute changes to the number of hours or shifts that employees will work, holding workers on-call without pay until customer traffic picks up, or cancelling shifts at the last minute. While these practices reduce employers’ payroll expenditures, they come with tremendous economic and health costs for employees.

Our research suggests that, for many workers, coping with just-in-time scheduling practices is simply untenable and that such practices ultimately push workers to quit their jobs. We demonstrate that employees who have recently worked an on-call shift, had a shift cancelled at the last minute, had the timing of a shift changed at the last-minute, or received their schedule with less than one week’s notice were all significantly more likely to leave their jobs (Figure 1). 

All in all, workers who are exposed to more forms of schedule instability are more likely to leave their jobs – the turnover rate for workers who are exposed to 3 or more just-in-time scheduling practices is 50% higher than those who are not exposed to any of these scheduling practices.

Schedule-related turnover is driven primarily by the negative effects of schedule instability on workers’ family lives and job satisfaction, and less by its effect on financial hardship.

Why does exposure to work schedule instability push workers to quit their jobs?

Overall, we find that just under half of the relationship between schedule instability and turnover occurs through the effect of scheduling on job satisfaction. Far from providing desirable “flexibility,” unstable work schedules reduce job satisfaction, likely because they are a manifestation of disrespect at work and have negative effects across many dimensions of workers’ lives.

Next, we consider the negative effects of schedule instability on workers’ ability to meet their family and caregiving needs. Previous research has shown that workers with irregular and unpredictable schedules have trouble securing childcare and handling family matters. We show that a quarter of the relationship between schedule instability and turnover can be explained by the effect of schedule instability on work-life conflict.

We also ask if workers with unstable schedules may leave their jobs due to financial instability. While prior work suggests that highly variable and unpredictable hours can lead to earnings volatility and contribute to material hardship, we find that the effect of schedule instability on financial strain only contributes a modest amount to its effect on turnover. 

Similarly, although there is reason to suspect that managers play favorites when setting work schedules, we find that relatively little schedule-related turnover can be explained by how scheduling affects employees’ perception of their supervisor.

Turnover offers little benefit to workers leaving jobs with unstable schedules

Turnover is not inherently bad. One might expect that workers voluntarily quit when they expect to find better opportunities elsewhere. Most turnover in retail and food service is voluntary – just under 90% of turnover we observed in our sample was from workers quitting their jobs – perhaps suggesting that turnover could be driven by workers finding better quality jobs. 

Unfortunately, our data do not bear out this hypothesis. We find that on average, workers who quit their jobs lose just under $120 in weekly earnings. This loss in earnings primarily occurs during periods of unemployment following a job separation, but even after finding a new job, workers earn no more than at their previous job. 

Overall, our analysis sheds light on how the negative consequences of just-in-time scheduling accumulate to cause strain on workers’ family and economic lives that eventually increases their risk of turnover and lost earnings in the short- and long-run. This work calls attention to not only the immediate consequences of poor working conditions among low-wage workers, but also how those conditions shape these workers’ career and life trajectories.

Read More

Joshua Choper, Daniel Schneider, and Kristen Harknett. “Uncertain Time: Precarious Schedules and Job Turnover in the US Service Sector” in Industrial and Labor Relations Review 2021.

Image: Mohammad Hassan via pxhere (CC0 1.0)

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