The University of Chicago

School of Social Service Administration Magazine

Volume 22 | Issue 1 | Winter 2015
Time to Reschedule

There was some good news last summer for workers trying to shield their families and income from the turbulent work schedules that have become increasingly common in retail and part-time jobs. Congress introduced the Schedules That Work Act, which would give employees at firms with more than 15 employees the right to a predictable work schedule and two-week notification for their schedule, protection from retaliation if they ask for a schedule change, and at least four hours of pay if an employee shows up to a shift and is sent home.

SSA Associate Professor Susan Lambert is a leading scholar on scheduling issues in low-wage, hourly jobs. Her research includes a major study of low-skilled jobs in Chicago, and, with SSA Associate Professor Julia Henly, she leads the Scheduling Intervention Study, the first random experiment on how changes in scheduling practices can benefit companies and workers.

Melissa Josephs is the director of equal opportunity policy at Women Employed, an Illinois nonprofit that advocates on behalf of working women. She works on passage and effective implementation of equal employment opportunity laws and regulations at the state and federal levels, and is the author of several studies on women’s pay, sexual harassment in the workplace, and job training.

In this Conversation, Lambert and Josephs, who have collaborated on projects over the last 20 years, talk about why protection for work schedules is important, what’s in and what’s missing from the Schedules That Work Act, and what it takes for research to support and advance social change.

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Josephs: When you were doing your research on scheduling, had you ever thought that your research would help inform legislation?

Lambert: I would not be so presumptuous to assume that. But throughout my career I have been focused on how to improve jobs, and I spent 20 some years focusing on ways to make the business case, to encourage voluntary employer changes. And I still very much do that, and I think that’s important. But increasingly I see that we need laws.


There are so few labor protections and labor has so little power in this country. And the pressures of Wall Street are so great that it is very hard for even the most well-meaning business people to design jobs in a way that provides stability and an adequate living. A role of government is to set basic standards in many areas—for health, safety, employment.

Josephs: I do a lot of work around the need for paid sick days. I often will say we see it as the next minimum wage. There are some employers that pay higher than minimum wage, but if there weren’t that minimum standard, many might pay 23 cents an hour.

So I definitely agree there needs to be minimum standards just to show them the way. So I love this idea that finally this federal law, the Schedules That Work Act, was introduced, and it is very comprehensive...

Lambert: Not voted in yet. [Laughs.]

Josephs: No, no, but it was introduced in both houses. And it’s great because it’s bringing attention to the many issues of scheduling, including something as simple as having the right to ask for a predictable or flexible schedule and get an answer.

Lambert: Without retaliation.

Josephs: Right. I’ve been reading this was done years ago in Europe.

Lambert: The U.K. has it. A lot of European countries have it, and it’s part of the EU directive now.

I have a different view of it, slightly. I think it’s important, but we have a history in this country of legislation that leaves out people on the bottom of the labor market. For instance, the FMLA [Family Medical Leave Act] covers 59 percent of the workforce. Most parents in low-wage jobs are not covered to take an unpaid leave, and if they are covered they can’t afford to take it.

So I think professional women are going to find the right to request much more useful than women in low-level jobs. The reality is that for a job with no guaranteed minimum hours, when you put any restraints on your availability, employers might not schedule you for those days or times. They’re often nice about it—not always—but a lot of times. But that doesn’t mean you’re going to be scheduled for another day. If we had minimum-hour guarantees with a right to request, people across the labor market would benefit.

Josephs: I agree. There should be minimum hours.

Lambert: There are ways to stem the enormous fluctuation in people’s hours, to require that if you’re hired you get a minimum number of hours. Other countries have different laws and protections for the same industries we have here, and their consumer demand seems just as volatile as ours, but they choose to handle it differently.

Josephs: I know you want to get your work incorporated into laws. Do you have a way of establishing those relationships?

Lambert: I don’t have a model way. We often talk about wanting to be engaged scholars, but I don’t think you can kind of wait around. One of my frustrations over the years is that you go to events [dedicated to these issues], and you present, and then we go back into our own separate worlds. And so in the last few years, I don’t wait for people to necessarily pull something out of my academic article. I stay in contact with advocates as the legislation is being thought about and work to be part of the conversation.

I’ve done that in San Francisco around new legislation with David Chiu, [California State Assemblyman from the 17th District and former president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors], who’s a true progressive. I came out and worked with their task force.

Josephs: Was that before San Francisco passed the Right to Request law?

Lambert: That was part of the Right to Request law; our original research fed into that. And as they moved to push schedule predictability, they invited me out to work with their group more directly, throughout that whole process.

Josephs: I know now they’re working on a bill about how employers can’t hire new people before offering more hours to existing employees.

Lambert: That’s part of the Retail Workers Bill of Rights, which also includes posting schedules two weeks in advance and requiring employers to pay workers a premium when they make changes to the schedule at the last minute or ask them to work on-call. Just as employers are required to pay a premium for long hours—called overtime pay—they will pay a premium for maintaining a flexible workforce, what advocates are calling predictability pay.

Josephs: And I know you worked with the Bureau of Labor Statistics to incorporate a few additional questions in one of their national surveys. I wouldn’t have the authority to get them to change it in the way you did.

Lambert: That was Julia Henly and I. It also came from talking about these scheduling issues forever, and having everyone ask us how widespread are they? We don’t know. We see them in every workplace. But there were no good items in any of the national surveys on advance notice or how much hours fluctuate from week to week.

And so Rupa Datta, who’s right down the street at NORC, invited us to submit a proposal of new items. Of course we suggested about 15! And they took three and let us revise one. These were included in the most recent round of the National LongitudinalStudy of Youth, so we now have some data on how widespread schedule unpredictability and instability are. Some other national data sets are also considering adopting some of our items. From an academic’s point of view, it doesn’t get any better than that.

How do you see research and advocacy going together, and what are some tensions around that?

Josephs: I don’t see any tensions. Mostly when I work with academics, it’s been around the need for sick days or to increase the minimum wage. And there are researchers who are not academics, who are in an advocacy organization and do reports with information like a cost-benefit analysis or identifying which demographics don’t have sick days. All these can help us promote our laws.

Lambert: There are times when it is challenging. Often advocates are looking for data that fits their point. That’s not what we do as academics. We complicate things. We’re looking for the nuance. We’re trying to understand the parameters of the problem, and not trying to make a case or sell something. I think that’s why it takes longer-term relationships with advocates. We’re providing the data, but we’re not going to give you the number that you want just because you want it.

Josephs: Legislators need to hear from advocates, from academics who do the research, and from workers telling their own stories. I think this law is a great example of that collaboration.

And they need to hear from employers, because they certainly are going to hear from lobbyists who are paid to represent large employers. We’ll never outnumber those employer organizations. We both know there are a few large employers that have found that providing a minimum number of hours is a benefit to them because they’re going to keep good workers, and good workers sell more, and good workers cost them less. It would be great if those employers would go a little more public and say this is why we’re doing it to try and convince others.

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Josephs: I know that fast food restaurant franchises think of employee turnover as a cost of doing business. And that’s a huge amount that they could save if they said, “Let’s try and keep these workers so that we don’t have to keep spending the money and the time replacing them.”

An article I read mentioned that the Container Store gives their workers a good number of hours and they pay them really well. So it can be done. And Costco is known for providing everybody, I think, with a fair number of minimum hours.

Lambert: At Costco, regular part-time is 24 hours a week, and 50 percent of their employees in warehouses are full-time. And the head of the warehouses are held accountable for maintaining a minimum of 50 percent full-time, which is very different than other retailers.

And it’s good for business. Costco says it does it because that’s why they’re so profitable. They’ll cross train a large proportion of their workforce. So there’s no time that somebody’s working in a warehouse where their labor is unproductive. They’re doing something that adds value.

So it’s doable. Is it challenging? I would say sure, given the business models that we have now. It’s the way that Wall Street values firms, and the way that is implemented in practice. In businesses now, systems are set up so that individual workers really don’t matter much. Firms have designed jobs so that the individual worker does not matter, cannot add value to your experience.

The primary example would be a big box store. You go up to the front to a cashier and it doesn’t matter if it’s Joe or Tom or Sadie who’s ringing you up. If the person talks to you, it’s a negative thing. [The company is] counting the number of items that they scan per minute. They count their drawer at the end of the day. Performance is maintained not through better skills or commitment to the company; it is maintained through the monitoring the company does. And that creates a lot of stress for those workers.

Josephs: What about before you get to that cashier, when I go into a supermarket or a department store and I want information?For example when I leave here, I need to stop and get a smoke alarm. I’m going to want someone to give me some advice about what I need. And that happens all the time, whether you’re buying a large appliance, or furniture, or paint.

So if you hire people who know what they’re doing, aren’t moved from department to department, those workers sell more because they know the product. If I’m happy and I return, then there’s a benefit to the company. Then it does matter who the worker is.

Lambert: You would think so, wouldn’t you? But that’s not how firms are valued today, especially publicly held firms. They’re valued as investment instruments that Wall Street can invest in.

Look at something like Abbott Labs, which split the pharmaceutical drug development part from the manufacturing part just a few years ago. It meant they got rid of hundreds of jobs in the area. But the stocks just flew through the sky. And was it because that now Abbott would be able to make better drugs or because they’d be able to deliver them faster? No. It was because Wall Street has two investment [opportunities] where the risks are more known. Lots of people who did their jobs incredibly well lost their jobs.

Costco is valued less than Wal-Mart, even though Costco sells more per square foot, because there’s a belief that they could actually provide more profit if they didn’t pay their workers so much. And so when you look at the top and what they’re rewarded for, it helps explain some of what seems like irrational behavior.

I’ve been studying this stuff for over 20 years, and there’s a difference. Twenty, 25 years ago in retail, maybe 30 percent of people in stores were part-time. Now it will be 90 percent in a lot of firms. And it’s not just in retail. We see it in the labor market statistics across different industries.

Josephs: And it’s not because the employee wants to work part-time.

Lambert: Right. We see escalating rates of involuntary part-time employment. Part of this is the new technology. Almost all major employers now have something called workforce optimization systems that allow you to optimize the fit between your workforce and fluctuations in demand. It’s not just day-to-day or week to week anymore, it’s hour by hour. And they’re watching trends all the time.

If you’re a firm that’s very much valued for keeping those tight profit margins by Wall Street then your number one controllable expense at any minute is labor. Your inventory is an investment that you ordered months ago. You can vary that some because you can mark it down, but at some point that’s as far as it can go. You can’t push merchandise out the doors as fast as you can push employees out the door.

So the tools have made it possible to really micro-schedule. And if you’re not making your numbers, aren’t you going to get a little nervous and think about whether you need to send somebody home? Because front-line managers are held completely accountable for maintaining a particular ratio between sales and the number of employee hours used.

And so without some kind of a push from society to have businesses actually manage their labor instead of put all the risk onto individuals and families, it’s always going to be kind of one-sided. All that risk is just going to move over to individuals and families and communities.

One of the things I think that gets lost in all this, when we think about what employers should do, is ask who pays the cost for these bad practices? Well, families and communities do, and taxpayers pay for it. Something like more than 40 percent of people who are getting SNAP are employed. People on Medicaid are employed. We pay for this.

Josephs: And the Wal-Marts of the world, which don’t pay their workers enough, benefit. And they still benefit when their employees use their SNAP dollars in the stores, where they’re underpaid!

One thing that I think is helping to maybe get these employers to do the right thing is media attention that’s been placed on a lot of what we’re talking about, particularly the scheduling. Because a lot of people aren’t aware. People see their Starbucks coffee person and I don’t think they know that that person might work the night before and also have to work the next day—a “clopening” —where you close one night and then you open the next morning, with very little time in between.

I think it has been great that big newspapers have been talking about these issues and showing that these people are hardworking, that they’re responsible, that they’ve got family responsibilities, they need the job. Bringing attention to it doesn’t automatically change all those big businesses, but it certainly has an impact.

Lambert: The media attention that these issues have gotten has certainly changed public discourse, and is making firms pay attention. Firms’ reputations are very important to Wall Street. When [bad press] dings their reputation, it does matter.