By Bryce Covert
In the depths of the Great Recession, sociology graduate students Kristen Harknett and Daniel Schneider were interviewing families as part of a longitudinal study. They weren’t surprised to learn that those who had experienced job loss or foreclosure were suffering. What did surprise them was that even families who held onto their incomes and homes were struggling “just because of that experience of uncertainty,” Harknett says.
They realized they were onto something: Financial chaos can be as harmful to families as direct hardship. They homed in on low-wage workers’ decreasing ability to control their work schedules, which has led to “everyday unease and unknowing and risk in your everyday life,” Schneider says, as a concrete manifestation of it.
Like good sociologists—Harknett is now an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, San Francisco, and Schneider is a sociology professor at Harvard—they turned to established economic data sets expecting to be able to quantify their qualitative findings. But they came up empty handed.
So, Harknett and Schneider would eventually found what is now called The Shift Project to collect their own data on low-income workers. What they’ve discovered is that almost 60% of hourly service sector workers have variable work schedules. A quarter get on-call shifts that require them to be available for work at any time, over 60% receive their schedules with less than two weeks’ notice, and half have done a “clopening” where they worked a closing shift and had to return in the morning to open back up. Fifty percent have no input into their schedules at all.
All of this chaos takes a serious toll. Harknett and Schneider have found that schedule instability leads to psychological distress, more economic hardship, lower sleep quality, and parenting challenges. They’ve even found that schedules are more salient for workers than wages. When they compared the effects on wellbeing of higher pay and more predictable hours, “predictable schedules blew wages out of the water,” Harknett says. Employers don’t necessarily benefit, either: Chaotic schedules increase turnover, which comes with significant business costs, though many large employers don’t yet seem to have realized it.
While the fight for better pay continues, time has increasingly become a pressing issue for workers. “Life is a set of hours, and time is everything,” Harknett says. “If you don’t have any control over your time . . . it just gets in the way of everything.”
In 2015, San Francisco started enforcing a newly enacted law that requires large retail companies to provide two weeks’ notice of work schedules, pay extra when they change with less than a week’s notice, and pay workers for on-call shifts even if they’re not called in. It was the first of its kind, and it caught the academics’ attention, who realized it was a “golden opportunity,” Harknett says, to study scheduling.
But they still didn’t have the kind of data they would need to study it. So, they set out to gather it themselves. They began with in-depth interviews of about 35 people working in retail and food service in the Bay Area. Some of them were heartbreaking. Harknett remembers one mother in particular whose hours were so irregular and erratic—and causing her so much distress—that it affected her parenting and she had to place her child in state care.
“It was just crystal clear, in conversation after conversation, how incredibly disruptive it was for people’s ability to plan their lives to not know how much, whether, and when they were going to work,” Harknett says.
At first they used parent listservs and Craigslist to recruit working parents for the interviews, but then they learned that they could target ads on Facebook and Instagram to people at particular employers. “That was a game-changing discovery,” Harknett observes. Suddenly they were able to specifically ask people employed at McDonald’s or Walmart what their schedules were like and the impact it had on their finances and health.
They’ve been conducting these massive surveys twice a year ever since 2016 and now have data from 200,000 hourly workers at 250 big employers. “There’s really nothing like it in the U.S.,” Harknett says. Their dataset allows them to pinpoint things like how Walmart’s scheduling practices compare to Target’s—Walmart’s are comparatively more stable, they found, but haven’t improved over time despite a pledge in 2018 to give employees more predictability—as well as what scheduling instability looks like in, say, Colorado or Michigan when those legislatures consider fair workweek legislation.
Why schedule dignity lags behind higher wages
As academics, Harknett and Schneider provide the data; it’s partners like the Center for Popular Democracy, which has a fair workweek initiative, who use it to push lawmakers to pass stable scheduling laws. But even with strong evidence, advocates haven’t had the same level of success as, say, those fighting for a $15 minimum wage. Twelve states and Washington, D.C. have passed $15 minimum wages; just Oregon and a handful of cities—albeit some major ones like Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York—have passed fair scheduling legislation. But a higher wage means little if people don’t have enough work. “For an hourly worker, their pay is determined not just by their wage, but by the number of hours,” Harknett notes. “You can’t create better conditions for workers by only having the one side of the equation.”
Scheduling is a difficult issue to organize around. The slogans aren’t nearly so pithy. The solutions are more complicated, too. Instead of mandating that all workers be paid at least a certain amount, fair workweek laws have to grapple with what it means to make a late schedule change or what to do with workers who actually want to pick up last-minute shifts.
Employer opposition to fair scheduling laws has also been “especially fierce,” Schneider says, perhaps even more so than against higher minimum wages. “It gets at something very fundamental in how employers conceive of their relationship with workers, and that is to say they have a ton of control,” he says. “Fair scheduling is a threat to their control.”
In the handful of places where lawmakers have passed fair workweek laws, Harknett and Schneider have documented concrete improvements for workers. They just haven’t been adopted en masse.
Then the pandemic hit, and it “really took the wind out of the sails,” Harknett says. Lawmakers pivoted away from scheduling to ensuring that workers were left whole after losing work and weren’t getting sick and dying on the job.
But the fight to give workers more control over life on the job has now come back to the forefront, perhaps even more so. Workers, burned by their employers’ treatment during the pandemic, have been switching jobs in search of better pay and conditions. Service sector employees at Amazon, REI, Starbucks, and Trader Joes have unionized. When rail workers threatened to shut down the economy with an industry-wide strike, their main demand wasn’t necessarily more pay but more time off from work.
“We have seen a resurgence in this issue,” Schneider says. New York City, which passed a law fair workweek law covering fast food and retail employees in 2017, expanded it in 2021 to add protections against significant reductions in hours, among other things. There are now campaigns in Connecticut, Colorado, and other states to pass fair scheduling laws.
The need for more humane schedules “never went away,” Schneider says. “Unfortunately this issue has real staying power.”
The need for more humane schedules “never went away,” Schneider says. “Unfortunately, this issue has real staying power.”