Coalition pushes for fairness in work schedules

BY Michael Aron, Chief Political Correspondent |

Headlines tout historically low unemployment levels, but new research shows that many workers suffer in jobs with schedules that are at best unpredictable and at times unreliable.

A coalition called Fair Work Week NJ held a news conference in Teaneck on Wednesday to draw attention to the problem. The group is made up of liberal advocacy groups and labor unions who say low-wage workers are being taken advantage of by unfair scheduling on the part of management.

“Workers in low-wage hourly jobs in the warehouse, retail, hospitality and fast-food industries are facing unpredictable work hours and fluctuating income,” said Adil Ahmed, director of worker organizing and policy at Make the Road NJ. “These practices hinder low-wage workers and their families.”

New research backs up the coalition’s point. A report released this week by researchers at the University of California-Berkeley paints a grim picture of the working lives of many Americans.

The researchers found that unpredictable shifts and work schedules are common in the food-service and retail industries, which employ 17% or the American work force. Many of the workers get little notice of what days and hours they will be working in a particular week and, perhaps more importantly, when shifts are canceled, according to the report released by The Shift Project, an institute at the school.

The authors of the report — gleaned from surveys of 30,000 workers compiled since 2016 — lay blame for the plight of many of the workers on sophisticated “just-in-time” staff-scheduling computer programs that allow companies to fine tune their work force to match customer demand, but can also leave employees in the lurch.

“And in many times, they’re often called in and sent home at a moment’s notice,” Ahmed said. “And they’re expected to be available at any time, when their worksite is operating. Even though they’re expected to be on call, they can’t get enough hours to survive.”

The report also notes the “down-stream” impacts of unpredictable work schedules in the toll they take on the lives of workers, from child-care issues to outright hunger among the working poor.

“One in 10 American children has a parent who works in retail or food service,” said Daniel Schneider, one of the researchers. “For these kids, instability in their parents’ schedule shows up directly in their own lives. Imagine trying to arrange for child care when you don’t know when you’ll work or how many hours.”

State Sen. Loretta Weinberg, who attended the news conference, said she plans to introduce a bill that would address the issues around fair scheduling.

“Back-to-back long shifts one week might be followed by no shifts the next week, and the uncertainty has a high cost,” the Bergen County Democrat said. “It affects the very quality of life of people who are working hard to provide for themselves and their families.”

A family doctor echoed that.

“I’m trained as a family medicine physician, and in even just hearing the stories today, the overwhelming theme that you hear is anxiety,” said Dr. Linda Alvarez. “There’s stress that’s being produced for no apparent reason — stress that’s put on that then ends up coming with you to your families.”

One after another, female employees told their stories Wednesday.

“During my time at Walmart, I really had no life. The erratic scheduling, I couldn’t plan anything,” said Donna Fotiadis. “Frequently they would change my schedule an hour before they wanted me there without telling me, so I’d either have to try and re-schedule, cancel things or end up with a no-call no-show.”

The coalition says the problem is most evident among women of color, which is also backed up by the Berkeley researchers’ report.

The coalition said it awaited Weinberg’s bill, noting that other jurisdictions like New York and San Francisco have passed ordinances imposing requirements on companies.

Several speakers also noted that it was the labor movement that secured the eight-hour workday ages ago. What they said they want today are stable work schedules.