In $15's Wake, Fair Scheduling Gains Momentum

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announces a new fair scheduling initiative for fast-food workers on September 16, 2016. (Photo: NYC Office of the Mayor) 

Worker movements have had tremendous success in blue cities and states in securing higher minimum wages and access to paid sick leave. Now those wins are blazing a trail for another critical policy for low-wage workers: the right to a fair workweek. After enacting a $15 minimum wage and paid sick leave in recent years, two cities are now leading the way on granting workers the right to a sane and predictable schedule.

Last week, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his support for legislation currently pending in the city council that would give Gotham’s fast-food workers the right to more predictable work hours. On Monday, the Seattle City Council passed a comprehensive fair workweek law that advocates hope can serve as a model for other cities.

These policy developments come at a time when many workers say that service-sector employers’ scheduling practices make it impossible for them to live their lives. On-call scheduling—in which workers can be told to report to work with little advance notice—make it hard for employees to schedule parenting, school, doctor visits, and much else. Scheduling software aimed solely at efficiency can lengthen or eliminate their shifts at the last minute. On top of that, the prevalent practice of “clopening”—where a worker has a closing shift followed just a few hours later by an opening shift—often leaves workers with little time to rest. Meanwhile, workers are on the hook for the costs of uncertainty, like a last-minute taxi ride to work or unexpected child-care costs.

In one nationwide survey, four out of five early-career adult workers said that their weekly hours fluctuated by an average of 87 percent compared with their usual hours; 45 percent of hourly workers who are parents said they have no input on their schedules.

Fair-scheduling advocates say it's time for employees to have more say in scheduling practices—and for employers to finally pay their workers for the costs that their flexible schedule imposes on employees (like those taxi rides and child care). They are also demanding that companies stop hiring more and more workers to maximize flexibility while cutting hours for existing workers.

In 2014, San Francisco became the first jurisdiction in the country to mandate fair-scheduling practices with its unprecedented “Retail Workers Bill of Rights.” The new Seattle law will build on that by requiring that employers give workers two weeks advance notice on shift schedules—any changes made to schedules after that requires additional compensation for the worker, including half-time pay for any hours an employer cuts or cancels. Workers will have the right to request flexible scheduling without fear of retaliation.

Workers will also have protections against “clopening.” The proposed law would be the first in the country to require an employee’s consent for shifts that allow less than ten hours of rest, and to mandate that “clopening” workers get paid time and a half. Additionally, employers would be required to offer available hours to part-time workers before hiring additional workers. Companies that have been found to consistently under-schedule workers and make last-minute shift changes would be subject to fines.

On the opposite coast, the New York City legislation focuses on the 65,000 workers in the city’s fast-food industry. As such, it follows the pattern set by  Fight for 15 organizers, who first convinced Governor Andrew Cuomo to convene a wage board for fast food last year, later to be followed by a general increase in the state minimum wage. “We are in a battle to restore dignity and decent living to retail and service workers in industries where that really has been badly eroded in recent years,” New York City Councilmember Brad Lander told the Prospect in an interview. “These are critical steps forward. If you don’t get that many hours, earning $15 only goes so far.”

As in the Seattle legislation, New York fast-food employers would be required to give workers two weeks advance notice on expected shifts, mandate additional compensation for last-minute changes to a worker’s schedule, and provide protections for workers who are “clopening.” However, as of now, the proposed policy gives employers a week of wiggle room after setting the schedule to make changes before locking it in.

The policy initiative is in the beginning stages, Lander stresses, and the city council may push for any number of changes, including broadening the law to include the entire service industry. As of now, the policy is aimed at the same group of fast-food employers that Cuomo’s wage board dealt with—chains with 30 or more locations nationwide. It’s those bigger chains that already utilize sophisticated scheduling software to minimize labor costs. They can use that same software, Lander says, to ensure that workers have a predictable and secure workweek.

To date, fair-scheduling laws have lagged behind wage hikes and paid sick-day ordinances in city halls and statehouses. At the federal level, in 2014, Representative Rosa DeLauro and Senator Elizabeth Warren introduced the Schedules that Work Act, which protects hourly workers from scheduling abuses—though with Republican control of Congress, the bill hasn’t gone anywhere.

But fair workweek policies now appear primed to become the next front in the low-wage worker movement. In response to pressure from SEIU’s Local 32BJ, a powerful force along the Eastern seaboard, policy-makers in Connecticut, Washington, D.C., and Jersey City may soon pass new rules that mandate 30-hour workweeks for service workers, like security guards and janitors, in large commercial and residential buildings. In November, voters in San Jose will decide on a ballot measure that would require companies with 35 or more workers to offer additional hours to part-timers before taking on new employees.

Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis are also considering fair-scheduling measures for retail and fast-food chains, though both efforts have run into heavy resistance from the business lobby. Workers and organizers are also pushing for a fair-scheduling law in Emeryville, a small city between Berkeley and Oakland that is a major retail-shopping destination for the east Bay Area.

“The momentum with the Fight for 15 has opened up this new space where policy-makers are starting to listen to the real needs that the country’s workforce has been talking about for a long time,” says Carrie Gleason, director of the Center for Popular Democracy’s Fair Workweek Initiative, which is assisting with local fair-scheduling efforts. “This isn’t a new issue,” Gleason adds. But “the accelerated pace in which these types of work-hour policies have taken off is a demonstration of the moment we’re in.”   

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