Unpredictable Schedules Inflicted on Workers are Wrecking People's Lives



Nurses are among the many workers who suffer from unpredictable schedules that often lead to working double shifts.

The unemployment drop in the September jobs report, to 5.9 percent, was welcome news. But as many have noted, wages remain flat and 7.1 million Americans worked part-time but wanted to work full-time. Furthermore, the monthly snapshot, which focuses on limited questions and simplified distinctions, altogether misses a key indicator of the job market’s health.

Our recent book, Unequal Timesuggests that for the millions of Americans fortunate enough to be working, scheduling has become chronically unpredictable. Most discussions of employment fail to capture the widespread variability in work hours, or what some employers now like to call “flexibility.” While recent media reports have focused on the unwieldy lives of young people working at Starbucks and clothing stores—working with a day’s notice or splitting shifts—the issue is far more widespread.

Unpredictability affects young and older workers across a range of economic sectors, including those categorized in any given week as part- or full-time workers, with dramatic consequences for how schedules are set, negotiated, and contested. This nationwide trend goes virtually undetected when we take the economy’s temperature each month.

In the expanding health care sector, for example, unpredictability is pervasive. At one nursing home, we found great discrepancies between the official planned-in-advance schedule and the list of which nurses and nursing assistants actually ended up working each day. This was a high-end nursing home, with much lower than average staff turnover, where almost all beds are occupied all the time so that the nursing home has the same number of staff each day. Nonetheless, in this most stable of situations, roughly one out of every three shifts was not according to schedule; that is, either someone was working when they weren’t scheduled in advance to do so, or someone was not at work when the planned-in-advance schedule said they should be.

Professionals, like many of the nurses we interviewed, also talked of unpredictability, telling us they often must stay late to finish up paperwork. Doctors did too, or they would stay to take what they saw as an unpredictable amount of time for a needy patient. One doctor explained to us that “staying late is unpredictable,” but when we asked how often he ends up staying later than anticipated he answered “every day, according to my family.” For some high profile always-on-text-and-email professionals and executives, for whom messages may come at any (unpredicted) time, the issue is whether they are ever off work; going off-line one night a week in these full time jobs is seen as a revolutionary act. Routine overwork is, here, just another full-time job.

For part-time workers, unpredictability is an even greater burden. In interviews for our book, over and over we heard $10-an-hour nursing assistants say they wanted extra hours. Why? Nursing homes would schedule them in advance for 24 or 32 hours a week, that is, for three or four eight-hour shifts. But the average nursing assistant’s income was $21,000 per year; many were single mothers with incomes of $16,000 or less (even including additional shifts). 

As a result, they were desperate to work more hours, which meant picking up an unscheduled shift whenever the nursing home had one available. But lean staffing policies create havoc in workers’ lives. Even if a part-time worker is able to pick up one unpredictable shift for a full-time schedule one week, it might be different the next. 

This varying nature of part-time employment also throws into question the categories which the jobs report uses to assess unemployment. In a given week, some of those people working a 24- or 32-hour-a-week schedule may manage to pick up enough hours to make 40 hours and appear in the counts as full-time. In other words, the count of 7.1 million people in the labor force as working part-time but seeking full-time work undercounts the larger number of people for whom employment is a constant state of uncertainty and insecurity.

Workers—especially those who earn low wages, especially women and especially women of color—also face unpredictability not only from their bosses but also from their families. That’s because lean staffing now characterizes not only the economy but also the family (where single moms and two- or three-job couples have replaced single-earner families for all but the affluent), reinforcing unpredictability as the new normal. 

Policy makers and the media are beginning to recognize that these chronically unpredictable schedules are unsustainable—indeed, they are signs of an unhealthy economy. Workers need more stable hours and better work-family balance, including the freedom to take paid sick days, which Connecticut, California, and almost a dozen cities now allow. Elizabeth Warren and Tom Harkin in the Senate, and George Miller and Rosa DeLauro in the House, have introduced the Schedules That Work Act, which would require advance notice about schedules for some workers, and guarantee pay if shifts are cancelled at the last-minute. 

What the government chooses to measure, and what the media report, is a political decision, an indication of what the movers-and-shakers care about.  Thus we spend a lot of money, and get regular monthly reports, on the unemployment rate for jobs designated as full or part-time, which business uses to assess the state of the economy.  The jobs report doesn’t even attempt to capture the unpredictability in people’s schedules, much less the economic cost of the chaos caused by trying to arrange last-minute childcare, or the exhaustion of being on 16 hours straight for an unanticipated double-shift. By ignoring these realities, we overstate the health of the U.S. economy. 



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