Lennox Thornswood is lucky: she just got a promotion at Target to be a brand team member, which means she can mostly expect to work the same early morning shifts every week. But before that, when she worked a lower-level job on the sales floor, she could never predict her schedule.
“My schedule was really any eight hour shift, anytime of the day, any day of the week,” she said. There were often days where she would have the closing shift, getting done at 10:45 at night or later, catch the bus home and arrive at 11:30 or midnight, then have to wake up the next morning at 5 or 6 a.m. to catch the bus back for an opening shift.
It made planning ahead nearly impossible. “I try to budget every single month,” she said, setting aside money for groceries, bus fare, and savings. But her schedule interfered. “I wouldn’t be able to properly budget because I wouldn’t know how much money I was going to make, so I wouldn’t know how to split it up evenly,” she said. “I would guess I had a certain amount for groceries, but sometimes I wouldn’t. I would guess I had a certain amount to save, but sometimes I wouldn’t. It’s pretty difficult.”
Not to mention that making any plans outside of work to see friends was incredibly difficult. “It was usually a last-minute thing if I wanted to see anyone or have a life.”
She and her coworkers also couldn’t be sure how many hours they would get. “It depended on the month and how supposedly the Target budget was doing,” she said. For one example, her hours were cut nearly in half during the month of February, reduced to just 20 hours a week. “I had some friends and coworkers getting eight hours, just one shift per week, when they were usually working 30 or 40.” And even then, expected hours could be shaved off. “To save money, [they would] let us out early,” she said. “Of course we wouldn’t get paid for the full shift we were scheduled for.”
Thornswood’s experience is more widespread than you might think. At least 17 percent of all workers have irregular schedules that don’t look like the typical 9-5, Monday through Friday, according to a new study from the Economic Policy Institute. About 10 percent is given irregular and on-call shifts, while another 7 percent have split (two different shifts in one day) or rotating ones.
Even that, however, doesn’t capture the whole problem. One answer to the survey where this data comes from is for a worker to say he works a day shift or night shift. “But if somebody says they have a regular day shift, but it’s at different times during the day, we might consider those to be irregular shift workers too,” the study’s author, Lonnie Golden, pointed out. He also noted that people who work nights and evenings may still end up being on call, told to be available to come in but unsure whether they will actually have to work.
These irregular hours are particularly common in certain jobs and industries, often ones that look like Thornswood’s job at target. About 15 percent of people who hold sales jobs have changing schedules, and they’re also common in retail, where it impacts 27 percent of employees. One survey focused just on retail workers in New York City found that 40 percent didn’t have a set minimum of hours they worked week to week and a quarter was scheduled for on-call shifts.
It is also poor workers who suffer the most. “By income level, the lowest income workers face the most irregular work schedules,” the report notes. Those who make less than $22,500 a year are more likely to have erratic schedules than any of those in the income brackets above them.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, erratic and unpredictable scheduling leads to work/family conflict. Less than 11 percent of those who have regular schedules say they often experience work/family balance issues, but more than a quarter of those with irregular or on-call shifts and about 20 percent of people with rotating or split shifts do. On the other hand, more than a quarter of people with regular schedules say they’ve never experienced a conflict.
Thornswood’s previous schedule made it difficult for her just to get sleep, having to wake up 5 a.m. one morning and at noon the next. “I feel like because I was so exhausted, I just wasn’t functioning as well,” she said. “I wasn’t getting as much work done, I was confused, I would mess things up a lot.”
The inability to control one’s own schedule is a big part of the problem. “Irregular scheduling is not about someone timing their own schedule to accommodate their own needs,” Golden said. It’s “employers saying I need you to come in or I need you to go home because I don’t need you.” This kind is problematic: the greater a worker’s ability to set her own schedule, the less work/family conflict she reports, according to the study. “If it’s irregular but you get the accommodation to set your own schedule, sometimes that will offset things like work/family balance issues,” Golden added.
For Thornsword, worse than her exhausting schedule was often the danger she felt when she got out late at night. The bus home leaves at 10:56 and is a half mile away, so if she got let out any later than 10:45 she would often end up missing it, having to wait a half hour for the next one. “I would be by myself in downtown Minneapolis at 11 a night and it was literally terrifying as a woman,” she said. “Almost every night men would come by and harass me and come up to me and say things.”
A coworker faced a different challenge: she was living in a homeless shelter, and if she got home after curfew she and her children couldn’t get inside. “Sometimes they don’t let her out at night when she needs to leave and go to the shelter,” Thornswood said.
But she and other coworkers didn’t have any say over their schedules. Even when they asked human resources to give them earlier work, they were told they had to put in at least one closing shift a week. “It doesn’t sound that bad, but that’s still 30 minutes every week I was sitting outside by myself,” she said.
Golden sees the rise of technology and competition to keep labor costs slim driving these erratic schedules. “In the past, we had more of a mentality of keeping a buffer of labor in case somebody calls in sick or gets hurt or is fatigued,” he said. Labor unions also fought for standard workdays and workweeks in the face of unpredictable work.
But today, “we’re kind of heading back in that direction” before union power, he said. Companies feel a “constant pressure to keep labor costs at a minimum.” That leads to “trying to match the micro fluctuations in consumer demand to having the staff available and no more than the minimum.”
Given the competition between companies, what’s needed is “a level playing field where all firms can not operate like that and not feel like they’re getting beat out by lower costs,” he said. One solution was recently passed in San Francisco: the Retail Workers Bill of Rights. Retail chains have to give employees at least two weeks advance notice of their schedules or pay them “predictability pay.” They also have to pay employees who are required to be on call even if the shifts get canceled. And it mandates that companies give current workers the chance to take on more hours before new people are hired and that part-time employees get the same starting wages as full-time peers.
Congressional lawmakers also floated a national solution. Last year, Reps. George Miller (D-CA) and Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) introduced the Schedules that Work Act, which requires at least two weeks’ scheduling notice and pay for workers who get sent home before the end of their shifts or are on call but not asked to come in. It would also give workers the right to request their own schedules, similar to another bill San Francisco passed in 2013.
Right now, Thornswood pointed out that a raise might be even more important than changing the scheduling issue. Target recently increased all base pay to at least $9 an hour, but those who were at or above that level didn’t get a bump and it can still be tough to live on that money. She thinks, however, that the low pay feeds into the scheduling challenges. “I have coworkers who try to pick up so many shifts so they can get more money,” she said. “If we get better pay, we won’t have to put up with all of these terrible conditions.”
Even her promotion hasn’t solved that issue. “I got a 25-cent raise,” she said. “Which really only covered the rush hour bus fare that I now have to pay.”