Low-wage workers pick their next battleground

The Fight for 15 sets its sights on fair scheduling.

Supporters of Seattle’s new scheduling law at the city council on Monday evening. CREDIT: AP Photo/Elaine Thompson
Supporters of Seattle’s new scheduling law at the city council on Monday evening. CREDIT: AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

Just four years ago, fast food workers in New York City walked off the job, launching the first strike to ever hit the industry and a movement that has had rapid success. Calling for a $15 minimum wage and the right to form a union, the Fight for 15 started staging strikes and protests in a growing number of cities — the last day of action reached 320 — that drew in workers beyond fast food, including adjunct professors, childcare providers, and retail workers.

That fight is by no means over, but it has led to surprising victories. Today, two states have passed increases to bring their minimum wages to $15 an hour, as have a number of major cities.

Now workers are pushing forward on a new demand: the right to consistent and predictable schedules.

In many ways, advocates see this as a natural extension of the Fight for 15. After all, higher hourly pay means little if you never know you’ll have enough hours to make ends meet or if a last-minute change disrupts your plans for childcare or transportation.


“Workers who have experienced their wage increase and then see their hours cut the next week more than anything know that their paycheck is their wages times hours,” pointed out Carrie Gleason, director of the Fair Workweek Initiative at the Center for Popular Democracy.

Erratic and unpredictable scheduling has become a more and more common problem. “The erosion of unions, compounded by the accelerated pace of change and the nature of work, has only increased the need for updating our standards around hours,” she said.

At least 17 percent of all workers have irregular schedules, including changing or on-call shifts or working two shifts in one day. Over 40 percent of workers don’t find their schedules out until a week in advance, while 40 percent say their hours vary week to week. It’s especially prevalent in service sector jobs; huge numbers of retail workers in New York City and food service workers in Washington say they don’t get enough notice of their hours each week.

“The fight for just hours is definitely the next movement for people trying to achieve security for their families.”

“The fight for just hours is definitely the next movement for people trying to achieve security for their families,” Gleason added. “New energy has been generated with the Fight for 15, and as policymakers have raised the minimum wage and passed paid sick days across the country, they’re turning their attention to the crisis around hours finally.”


The movement has already notched victories. In 2014, San Francisco became the first city to pass legislation regulating schedules, enacting a law that requires retail chains to give employees two weeks notice of their schedules, pay them if shifts change at the last minute, give current workers the opportunity to take on more hours before new hires are brought in, and to treat part-time workers similarly as full-time ones.

Then on Monday evening, the Seattle city council voted unanimously to pass a law that looks very similar. It will require large employers in retail and food service to give employees two weeks notice of schedules, extra pay for last-minute changes, and input into what their schedules will look like. It will also get rid of “clopenings,” or when employees work a closing shift one day only to come in early the next morning to open.

Seattle workers had already helped secure a $15 minimum wage increase in 2014. And it was after that victory that the conversation around scheduling began.

“It really became apparent during the 15 campaign that workers not only needed a higher minimum wage, but they needed more stable schedules,” said Sejal Parikh, executive director of Working Washington. After that campaign resulted in a victory, “workers started talking about what the next campaign would be: Making sure the minimum wage is enforced, and figuring out how to get to more secure schedules in the city.”

It’s “the natural other half of the 15 dollar campaign,” she added.

It’s “the natural other half of the 15 dollar campaign.”

That effort also coincided with one targeted at Starbucks. In the summer of 2014, shortly after a New York Times exposé on the company’s scheduling practices, Starbucks announced that it would make changes such as ending clopenings and posting schedules three weeks out.


But a year ago this month, Starbucks baristas in Seattle launched a campaign accusing the company of unevenly implementing these practices and still allowing workers’ schedules to be erratic.

Those two groups of workers got together and began talking to the city council late last year, and Parikh said they got a warm reception. The issue “really resonated with people,” she said. “Many of us have worked in retail or fast food or coffee and could recall times when we didn’t know what our schedule would be.” Workers were deeply involved in crafting the legislation, too: it was built around answers to surveys sent out to fast food employees and baristas asking them about their priorities.

It helped to be able to work with those in San Francisco who worked on the passage of the bill there and have been implementing it since. “Because San Francisco went first, we have a piece of policy where we’ve learned a lot of lessons,” she said.

“It’s really catching on,” she added. “I think it’s going to be one of the next pieces of labor policy across the country.”

It’s already reached the other coast. Seattle’s victory came just a week after New York City said it would start working on being the next. Last Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) announced that he, along with legislators and advocates, would begin crafting legislation aimed at improving scheduling for fast food workers. While the details will be hashed out in the months to come, he focused on two weeks advance notice, compensation for last-minute changes, and cracking down on clopenings.

“It’s really catching on.”

“It’s time for us to use the power of city government to make sure that people are treated decently,” he said at the press conference announcing the new effort.

New York City, home to the first fast food strike, now has a $15 minimum wage thanks to the state increase. “If [workers are] making 15 an hour, it doesn’t really matter if they don’t know when they’re actually making that money,” said Freddi Goldstein, deputy press secretary for the mayor. Scheduling “just felt like a natural next step.”

And as Seattle looked to San Francisco for guidance, New York will work with people in those two cities to see what worked and what didn’t.

The city is only looking at the fast food industry so far because, Goldstein said, it’s a workforce that is rarely unionized and “highly abused.” But it’s possible the focus could expand beyond that industry in the future, and as the effort to craft the legislation unfolds new planks could also be added. “I wouldn’t say we haven’t decided to do or not do anything at this point,” she said.

The scheduling movement hasn’t met with a totally unbroken string of successes: On Tuesday the D.C. city council voted to table a bill that would have addressed scheduling, killing it for the current session. Councilmember Elissa Silverman vowed to introduce a new version of the bill in the next one.

But the idea is starting to spread. It’s cropped up in Minneapolis, MN and Emeryville, CA. A scheduling bill has also been introduced in Congress, although it hasn’t advanced. “We’re already seeing policymakers step up across the country,” the Center for Popular Democracy’s Gleason said.

“The movement for the Fair Labor Standards Act was about wages and the 40-hour workweek,” she added. “It’s only natural that we’re seeing the demand for just wages and hours back again.”