Roughly 17 percent of workers have "unstable” work schedules that can drastically change from week to week, according to a report by the Economic Policy Institute released this month, a trend that is hurting families and contributing to the cycle of poverty.
According to the EPI, a left-leaning think tank based in Washington, D.C., adults who work part-time are the ones who suffer most from these “unstable” schedules, a demographic that has seen substantial growth during the economic recovery.
The study focuses much of its attention on the impact these schedules have on families. “Work-family conflict” is greatly exacerbated by unpredictability, the study argues, and “having a greater ability to set one’s work schedule (start and end times and take time off from work) is significantly associated with reduced work-family conflict.”
Working odd hours, or being called in at unexpected times, makes it hard to be there for soccer games and parent-teacher conferences. While those struggles might not be relegated exclusively to part-time low-wage workers, it certainly doesn’t help.
“Many of us take for granted the freedom to come in late when we have a morning dentist's appointment or to leave an hour early to catch an evening flight,” The New Republic’s Danny Vinik wrote in response to the study. “Millions of workers don’t have that flexibility; their shifts start and end at firm times.”
But at least those with “firm” start and end times can rely on consistency, Vinik continued. As the EPI study shows, that benefit is denied to many workers, making it “nearly impossible for many low-income workers to plan their lives.”
According to Vinik, this is a systematic problem that states — and the federal government — need to fix, citing a New York law that stipulates “workers who are called to report for a shift must be paid for four hours of work, even if they are sent home.”
The Atlantic’s Gillian B. White agrees that relieving some of the economic stress from these workers could go a long way to reduce the frustrations that can come with these schedules.
“Employees can wind up spending time, and money, commuting to their job, only to be told to leave early, or that they're not needed at all that day,” she wrote. “A sudden call to work can mean scrambling for child care, or turning down much-needed hours.”
Short notice schedules that can change at any time, according to both Vinik and White, become part of a self-reinforcing cycle of poverty. Those who are forced to take part-time work for economic reasons — ether because they lost their full-time job, have a child to care for or simply don’t have the qualifications for other work in their area — end up spending time, money and resources to maintain their fickle work schedules.
If, as White asserts, these schedules keep employees on constant edge, understanding that their plans can be disrupted from week to week by new schedules, that means they won’t have time to work towards improving their economic situation. Furthering your education or job searching (or both) become complicated when you don’t know what next week will look like.
There are also those who argue allowing more accommodating work schedules benefits employers as well as employees.
“People with adaptable work environments tend to have healthier habits and may be more productive and efficient when they work,” Entrepreneur’s Firas Kittaneh wrote earlier this month. “They have time to devote to self-improvement and health as well as to being present for family and friends.”
In other words, if employers want to increase productivity, allowing employees to have a stronger say on when they can and cannot work will likely increase their overall productivity and, possibly, loyalty to their employer.
While Kittaneh is speaking primarily about breaking away from the predictable 9 to 5 mindset for work schedules, he cites a study that can easily apply to the difficulties created by unpredictability.
“People with ability to determine their own schedules had better mental health, healthier blood pressure and better sleep habits than those on fixed or involuntary schedules,” Kittaneh wrote, citing a study by the Cochrane Public Health Group.
The concern then for many is how to help empower part-time low-wage workers to have more control over their work schedules. Whether or not that is possible — based on the nature of most part-time low-wage jobs which often rely on strict staffing schedules (there must be X number of employees at the register at a certain time, etc.) — is another question that needs to be addressed.
JJ Feinauer is a writer and web producer for Deseret News National. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: jjfeinauer.