Abercrombie & Fitch announced last week that it would stop requiring workers to be on call for shifts that could be canceled with little notice, making it the latest retailer to pull back from such scheduling practices.
Williams-Sonoma ended on-call shifts in the last several months, while Gap has scaled back the practice ahead of a study it has commissioned on scheduling. Last year, Starbucks announced that it was bringing more “stability and consistency” to its employees’ hours after an article in The New York Times highlighted the company’s habit of giving workers little advance notice on their schedules and requiring some to close and open stores in consecutive shifts, known as “clopening.”
Although the workers directly affected by unpredictable schedules are the most obvious winners, the biggest beneficiaries of a change in the practice could be their children. A growing body of research suggests that children’s language and problem-solving skills may suffer as a result of their parents’ problematic schedules, and that they may be more likely than other children to smoke and drink when they get older.
Young children and adolescents of parents working unpredictable schedules or outside standard daytime working hours are more likely to have inferior cognitive and behavioral outcomes.
Economic Policy Institute, in a report released this month
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“Young children and adolescents of parents working unpredictable schedules or outside standard daytime working hours are more likely to have inferior cognitive and behavioral outcomes,” the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal advocacy group, said in a report this month.
Last year, two Democratic representatives introduced the Schedules That Work Act, which would require employers to give workers more say about their hours and provide them with incentives to encourage more stable schedules.
“We are all talking about this today,” said Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who is one of the bill’s lead sponsors. “Five years ago, it was an issue people would have brushed to the corner.”
The bill has 69 co-sponsors; two Democrats introduced companion legislation in the Senate.
Among the needs that policymakers and activists working on the issue identify is finding stable, professional child care on a schedule that shifts from week to week.
“The arrangements families put together are usually ad hoc,” DeLauro said. “They have to rely on other family members, friends. If something breaks down in that chain, they have a problem.”
As practices like unpredictable scheduling have proliferated in recent years, fed by a shift toward lean staffing models made possible by sophisticated software, they have attracted public criticism.
In a nationwide New York Times/CBS News poll in May, 72 percent of Americans favored requiring chain stores to provide at least two weeks’ notice for any change in schedule, or else compensate workers with extra pay.
72 percent of Americans favor requiring chain stores to provide at least two weeks’ notice for any change in schedule, or else compensate workers with extra pay. New York Times/CBS News poll, May 2015
Regulators have also taken notice. In April, the office of the New York state attorney general sent letters to 13 retailers, questioning their use of on-call shifts. The letters, which were first reported by The Wall Street Journal, said retailers were providing workers with “too little time to make arrangements for family needs, let alone to find an alternative source of income to compensate for the lost pay.”
Several companies that received letters from the New York attorney general have denied that they use on-call scheduling for low-wage workers, or that it is common in their stores. Some retailers say that only a small fraction of their workers who have been on unpredictable schedules care for children.
“Very few of our store associates are working parents,” said Michael Scheiner, a spokesman for Abercrombie & Fitch, which was among the letter’s recipients.
But the problem appears to be widespread. A 2012 study of nonfood retail workers in New York City by Stephanie Luce of the City University of New York and by the Retail Action Project, a workers’ advocacy group, found that more than half of the surveyed workers who cared for others, such as children or elderly family members, had to make themselves available for last-minute shifts.
Because the practice is relatively new, however, scholars must infer its likely effect from research during the last decade showing the effects on children of parents who work nonstandard hours, including night shifts, that have been more common for years.
In one of the most respected studies, published in 2005 in the journal Child Development, professor Wen-Jui Han of New York University looked at children during their first three years of life, controlling for such demographic variables as their mothers’ income, education, and race and ethnicity.
Han, who was then at Columbia University, found that children of mothers who worked nonstandard schedules performed lower on problem-solving, verbal comprehension and spoken language tests than children of mothers who worked traditional schedules. Part of the explanation, she concluded, was increased stress on the part of the parents.
“Parents try their best to attend to their children in a sensitive and warm manner, but the physical and emotional exhaustion from nonstandard schedules makes it difficult,” Han said in an interview. “With young children, if they’re crying, asking for food, asking for something, it’s all about how you interact with them.”
In a study of female workers at a large clothing retailer published last year in the Industrial & Labor Relations Review, Julia Henly and Susan Lambert of the University of Chicago found that the unpredictability of the workers’ schedules was related to higher stress and difficulties juggling work and family demands.
While the study did not examine the way this affected children, Henly suggested that the challenges posed by unpredictable work hours could take a toll on children as well. She also predicted that mothers with constantly changing work schedules would be less likely to enroll their children in preschool and other high-quality child care facilities.
“Some amount of early childhood education is important,” she said. “But it’s impossible to take advantage of those opportunities if you have a schedule that doesn’t allow you to get your kid there.”
According to Carrie Gleason of the Center for Popular Democracy, a nonprofit organization that helps community groups organize, such complications may explain why there appear to be fewer parents who work on-call shifts.
“A lot of times we find that they don’t last very long,” she said. “It’s absolutely impossible for working parents to meet their responsibilities to their families and hold down a job at a company with on-call shifts.”
Still, even parents who do not work on-call jobs often have little advance notice of their schedules. In many companies that officially promise to make schedules available in advance, Gleason said, “managers edit the schedule up until the hours someone is supposed to come in.”