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Fixing the Shift

A grass roots group fighting for a fairer work week arrives in Philly today. Will it make getting ahead easier for those who need it?

A grass roots group fighting for a fairer work week arrives in Philly today. Will it make getting ahead easier for those who need it?

Natori Price earns just $12 an hour at her job at a Center City Target—and she needs every bit of it. Just 19, Price is the only person with a job in her seven-person household. She supports her disabled mother, her younger siblings and her newborn niece.

But Price—like many low-wage workers—struggles with more than just her low wage. She also must contend with the volatility of her schedule. From week to week, she often doesn’t know when she is going to work, how many hours she’ll  get, or even if shifts will be cancelled at the last minute. Or, she’ll  get last minute calls to come in on her  days off to work some desperately-needed hours—but can’t.

“I didn’t have the car fare,” Price said on Thursday. “I’m completely broke until tomorrow. The only reason I can go into work today is because the El is free with the Eagles.”

In the Philly area, 29 percent of  hourly employees say they work “on-call,” keeping their schedules open, so they are ready to work; 34 percent receive less than one week’s advance notice of scheduling; and 16 percent said they had a shift cancelled in the past month.

Hard on the heels of the Fight for $15 minimum wage campaign, a group that has won legislation or regulation changes involving work schedules in three states and seven cities is launching a drive in Philadelphia. The Fair Workweek Initiative will kick off its campaign in Philadelphia on Tuesday, with a rally at 12th and Chestnut streets, followed by a march to City Hall, where organizers will demand that City Council pass legislation requiring fair and consistent schedules for hourly workers.

The result of unreliable scheduling is financial insecurity and an inability to plan essentials including childcare, say University of California sociologists who have studied the issue nationally, and unveiled a report last week on the Philadelphia region, where there are nearly 100,000 retail and fast food workers.

Scheduling instability poses “significant economic and other type of financial challenges,” says  former Penn associate professor of sociology Kristen Harknett, who now holds a similar title at the University of California, San Francisco, and is one of two key researchers on the “Shift Project.” Workers with unstable schedules can’t, for example, adequately budget, because they don’t know how many hours of work they’ll receive. If they are going to school, they can’t build a schedule around classes, the researchers said. And irregular hours mean they can’t take on a second job.

The work has broad implications for the city of Philadelphia, which has the highest poverty rate of the nation’s 10 largest cities, with 400,000 people or 25.7 percent, living in poverty. To achieve a living wage in Philadelphia, a single adult needs to earn $11.70 an hour and an adult with one child must bring in $23.60 per hour—assuming full-time work. But, according to the report, retail and fast food workers here earn considerably less, $10.71 an hour on average, with 40 percent of those surveyed earning $9 an hour or less.

That is not enough to lift them much, or at all, above the poverty level. But it could get them closer if they can on more work more hours—either at the job they have or at a second one. But, because they can’t get a regular, predictable schedule, they can’t reliably be available to report to a second job.

Among the findings of the Shift Project, researchers found that in the Philly area, 29 percent of  hourly employees say they work “on-call”; 34 percent receive less than one week’s advance notice of scheduling; workers reported, on average, that there was a 14-hour difference between their highest and lowest paid weeks in a month; and 16 percent said they had a shift cancelled in the past month.

Fair Workweek is an effort of the Brooklyn-based Center for Popular Democracy, which describes itself as an alliance of organizations promoting “an innovative pro-worker, pro-immigrant, racial and economic justice agenda.” In Pennsylvania, its partner is One Pennsylvania, led by Erin Kramer, a former organizer with the Service Employees International Union SEIU, who was also active in bringing the Fight for $15 campaign to raise the minimum wage for fast food workers.

“Philadelphia, being a more progressive city, has shown that it wants to make things better for working families,” said Salewa Ogunmefun, the political director of One Pennsylvania. The city has, for example, passed laws mandating sick leave and forbidding employers to ask applicant for salary history, in an effort to reduce gender pay disparity. Employers aren’t allowed to conduct criminal background checks until they’ve made a conditional offer of employment.

So far, three states and seven cities have enacted scheduling legislation, with the most recent being the state of New York. Other states and cities include Oregon, New Hampshire, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington DC, and New York city.

New York state’s regulations, for example, require employers to set schedules 14 days in advance and to pay workers four hours of “call-in” pay if their shifts are scheduled or cancelled less than 72 hours ahead of time, or if workers report, but are sent home early. If they are on-call, but don’t end up working, they will also receive four hours of pay. However, if workers “volunteer” to work extra hours on short notice, employers can pay just minimum wage, even if the worker earns more.

So far, three states and seven cities have enacted scheduling legislation, with the most recent being the state of New York. Other states and cities include Oregon, New Hampshire, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington DC, and New York city.

“Admittedly, it is difficult for those people, but a lot of times, the businesses themselves don’t know what their business will be,” says  Gene Barr, president and chief executive of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry. On the other hand, he says, employers know they have to attract and keep good people, which is an incentive for them to develop more worker-friendly scheduling practices.

But, he says, the answer is not government regulation. When that happens—whether for increasing the minimum wage or mandating schedules—the result, Barr says, is employers turning to automation and cutting jobs—which leaves workers worse off than before.

Carrie Gleason, who heads the Fair Workweek Initiative for the Center for Popular Democracy, acknowledges that retailers sometimes don’t know the level of business they’ll have at a particular time. But that doesn’t mean the lowest paid worker shouldn’t get paid; the risk should be shared. And, Gleason says, the push to automation isn’t about labor standards at all. It’s a result of pressure on retailing from online giants like  Amazon, as well as excessive debt.

Indeed, some retailers, including Walmart, the Gap and Starbucks, have improved their scheduling practices—after a group of state attorneys general wrote them letters inquiring about their practices.

To gather their data for the Shift Project, sociologists Daniel Schneider and Harknett tapped into Facebook, recruiting 36,000 survey participants through advertisements targeted to workers employed at large retail and food service operations. That process drew in 687 workers from the Philadelphia, Camden and Wilmington regions whose responses were weighted to account for demographics and to reflect the mix of service sector businesses in the region.

For workers like Price, it’s hardly academic. At Target, the schedule comes out weekly, but often managers call workers to pick up extra hours. That happened to Price twice last week. No matter how busy she is, she feels compelled to say yes for fear that Target will stop offering the extra hours. Several times a month, she closes the store at 10:30 p.m and reports back to open at 5:30 a.m. With the infrequent bus schedules, she gets home around midnight and leaves for work at 3 a.m.

“Essentially, I work like anybody else,” said Price, who lives in West Philadelphia and works in a Target store in Center City. “I see where [the system] fails and it’s hard on me.”

Photo: United States Department of Defense

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