Contributor: Shreya Zaveri
Work and Life is a radio program hosted by Stew Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, on Sirius XM’s Channel 111, Business Radio Powered by Wharton. Every Tuesday at 7 pm EST, Stew speaks with everyday people and the world’s leading experts about creating harmony among work, home, community, and the private self (mind, body, and spirit).
On Work and Life Stew Friedman spoke with Susan Lambert, an Associate Professor in the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. Lambert is a leading expert on employer practices and employment conditions in low-level hourly jobs and how employers’ scheduling practices matter for worker well-being and family economic security.
The following are edited excerpts of their conversation.
Stew Friedman: Everyone’s clamoring for more flexible work schedules.—not just women, but young men, young fathers, the generation of folks who now find they need to provide eldercare for their aging parents. But is flex-time the answer, or is this allowing employers to create an unpredictable environment with negative spillover effects on families?
Susan Lambert: I think we need to be careful with the term “flexibility” today, and to consider who owns “flexibility.” Employers talking about flexible labor practices are focusing on variability, being able to vary the hours their employees work. The employees think about flexibility in terms of control.
SF: We’ve heard stories in the media of people’s lives being disrupted due to the unpredictable nature of their schedules. What prospects for change do you see?
SL: I am heartened and dismayed. I’m heartened by the fact that these sorts of practices are becoming part of the public discourse and that there is legislative action about this issue. But dismayed that these kind of practices seem so widespread in the economy today and that there is a lot of instability in people’s lives as a result of these employer “flexibility” practices. For example, my colleagues and I study low-level sales associate jobs, where not only the timing of work (a day shift or a night shift) but the days that you work might vary from week to week. You only get your schedule the day before you’re scheduled to work.
SF: So how can you plan for your family, community, and personal activities?
SL: Our research and worker’s groups report that it’s very difficult to plan anything! Unpredictability makes it difficult for parents to plan and engage in important child development activities, such as monitoring homework, reading bedtime stories, and cooking meals at home.
SF: What is it going to take to gain a greater access to control over work schedules?
SL: There are limits to how much this schedule variability benefits employers. There are costs to that level of employee instability. You get high rates of turnover. Employers are going to have to reconsider and see if they can balance the need for some amount of flexibility in the staffing level with building employee stability. We’ve done some analyses with data from 80 stores of a national women’s apparel firm, and we looked at how much demand for staff varied over every week in 2012. For about 25% of the stores the demand varied by 30% from the busiest to the slowest week in the store. That’s a lot. But for the majority of stores, 70% of hours stayed the same across weeks and months. Store managers are held accountable for staying within a certain amount of hours — that’s the ratio of their sales to their staffing level. They get in trouble for exceeding that. So they delay staffing schedules until the last minute. This is all over the place in retail, package handling, and even financial services.
SF: And how are workers responding? What about the law?
SL: We often find that jobs are bifurcated. Employers often have a core set of workers that get regular hours and steady schedules. They are treated differently from other “disposable” workers who have similar responsibilities. It’s a disruption into lives and communities and has a ripple effect.
There a number of efforts by workers in the country, such as the Retail Action Project in New York. Walmart just announced that they are going to provide stable schedules and more predictable working hours. We also need to expand the Fair Labor Standards Act, which was put into law in 1938 with only a few modifications since. Those laws are only basic protections from inherent risks of an industrial labor market. That’s where we get minimum wage and overtime pay. But there’s nothing guaranteeing workers a minimum number of hours. Employers are currently free to hire people and provide no hours at all. We see people get two hours one week and 25 the next.
SF: Do you think that a change in legislation is likely?
SL: Yes! The San Francisco Board of Supervisors recently approved the Retailers Bill of Rights, which includes advance notice. It has a provision to offer more hours to existing staff before hiring someone new. Minnesota issued legislation relating to scheduling issues this week. Vermont already has the right to request flexibility, and Connecticut, Michigan, and California have local and state level legislation trying to set some of these new standards.
SF: What’s the most important thing listeners should know about this critical topic?
SL: That these practices are affecting worker’s rights in our own offices, not across the street. It’s the custodian in your own workplace. It’s not somebody else’s problem. It’s everyone’s problem.
About The Author
Shreya Zaveri is a junior in the Wharton School studying Management and Marketing and OPIM with an International Relations minor. She also serves as a vice president for the Work-Life Integration Project Student Advisory Board.