During my first months working for a major retailer, my manager called to inform me that my next three scheduled shifts would be cancelled due to low sales. At the time, I was 16 years old, dependent on my parents’ income and splitting my paychecks between my savings account and concert tickets. By contrast, erratic work schedules put my coworkers with car payments to make and diapers to buy in an economically precarious situation.
Phone calls like the one I received from my manager were far from atypical in my job. In addition to last-minute cancellations, my coworkers and I would wait until Friday evenings to receive our weekly schedules—which would begin less than two days later, on Sunday mornings. Even when we received notice of our schedules later than Friday evenings, we still had to be on time if we were scheduled for the 6 a.m. markdown shift on Sunday. We might also discover that we would be working just 12 hours in a week, even though the previous week we had worked for 20. Last August, a few months before I left, the company publicly announced that it would provide all employees their schedules 14 days in advance by early 2016. But my former coworkers tell me that they still receive their schedules just 48 hours before the workweek starts. The ugly reality is that corporate promises—even widely publicized ones—do not ensure change.
The scheduling practices that continue to threaten my coworkers’ ability to make ends meet are hardly unique to my former employer. In fact, schedule volatility affects a staggering 90 percent of the retail workforce. And for the 35 percent of these workers who are parents, fluctuating hours seriously impede their best efforts to secure high-quality child care.
The practice of on-call scheduling is particularly disruptive to work-family balance. Someone who is on-call has to sit in schedule purgatory until her manager either clears her to stay home or asks her to come in—which can happen with as little as two hours’ notice. If she can’t scramble to find child care in that time (a difficult task given the scarcity of accessible, affordable care in this country), she may have to take a disciplinary strike for failing to report to work. If she accumulates too many strikes, she can be fired. Informal consequences like reduced hours or inconvenient shifts are not uncommon either. Although some major retailers have announced plans to end on-call scheduling, many still expect their employees to report to work with little notice and at any time of day (or night).
To make matters worse, only a few states and localities protect parents’ ability to request time off to care for their children. As a result, in most places, employees can be fired when family responsibilities make them unavailable to work a shift. In November 2014, some year-round Kmart employees reported that they had to be available to work on Thanksgiving and Black Friday, or else risked termination. Even though child care on a federal holiday is nearly impossible to find, the ultimatum stood: work on Thanksgiving, or lose your job.
The result is that parents with unpredictable work schedules are much more likely to rely on home-based child care providers, relatives, or both. A patchwork of informal care arrangements can deprive children of the educational and developmental benefits associated with high-quality child care. Early childhood education is a springboard for educational attainment, economic mobility, and social well-being for children in low-income families. Yet, schedule instability in low-wage industries constrains parents’ ability to position their children for future success.
To help low-income parents afford child care, the federal Child Care and Development Fund provides billions of dollars in subsidies—but the program is far from perfect. It’s funded through block grants, meaning that states have the power to impose work requirements for parents who have no control over their hours; states can also make the application process cumbersome through requiring employers to corroborate parents’ schedules and income with additional documents. (It should be noted that none of these requirements exist at the federal level.) Conservative policymakers tout block grants as an ideal way to tailor policies to fit the unique needs of different states, but in reality, they keep high quality child care out of reach for many working parents.
But even when child care is affordable for retail workers, it often is unobtainable in practice. Just 3 percent of center-based child care providers are open on weekends, and even fewer are open after 7 p.m. Meanwhile, only 44 percent of retail workers work regular daytime hours, which leaves the majority of the retail workforce with very limited options for child care. To complicate things further, providers often require advance payment for full-time enrollment, which is often impossible for parents whose hours can fluctuate by 50 percent from week to week.
None of this is inevitable. Policies that recognize and empower working parents are crucial to reining in unchecked schedule volatility in the retail industry and beyond. The Schedules That Work Act, introduced in the Senate last summer, offers much-needed, common sense protections. The bill requires employers to modify schedules based on employees’ child care needs, and prevents employees who use their right to request schedule modifications from adverse outcomes like pay cuts and termination. It guarantees four hours of pay if workers are sent home early, and eliminates unpaid “on-call” shifts. Finally, the bill mandates employers to provide clear and advance notice of work schedules.
Overall, this legislation would make it easier for my former coworkers who are parents to provide their children with the long-term benefits of consistent, high-quality care. Retail workers are expected to take initiative and be proactive problem solvers—not only as workers, but also as parents. It’s only fair that the law require our employers to do the same.