Symphony Hurst is a proud mother, but she has occasionally found herself withholding that fact from her employers.
Hurst, who grew up in Southwest Philadelphia and now lives in the Overbrook section, has a four-year-old daughter and works in retail — formerly Macy’s, now Starbucks. Like thousands of other retail workers, she’s had to hustle to get enough hours to pay the bills. At Macy’s, when her schedule was light, she would scramble to pick up extra shifts from co-workers — any that were available, often back-to-back with scheduled hours, which varied from week to week. Later, when she worked at the Starbucks at La Salle University (managed by Aramark, a local Philadelphia company), it was much the same: Odd hours, often not enough of them, often posted on the schedule last minute with barely any time to plan ahead.
“If I didn’t have enough money for childcare on a certain day, I couldn’t go to work, which obviously made the problem worse,” Hurst told reporters at press conference in Philadelphia’s city council chambers on Thursday.
Her voice cracked when she said that she had sometimes resorted to avoid telling potential employers she had a child, fearing that they would assume she couldn’t handle a full-time workload.
Hurst now works in the Starbucks at Philadelphia International Airport. It’s a union job, with a schedule and income that’s more predictable than she’s had before. She knows from week to week that she’ll be able to buy groceries and pay for childcare.
“It’s my first job ever with steady hours,” Hurst tells Next City after the press conference.
Hurst, a member of the One Pennsylvania coalition, joined other advocates and union leaders at Philadelphia City Hall on Thursday to help announce the introduction of fair workweek legislation. The bill would require chains with at least 250 employees and 20 locations to provide employees with a “good faith” estimate of their weekly workload upon hiring, and two weeks’ advance notice of schedules thereafter. It would also require compensation for last-minute schedule cuts, and prevent employers from cutting workers’ hours in retaliation for calling out for appointments and other obligations. And it would require employers to offer extra shifts to existing employees before bringing in outside applicants.
Around 130,000 hourly workers in the city would benefit from the fair work week protections, according to the bill’s sponsor, Councilmember Helen Gym.
“We’re tired of waiting on benevolence and goodwill,” Gym said at the press conference. “We’re tired of waiting for promises that never seem to happen from those who are most able to give. We are tired of waiting for the state and federal government to recognize our humanity and to recognize common sense business practices. This bill is about standards and dignity.”
The legislation is part of a nationwide trend of fairwork week policies that seek to stabilize work for low-wage and hourly employees. Research has shown that unpredictable work schedules are harmful to employee health and well-being. Recent studies also suggest that businesses actually benefit from providing more stable schedules for their workers.
Cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and New York have begun advancing legislation requiring advance notice for schedules, predictable weekly workloads, extra pay for on-call shifts or last-minute shift cancellations, and minimum rest times between shifts.
Seattle passed a secure scheduling policy in 2016 that requires advance notice of schedules and compensation for canceled shifts, among other provisions. Seattle Councilmember Lorena González, who helped spearhead the effort, says it took nine months of negotiations between various stakeholders to get the policy passed.
“We had a general sense of what the policy goals were, and what we did in Seattle was set up a process to allow us to engage people, both workers and businesses, to really figure out what the mechanisms would be,” González says.
Initially, González says that she and her colleagues wanted to include all full-service restaurants in the policy. But eventually the council focused on businesses with at least 500 employees, which was where González says they were hearing clear evidence about problems with scheduling.
It’s important for cities considering fair workweek policies to talk with business owners to talk about “operational concerns,” to dedicate resources to help educate both employers and workers about the new policies, and to enforce them, González says. The policy was enacted last summer.
“Here in Seattle, it has not impacted our economy,” González says. “We continue to see dozens of restaurants open a month in our city. We see retail doing very well in our city. And I think it’s because when we treat workers well, businesses reap the benefits of that positive workplace culture.”
Meanwhile in New York City, Councilmember Brad Lander says that he and his colleagues began talking about fair workweek policies around the time that Mayor Bill de Blasio first came into office, in 2013.
In addition to passing bills requiring advance notice for schedules and restricting “clopenings,” a term referring to the practice of scheduling two shifts for an employee fewer than 11 hours apart, New York City passed a law allowing hourly workers to organize nonprofit organizations and dedicate a portion of their payroll to them. The organizations are meant to function sort of like para-unions, enabling fast-food and retail workers to organize and advocate for better policies across the sector even without formally recognized collective-bargaining rights. Organized advocacy by workers made the city council’s work in passing all of the laws easier, Lander says.
“There was meaningful opposition [from the business community], but I think the fact that the case was built well, that workers showed up and talked about why it mattered, and that it is just such a sympathetic issue helped us feel confident throughout the process that we would be able to pass it,” Lander says.
Lander says that New York City was able to learn from both San Francisco and Seattle as his colleagues put its fair workweek bills together. Other cities should be encouraged by policies that are taking effect around the country without causing major problems for businesses, he says.
“It is definitely important to meet with and listen to employers, but I guess I would say, for where those employers push back, fast-food franchises in Seattle and San Francisco and Emeryville [Calif.] and New York City are all complying with this bill with no problems whatsoever,” Lander says. “The sky does not fall. People can get still get their Big Macs and Dunkin’ Donuts. We haven’t seen price increases. We haven’t seen any closures. What we have seen is workers who have stable lives and a path to full-time jobs. So listen, but don’t be cowed by sky-is-falling opposition.”
In Philadelphia, the Chamber of Commerce has already announced its concerns about the fair workweek legislation, calling it “yet another anti-growth out of sync initiative introduced in City Council.” The Chamber says the bill is at odds with the “flexibility” that modern workers and employers want.
Gym responded to the Chamber’s letter with a statement saying that unstable schedules only benefit corporations, not workers, but cited a study suggesting that stable schedules not only benefit workers’ wellbeing but increase profits and reduce turnover.
“We believe Councilwoman Gym is coming from a positive place and wants to help Philadelphia’s workers, many of whom are working at or slightly above minimum wage and relying on these jobs to support their families,” says Mike Dunn, a spokesperson for Mayor Jim Kenney. “We look forward to working with Councilwoman Gym and other members of Council in the upcoming months to ensure this legislation is given the time and attention required to make sure the input of all parties is considered, and that Philadelphia residents are afforded much-needed protections without negatively impacting our businesses.”
Next City is one of 19 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. Read more at https://brokeinphilly.org and follow us on Twitter @BrokeInPhilly.
Jared Brey is Next City's housing correspondent, based in Philadelphia. He is a former staff writer at Philadelphia magazine and PlanPhilly, and his work has appeared in Columbia Journalism Review, Landscape Architecture Magazine, U.S. News & World Report, Philadelphia Weekly, and other publications.