Last summer, Starbucks boosted its corporate good-guy image by announcing that it would alleviate the unpredictable work schedules of 130,000 baristas. Though the change was announced on the same day the New York Times ran an article that profiled a single-mother barista of a San Diego Starbucks who struggled to care for her four-year-old, it was a promising move by a global chain nonetheless. Employees would no longer be at the mercy of flawed computer software that determined their workweek, and the company would curb the use of “clopening” — when workers close and open on consecutive days — a company executive wrote to baristas.
But six months later, the Times reported that Starbucks had not entirely stamped out clopening. And baristas frothing lattes aren’t the only ones who struggle with a very different meaning of the phrase “work-life balance.” Millions of people across the U.S. have to deal with erratic work schedules and/or on-call shifts — at least 17 percent of the workforce, according to an estimate from liberal think tank Economic Policy Institute. Further, EPI found that these scheduling practices are most likely to be felt by low-income workers.
On the heels of several minimum wage increase victories, advocates are also pushing the issue of unstable workweeks as the next big legislative fight in reducing worker inequality. Over the last year, legislation about employee scheduling has been introduced all over the country, in cities — including Minneapolis, Washington, D.C. and San Francisco — and 10 different states, which would restrict or banish policies subjecting workers to uncompensated on-call scheduling, shift changes with less than a week’s notice and limitations on swapping work hours.
The fight for such change has been recently flared in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where a bill introduced in June, the Fair Workweek Act, would have done all of that — plus added additional regulations like allowing part-time employees to accrue 56 hours of paid sick leave a year. Throughout the summer, debate surrounding the bill grew so heated that detractors leaked emails showing city councilors discussing the bill’s language with pro-worker organizers, as if the correspondence had been evidence of a Benghazi-level cover-up and collusion.
Albuquerque ranks 99th out of the top 100 largest metropolitan areas in terms of recovery from the recession. Its 6.8 percent unemployment rate is a point and a half worse than the national average, and there were some 30,000 fewer jobs in the area than in 2008, according to a Brookings analysis that said that Albuquerque was perhaps the only metro enduring a double-dip recession as of last year.
Business interests in the city have argued that the tenets of the Fair Workweek Act would be especially damaging in this fragile economic climate. “The real misunderstanding is not the plight of low-wage workers, but the economics of job creation,” says Carlo Lucero, a vice chair of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce. “Things like paying … if a shift is eliminated, those are costs that are not affordable.”
To hear it from local business owners, they’re the ones trying to create jobs, and yet, simultaneously being dinged with regulation on top of regulation — from minimum wage increases (passed by ballot initiative in 2012) to requirements of the Affordable Care Act to changes to the state-run employment insurance program. “We no longer control the wage we pay and we no longer control the healthcare benefits we pay, so one of the last areas of control is our work schedules,” says Lucero. Further, he adds, “This is the worst bill in the history of our Chamber.”
But employees in the service, restaurant and retail industries say irregular scheduling practices are one reason why there are 6.5 million “involuntary part-time” workers nationwide who are unable to accumulate the amount of hours they want. Take the experience of Kris Buchmann, for example. When she worked at American Eagle in Albuquerque a few years ago, she was assigned to only one regular shift — along with up to four on-call shifts per week from 6 to 10 o’clock at night. Each day, she’d be expected to call in an hour beforehand to find out if she was working or not.
“Whether on-call workers would be necessary was directly tied to the sales of the day,” says Buchmann, who now works in the beauty industry and is an organizer for OLÉ, one of the main groups campaigning for the Fair Workweek Act in Albuquerque. Only if the store looked like it would exceed sales goals for the day would the on-call workers be brought in. Otherwise, they’d get no compensation. And without the semblance of workweek normalcy, planning for childcare or school became nearly impossible.
Later, when Buchmann served as manager of a New York & Company store, she had to institute on-call scheduling. From the management’s perspective, the staffing tactic was built on the “assumption that some of these people were going to quit.” But Buchmann found irony in the scenario: By hiring twice the number of workers as shifts available, it simply encouraged more people to quit. “It becomes this weird catch-22 where nobody ever becomes invested in the job, so you don’t have to worry about giving people raises or benefits.”
Advocates for fair workweeks point to employers like Costco and Trader Joe’s as examples of worker-friendly scheduling that can be enacted by chains. It appears that the public in Albuquerque agrees this should be the norm, at least according to one poll conducted in May that found a majority of citizens in favor of the main tenets of the Fair Workweek Act.
“It’s all well and good to have a stable, hourly wage, but if you can’t get enough hours to live on, that’s not helpful,” says Rachel Deutsch, a senior staff attorney for worker justice at the Center for Popular Democracy, which has been advocating in Albuquerque and nationwide on the topic.
In San Francisco, the Retail Workers Bill of Rights took effect last month — the first major movement from a municipality. But national interest continues to grow, as evidenced by the Senator Elizabeth Warren-championed Schedules That Work Act.
In Albuquerque, the Fair Workweek Act was withdrawn this month, after Mayor Richard Berry publicly guaranteed he’d veto it. “We made it very clear from the get-go that we were going to sponsor amendments,” says City Councilor Klarissa Peña, a co-sponsor of the bill. She says that there were provisions of the act — like paying idle employees for their time — that never sat well with her, but without the opportunity to tweak its language now, the Mayor’s declaration muzzled the opportunity for a compromise. “It cut us off at the knees,” Peña says.
Now, both sides expect the fight to culminate in a ballot initiative in 2016 — a path that will not allow room for amendments. Both the Chamber of Commerce and pro-worker groups concur that this summer’s debate was the opening salvo in a prolonged fight. Don’t be surprised if you see that battle coming to a city near you.
“Let’s say you get a minimum wage in one place,” Deutsch says, “this is the next step to address growing income inequality.”
The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.
Malcolm was a Next City 2015 equitable cities fellow. He has contributed writing and research for The Atlantic and Philadelphia magazine, among other publications. He’s appeared on NPR’s “On The Media” and “All Things Considered.” He lives in Philadelphia.