TRENTON — Labor activists have their sights set on their next priority after successes in state capitols with paid sick leave and higher minimum wage: better working conditions for people who do shift work.
Several states, including Massachusetts and New Jersey, are considering so-called fair workweek laws that would arm workers with a set of rights, such as requiring that employees be given advance notice of work schedules and are compensated for canceled shifts.
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The effort has been described by some in the labor movement as the “next $15 minimum wage,” with major cities adopting fair workweek ordinances and several Democratic presidential candidates taking up the cause on the campaign trail.
There’s also been legislation introduced in Congress, but it’s unlikely to advance as long as Republicans control the Senate and President Donald Trump is in office.
That’s why advocates are taking an approach similar to the one they’ve used on other issues affecting low-wage workers, such as the $15 minimum wage and paid sick leave: Start at the grassroots level and go from there.
“It’s a lot of the same pattern,” said Rachel Deutsch, who leads the national Fair Workweek campaign for the Center for Popular Democracy. “Some of our most progressive cities really championed these ideas that at first corporate America dismissed. But once we established that no, this is real, and it works, we got states to embrace [these policies].”
The campaign for more predictable work shifts emerged from the rise of technology that allows companies to make “micro adjustments” to a worker’s schedule based on factors like expected customer traffic, sales and even the weather. Cities such as Chicago, Seattle, Philadelphia, New York City and San Francisco, as well as the state of Oregon, have adopted regulations to overhaul shift work.
While the policies vary slightly from place to place, the basic framework unions and left-leaning groups are pushing is consistent. The idea is to compensate workers for employer-initiated schedule changes, mandate a certain number of hours’ rest between shifts and give workers their schedules with two weeks of advance notice. Another common requirement is that employers must give workers a chance to pick up more hours before hiring new staff.
Business and industry groups, however, fear these types of regulations will cause disruptions — not just for companies, but also for workers.
Jacque Coe, a spokesperson for the Seattle Restaurant Alliance, said that since the city of Seattle implemented a fair workweek law two years ago, restaurant managers have complained that they spend more time doing paperwork and must pay workers more if they pick up any last-minute catering gigs, and that the rigid scheduling has made it more of a headache for workers to trade shifts.
“A lot of people enter the hospitality industry for the flexibility,” Coe said. “We are hearing frustration over the paperwork required when a team member wants to switch shifts on short notice. It becomes a frustration for both the employee and employer.”
Jeff Solsby, a spokesperson for the National Restaurant Association, concurred. He said that these policies are a “one-size-fits-all” attempt to fix something that both workers and businesses aren’t asking to be solved.
“Locking in schedules weeks in advance and piling on new planning, tracking and compliance schemes hurts businesses that are anchors in their communities, and it strips away a benefit restaurant employees say is one of their most important and sought-after,” Solsby said in a statement.
But advocates say any extra costs businesses will incur is a small price to pay compared to the erratic nature of shift work. The ability for employers to make changes at any point to shift schedules affects not only a worker’s paycheck, but their health and well-being, they say.
A recent study from University of California makes that point.
Researchers found that minorities, particularly women of color, are much more likely to be assigned irregular work schedules, and that two-thirds of service workers get less than two weeks’ notice of their schedules.
“This is not desirable schedule flexibility, this is instability,” said Daniel Schneider, a sociologist at UC Berkeley who conducted the study.
The issue of predictable scheduling is also being addressed by some of the Democratic presidential candidates.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, along with Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), chairwoman of the House Appropriations Labor-HHS-Education Subcommittee, said they plan to reintroduce federal legislation regarding shift scheduling. Three other Democratic presidential candidates, Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California, have previously co-sponsored the measure.
The bill, referred to as The Schedules That Work Act, would require employers in the retail, food service and cleaning industries to provide work schedules at least two weeks in advance, and to pay employees for last-minute changes or being sent home early. It also would make it illegal for companies with more than 15 employees to retaliate against workers who request a specific shift schedule for family, health or job training reasons.
Previous iterations of the bill never made it out of committee.
Warren said in a statement that Congress should take up the legislation so workers can “regain control over their work schedules.”
“More than half of hourly workers, many of whom are workers of color, get their work schedules with less than a week’s notice,” she said. “[This makes] it nearly impossible for them to go back to school, maintain stable child care and sometimes to pay the bills.”
Tom Pietrykoski, a campaign spokesperson for Booker, said in a statement that the senator supports the measure because improving the lives of working families is central to his economic agenda.
“Far too many workers are forced to make tough decisions between the demands of work and family,” Pietrykoski said. “Cory is proud to work on legislation in the Senate to provide hard working Americans certainty in their schedules and income in order to help build an economy that works for all families.”
Deutsch, of the national Fair Workweek campaign, said several states are primed to adopt fair workweek policies. The Massachusetts Legislature held hearings on a bill in the spring, and she predicts that Washington state, New Jersey and Connecticut will enact measures in the 2020 session.
Some efforts at the state level have been unsuccessful.
The California Legislature’s attempts to emulate San Francisco’s scheduling law have repeatedly fallen short, with broad business opposition trumping labor’s support for the policy. Bills were introduced but failed in both Maine and West Virginia, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In Connecticut, Carlos Moreno, state deputy director of the Working Families Organization, said a bill before the Legislature was supposed to move at the end of the last session, but legislation calling for a $15 minimum wage and paid sick took precedent. Fair workweek legislation is being tweaked to bolster some provisions, Moreno said, and he expects it to move in February.
“There’s no one policy prescription that’s going to solve income inequality in Connecticut,” he said. “But what these proposals — minimum wage, paid sick leave, and fair workweek — do is provide folks with an element of financial security that they didn’t have before.”
In New Jersey, state Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat who has been a driving force behind major pieces of legislation related to workers rights, announced last month that she is drafting legislation to address predictable scheduling.
“This isn’t merely a problem of overwork, it is one of uncertainty,” Weinberg said during a press conference last month, where she was joined by shift workers from throughout northern New Jersey. “The uncertainty has a high cost. It affects the quality of life of the people who are working hard to provide for themselves and their families.”
Although it’s far too early to tell how the issue will play out in Trenton, the odds of passage, at least on the surface, appear good, since Democrats control both the state Legislature and governor’s office.
Donna Fotiadis, a longtime retail worker who joined Weinberg during last month’s press conference, said it wasn’t uncommon for her employer to cancel or add shifts at the last minute. Sometimes, she would even asked to close the store at 2 a.m., and then reopen three hours later — a practice that would be banned if the legislation goes through.
“That takes a toll on your mind and body,” Fotiadis said. “No one should be expected to work with less than three hours’ sleep.”
Rebecca Rainey and Jeremy B. White contributed to this report.