Daniel Schneider


Kristen Harknett

Service-sector workers undergird our everyday routines, from buying a morning coffee, to doing the Sunday grocery shopping, to picking up prescriptions at the pharmacy. But the work schedules and daily lives of these service sector workers are far from routine. Instead, our research has found workers in coffee shops and fast-food restaurants, in grocery stores and pharmacies, in workplaces throughout the service sector, contend with work schedules that are unstable and unpredictable.

Low-wage, hourly workers at large corporate employers like Target and McDonalds have almost no control over their work schedules, which often differ from week-to-week and day-to-day and are frequently changed at the last minute. For these workers, such chaotic scheduling results in work-life conflict and diminished wellbeing.

Workers in Colorado are no exception. About 450,000 Coloradans work in retail and food-service jobs — largely women and people of color — and they often don’t know in advance when they’ll work or how many hours they’ll work. Our study of more than 2,600 Colorado workers in these jobs show they are frequently called in at the last minute and often are sent home before the end of their shift.

When Colorado workers have more schedule stability and predictability, they report being happier, healthier and more financially secure. That’s good for workers and their families, and it’s also good for business. Unpredictable schedules can make workers less productive at work by interfering with their sleep and by creating uncertainty about whether they’ll work enough to pay their bills, leading to high levels of psychological distress and anxiety.

Unstable and unpredictable schedules also create a host of difficulties related to work-life balance. These schedules make it difficult if not impossible for workers to secure childcare so they’re free to go to work, a big issue for the one-out-of-four hourly service-sector workers who have children under the age of 14. Half of study respondents said their work doesn’t provide enough flexibility to handle family needs. Working students — 35% of our study’s respondents — struggle to attend classes when their employer demands they report to work. Trying to go to a doctor’s appointment becomes an almost impossible feat for workers with unpredictable schedules.

When the number of work hours varies week to week, it makes budgeting for even the basics of rent, utilities and groceries nearly impossible. More than two-thirds of the Colorado service-sector workers we surveyed reported difficulty paying bills. And in a classic catch-22, many workers can’t even seek a second job to help make ends meet because they can’t guarantee to a prospective employer when they’d be available for work.

Our research shows many large employers continue hiring part-time workers rather than allowing the workers they have to work more hours; we found that 30% of Colorado workers are “involuntary part-time” at under 35 hours per week and would prefer to work more. But, even as many workers don’t get enough hours, employers often require workers to report to work without adequate rest in between shifts — 44% of Colorado workers surveyed say they are called to “clopen” — work late night closing shifts only to return early for an opening shift.

Workers’ health suffers when they have unstable and unpredictable schedules. Almost three-out-of-four workers with unpredictable schedules report poor to only fair sleep quality, more than half feel frequent psychological distress and 43% experience hunger. The stress workers face when they can’t manage their other obligations or know if they’ll earn enough to pay their bills takes a heavy toll.

Colorado lawmakers are considering a new bill, the Fair Workweek Act, which will require large retail and food service employers to provide the basics of schedule stability: 14 days of advance notice of work schedules, sufficient rest between shifts, compensation when their employers make last-minute schedule changes and access to sufficient work hours.

These provisions aren’t radical and many employers in the service-sector already provide this kind of schedule stability and predictability as a matter of course because it is humane for workers and good for business. The Fair Workweek Act levels the playing field for these higher-road employers and ensures all workers will have access to these basic guardrails when it comes to scheduling.

Just because these provisions are modest, doesn’t mean they won’t make a big difference for workers. In 2017, Seattle passed a similar law and we studied the effects of the Seattle Secure Scheduling Ordinance. We found after it was implemented the greater schedule predictability and stability that workers received led to improvements in workers’ sleep quality and happiness, and to reductions in economic hardship. Colorado workers who struggle with schedule instability and unpredictability deserve the same common-sense protections at work.

Daniel Schneider, PhD, is the Malcolm Wiener professor of social policy at the Harvard Kennedy School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Kristen Harknett, PhD, is professor of sociology at the University of California, San Francisco. They are co-directors of The Shift Project, which conducts research on worker schedules, economic security and the health and well-being of workers and families. The Working in The Service Sector in Colorado report can be found at: https://shift.hks.harvard.edu/working-in-the-service-sector-in-colorado-updated/ 

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