Schedules That Work for Working Families

Unfair scheduling practices can harm employees’ health, reduce job satisfaction, and may increase the likelihood of sexual harassment.

A grocery store cashier checks out a family in El Cajon, California, August 31, 2016. (AP/Lenny Ignelzi)
A grocery store cashier checks out a family in El Cajon, California, August 31, 2016. (AP/Lenny Ignelzi)

Many workers in the United States are all too familiar with the pressure of managing work demands and family responsibilities. Now, imagine trying to juggle the two while not knowing your work schedule for the following week or how much your next paycheck will be. Unfortunately, this is a troubling reality for many workers with unfair work schedules. For example, among young workers, 38 percent receive their schedule with less than a week’s notice and 44 percent have no control over their work hours. Unfair schedules affect the health and economic security of workers and their families, harm employee morale, and may increase the likelihood of sexual harassment.

Anti-worker policies forwarded by the Trump administration, such as reduced access to job training and reduced protections for tipped workers, are worsening conditions for workers. But policies such as the Schedules that Work Act should be part of an agenda to ensure that workers have strong labor protections and that women and families can thrive.

What are unfair scheduling practices?

Unfair scheduling practices include unpredictable and unstable work schedules, as well as a lack of worker control over schedules. Workers face unpredictable schedules when they are given their schedules with minimal advance notice—often less than a week—making it difficult to plan for other responsibilities such as classes, child care, or doctors’ appointments. Unstable schedules are when workers’ hours can vary week to week or month to month, resulting in income volatility and making it hard for workers to budget, save money, or make ends meet. A lack of worker control over schedules—which occurs when employers decide schedules without worker input—compounds both of these issues and makes it challenging for workers to speak up when their schedule harmfully interferes with other aspects of their lives.

Who faces unfair scheduling practices?

Unfair scheduling practices are all too common in the U.S. workforce, especially for low-wage and part-time workers. According to a groundbreaking study of early-career workers by researchers at the University of Chicago, nearly 40 percent of these workers receive notice of their work schedules “one week or less” in advance, with food service and home care workers being especially likely to receive little notice. Young workers in these occupations are also especially likely to face unstable schedules, and the same study reveals that cleaners and retail workers are particularly likely to lack control of their schedule. Workers in all of these occupations are also among the lowest-paid workers. Part-time workers—who are likely to be low-wage workers as well—are also prone to having unfair work schedules, with nearly half of young part-time workers reporting they receive their work hours “one week or less” in advance and 83 percent experiencing fluctuating hours.

Racial and gender inequalities are widespread among workers with unfair schedules. Young workers of color are less likely to have a say in their schedules and are more likely to have unpredictable schedules than are young white workers. Research from the National Women’s Law Center reveals that women are also more likely to experience unpredictable work hours compared with men, since they are overrepresented in low-wage and part-time jobs, both of which are more prone to unfair scheduling practices than high-wage and full-time jobs.

What are the consequences of unfair schedules?

Sustaining or improving one’s economic well-being is difficult under unfair scheduling practices, which can hinder workers’ ability to take on a second job, pursue job training, or continue their education. It’s unsurprising, then, that the detrimental effects of unfair schedules on workers’ upward mobility and economic security are well-documented. Families also suffer from unfair scheduling practices, which are related to increased work-family conflict and can adversely affect children. But unfair scheduling may also increase the likelihood of sexual harassment, negatively affect worker’s health, and reduce employee morale and productivity.

Increased potential for sexual harassment

Unfair schedules and the inability to request schedules without fear of retaliation puts workers at the mercy of their employers—a fact which might lead to an increased likelihood of sexual harassment. It’s already the case that many of the industries that are likely to experience unfair scheduling practices also have relatively high rates of sexual harassment claims, and that sexual harassment is widespread among low-wage workers. Additionally, a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Vance v. Ball State University, changed the definition of supervisor such that workers’ protection from sexual harassment has been curtailed. Specifically, the court narrowed the definition of supervisor so that people who direct daily work activities, such as scheduling shifts, but do not have the ability to hire and fire, are merely considered co-workers. This change makes it more difficult for workers who have been harassed by these individuals to seek a legal remedy—and affects millions of low-wage workers. Unfair schedules, coupled with other inadequate workplace protections, may heighten the risk of sexual harassment.

Reduced access to health care

Unpredictable scheduling practices can also hinder access to health care. With passage of the Affordable Care Act, roughly 20 million people gained access to quality, affordable health insurance coverage. One goal of this law was to improve overall health by increased access to health insurance and services, but that goal can’t be realized unless workers are able to make and keep medical appointments. Unpredictable scheduling practices make it much harder for people to do this, especially for those workers, often women, who also manage children’s or others family members’ doctor’s visits. Managing and improving health requires the ability to access medical professionals for both preventive and other health needs, as well as follow up on any recommended treatment.

Negative effects on businesses

Unpredictable workloads can negatively affect businesses by undermining workers ability to perform effectively while at work. And this is not the only aspect of scheduling that hurts businesses. Unfair scheduling practices can result in hidden costs such as high employee turnover or absenteeism, which significantly damages productivity and profitability. In fact, the cost of replacing one worker may be as high as one-fifth of a worker’s annual salary. Studies also show that when employees are more in control of their work hours, businesses also benefit through an increase in employee engagement and productivity.

What should be done?

Cities and states have taken the lead in addressing unfair scheduling, with many enacting or introducing legislation to improve scheduling practices for workers. At the federal level, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) introduced the Schedules That Work Act in Congress, which requires employers to post schedules at least two weeks in advance; requires them to provide reporting time and split shift pay when applicable; and protects workers’ right to submit scheduling requests without experiencing discrimination or retaliation from employers. A number of employers have also taken the initiative to move toward fair scheduling practices. For example, Macy’s revamped work scheduling system allows employees to build their own schedules. Other retailers, including Abercrombie & Fitch Co. and Urban Outfitters, have eliminated what is commonly known as on-call scheduling.

Now more than ever, all Americans need sound public policy that sets minimum standards around scheduling practices, especially since low-wage jobs are projected to be among the U.S. economy’s fastest-growing jobs. Fair schedules benefit workers, many of whom are already struggling to juggle work and family responsibilities, as well as businesses. Absent fair scheduling practices that adequately accommodate the multiple responsibilities of today’s workers, policymakers are jeopardizing not only the health and safety of workers, but also the potential of the future U.S. economy.

Katherine Gallagher Robbins is the director of family policy for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress. Shirin Arslan was an intern with the Women’s Initiative at the Center.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Katherine Gallagher Robbins

Senior Director of Poverty Policy

Shirin Arslan