It’s high time to address fluctuating work schedules for low-wage jobs

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Many jobs in many sectors have periodically irregular and/or unpredictable work schedules. This may be, just in part, because of the nature of demand. Some workers’ compensation reflects the inconvenience this imposes, but for most, particularly those paid by the hour, especially at low-pay levels, are actually coupled with the most irregular or unpredictable schedules.

Virtually all workers would like at least some regularity to their work schedule, and, indeed, many are prepared to sacrifice pay to avoid the irregular scheduling of their work, particularly into evenings and weekend times. There is common confusion between the flexibility that serves employees and that which serves the interest of employers.

{mosads}Indeed, workers who have much flexibility in their work schedules appear to be happier than those who do not. In reality, however, it is only by unlikely coincidence that employees whose hours and schedules are controlled by their employers prefer that exact variability over the day or week. This mismatch takes its toll on employees, in ways that could come back to haunt employees’ ability to perform well at work and thus, against the long term interest of employers as well.


A quick scan across the developed world reveals that the U.S. is the only country where there are proposed policy solutions to address this imposition on employees. However, this is not so much because we are leading a policy innovation effort, rather, because we tolerate this as a condition of work.

How common are irregular and on-call type of work schedules? What is the price for having no legal minimum standard regarding fluctuating, short-notice work schedules? Can we actually do something about irregular or unpredictable work scheduling, without doing unintended harms?

Estimates are that 10 percent of workers work “irregular or on-call” shifts as their “usual” work schedule. Adding in split shifts and rotating shifts, this climbs to 17 percent. This is an underestimate, since it excludes those whose schedules vary within traditional day shift times. Indeed, a nationally representative poll found even higher percentages — 16 percent and 24 percent, respectively.

It is even higher among part-time employees. By income level, the lowest- and the highest-income workers face the most irregular work schedules. By occupation type, 15 percent of sales type occupations have irregular or on-call schedules. By industry, it is most prevalent in food services, leisure and hospitality, retail trade and transportation, yet it exists across a wide spectrum of industries

What about the consequences of irregular and on-call working? While 11 percent of workers on “regular” work schedules report “often” experiencing work-family conflict, as many as 26 percent of irregular/on-call shift employees. Controlling for employees’ hours worked per week, the frequency of work-family conflict is worsened by having irregular shift work.

Working on rotating-shift and split-shift arrangement times also somewhat exacerbates work-family conflict. There is lower work-family conflict for those with part-time jobs, but this is entirely attributable to their shorter working hours. The adverse effects of irregular shifts are moderated by having true schedule flexibility — the ability to alter their daily starting and ending times and to take some time off during work.

A survey of 230 geographically- and demographically-diverse workers throughout the fast-food industry in Chicago was collected in 2015. While 13 percent of surveyed workers report they were hired as on-call workers, 43 percent of all respondents are required to work on-call. Almost a third receive notice of their work schedules less than one day before they start.

An additional 16 percent of workers get notice less than one week before they start. Only 6 percent of surveyed workers maintain a set work schedule. Almost one quarter report they “always” have changes made to their work schedules after they have been posted, while another 27 percent said “sometimes.”  

The consequences are alarming but not surprising. For example, 63 percent of workers believe that their scheduling issues result in personal negative health impacts. More than two-thirds report that their work schedules often or sometimes interfere with their family and home lives. Over 40 percent feel that their variable schedules cause issues in parenting and childcare.

One response is that scheduling ordinances are becoming law in several cities, from New York City to Seattle, and now, the whole state of Oregon, and is proposed in Chicago. Adopting this will actually prevent higher-road businesses from being out-competed by the lowest-road, opportunistic employers, who shave costs by shifting the entire risk of fluctuations on to their employees.

Restaurants and retail can be tough, competitive and unpredictable businesses. That is why we need to establish minimum floors, to prevent a race to the bottom of more employees effectively becoming on-call workers.

The bills start by covering workers in fast food and retail. But we could also create an individualized “right to request” for employees across all industries — a process that works well in other English-speaking countries, where employers must respond to requests for modifications for scheduled hours, notice and fewer or more hours.

The Schedules That Work Act includes a “right to receive” if the employee has caregiving, schooling and second-job responsibilities. It would require minimum two-weeks advance posting of work schedules for retail, food service or cleaning non-exempt employees. It also puts a price tag on cost-shifting practices, so as to both disincentive it and properly compensate employees who endure them, as, “predictability pay.”

If an employee is required to call in within 24 hours to find out if they are scheduled to work that day or not, or if their hours are cut, the employee gets one hour’s worth of pay. One hour.

There are many conscientious employers, such as those who allow employees to shift swap or ask to only for volunteers to join a list for short notice work. But it is time to discourage the short notice call-ins and call-offs that play havoc with employees’ incomes and lives.

Lonnie Golden, an Economic Policy Institute research associate, has published research for academic journals and authored books on the topics of working hours, flexible scheduling, working time regulation and labor demand. Alison Dickson joined the Labor Education Program at the University of Illinois, where they collaborate for its Project for Middle Class Renewal at the School of Labor and Employment Relations.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill. 

Tags Employment On call shift Part-time contract Shift-based hiring Working time Workweek and weekend Work–family conflict
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