For job quality, time is more than money

If we take job numbers as our guide, low-wage American workers seem to be doing pretty well. Unemployment is at a 50-year low, and wages are up. Strong labor markets like this are supposed to yield social returns. 

When Americans feel economically secure, they are more likely to marry and have kids. Yet, the age when Americans first get married continues to rise, and births remain at historic lows. In good economic times, health improves, but today’s life expectancy for less-educated Americans is actually declining

{mosads}Focusing on wages and employment misses a large part of what makes for a good job and a good life: control over one’s time. Focusing exclusively on wages and employment to understand job quality is a little like the drunk looking for his lost house keys under the street light: It’s not where he lost them but where the light is good. 

Over the past two years, we have collected original data from tens of thousands of employees of the largest retail and food service firms in America and asked them about the quality of their jobs. 

What we found is striking: Working in the service sector doesn’t only mean low pay and few fringe benefits, it also means turning over the reins to your employer when it comes to when and how much you will work. 

This so-called “just-in-time” scheduling approach has consequences for millions of American workers. People with unstable work schedules are markedly less happy. They sleep less well and are more likely to report feeling distressed.

This pattern plays out consistently whether we look at short notice, last-minute changes or routine ups and downs in work hours. For instance, employees who worked “on-call” shifts were less likely by half to report good sleep quality than their co-workers who didn’t work on-call.  

One working mother, Maria, employed at a grocery store, told us she was willing to work at any hour, day or night, on short notice. Why? Because she was desperate for more hours and income: “It’s been hard because they change my hours every week,” she said. “You never know if you’re gonna work 40 hours or 24.” 

Maria is not alone. In the service sector, employees’ average work hours vary from 37 in the busiest week to 25 in the leanest — a 32-percent swing.

What’s more, two-thirds of workers have less than two weeks’ notice of their work schedules, and shifts are often cancelled or altered at the last minute. Workers are also frequently asked to be on-call to work if needed but otherwise not paid. Uncertainty is routine. 

We often think that wages are the most important aspect of job quality. Our data tell a different story. We find that higher wages do increase well-being. However, having a stable and predictable schedule is more beneficial than having a modestly higher wage.

We simulated the improvements to employee health that would follow from a $4 wage increase as compared to getting two-weeks of advance notice of work schedules. We find that both would improve health, but a scheduling change would have effects that were two-to-three times larger than the wage increase.

Policymakers and worker advocates have long made the case for full employment and higher wages. Now, cities and states across the country are beginning to pass laws to regulate work-scheduling practices.

{mossecondads}San Francisco, New York City and the state of Oregon have all passed laws to require one to two weeks of advance notice of work schedules, to regulate on-call shifts and to allow for greater access to work hours for existing part-time employees. Earlier this month, legislators in Philadelphia voted to pass a similar bill.

Companies can also take innovative action to provide more schedule stability and predictability. At a time when labor markets are very tight, beyond competing on wages, employers can compete for workers based on the quality of the work schedules that they offer.

Our research shows that stable and predictable schedules are likely to improve worker health and well-being, important prerequisites of productivity and satisfaction.

As the saying goes: “Time is money.” But time is much more than that, and millions of American workers would be better off if policymakers and companies acted accordingly. 

Daniel Schneider is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, the Berkeley and a William T. Grant faculty scholar. Kristen Harknett is an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, San Francisco. They are co-directors of The Shift Project at the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment (IRLE) at UC Berkeley.

Tags Business economy Employment Jobs report Minimum wage Minimum wage in the United States Minimum wage law Occupational safety and health Shift work Unemployment Working time

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