Unstable, unpredictable, and insufficient: How work scheduling feeds service worker woes Unstable, unpredictable, and insufficient: How work scheduling feeds service worker woes

Boston Fed brief: Scheduling practices fueling worker turnover, hurting employers Boston Fed brief: Scheduling practices fueling worker turnover, hurting employers

January 5, 2022

Service sector workers suddenly found themselves in the spotlight at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, because so many were designated “essential” and needed to work on site, while employees from other sectors retreated to home.

The attention on these normally low-profile and often low-pay professions has exposed problems for these workers that aren’t new – just newly visible. Among them: lousy work schedules.

Those schedules were the focus of an issue brief released by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, “Unstable, unpredictable, and insufficient: Work scheduling in the service sector in New England.”

The brief was written by Daniel Schneider, a visiting scholar at the Bank and a professor of public policy and sociology at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. 

Schneider analyzed the results of a survey of New England service sector employees from various workplaces – including grocery stores and fast-food restaurants, warehouses and hardware stores, delivery trucks and electronics retailers.

The paper explores scheduling problems the workers faced, including highly variable schedules, short advance notice of work times, and “just-in-time” scheduling – when shifts are assigned or cancelled with little notice.

The scheduling inconsistency feeds worker dissatisfaction and high turnover, and has negative effects on employers, as well, the paper says.

“Lower satisfaction and higher turnover intention are bad for workers, but these outcomes are also bad for firms by exposing the often-hidden costs of scheduling practices in the service sector for firms’ bottom lines,” the paper reads

Service sector scheduling problems long predate pandemic

The data analyzed in the paper comes from The Shift Project, an initiative co-founded by Schneider and University of California San Francisco professor Kristen Harknett that’s collected data about work scheduling and job quality from tens of thousands of service workers. The brief relied on survey data taken from a subsample of 2,200 hourly service workers in New England interviewed between September 2017 and May 2020.

Schneider said the data was collected primarily before the COVID-19 pandemic and the problems it illuminates pre-date the new attention on the service sector. Those problems have continued during the pandemic, he said.

“I think what we need to recognize is that these jobs were dangerous and difficult before COVID, and they remain so even as we hopefully emerge from the pandemic,” he said.

Here’s a closer look at scheduling problems highlighted in the paper:

  • Highly variable schedules: Just a quarter of workers surveyed reported a regular day shift, and fewer reported regular night or evening shifts (10% and 7%, respectively). The majority, 52%, had a variable schedule – with shifts either rotating or changing day-to-day or week-to-week.
  • Little advance notice: Two-thirds of workers reported receiving schedules less than two weeks in advance, 17% reported three-to-six days’ notice, and 21% reported less than 72-hours’ notice.
  • Frequent just-in-time scheduling: 14% of workers reported having a shift canceled in the prior month, as employers responded to real-time or anticipated customer traffic. In 54% of those cases, the cancellation notice came less than 24 hours before the shift.

While each practice listed above decreased job satisfaction, more than half of workers surveyed still wanted more hours at their service sector job.

“Low wage workers who do not get sufficient hours face an economic imperative to take on hours whenever offered,” the paper reads.

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Schneider: Lowest-paid workers bearing greatest risk for demand fluctuations

Schneider said there’s a natural variability to service sector jobs that feeds the unpredictability of worker scheduling. For instance, a playoff run by a sports team can quickly and radically affect staffing needs at bars and restaurants.

But he said the risks inherent in trying to predict fluctuating demand shouldn’t always be borne by the employees, and that’s what’s happening when a business miscalculates demand and cancels or reallocates worker hours.

“It's a conscious decision to say that the people who should really bear that risk to the business's bottom line are these low-paid employees, rather than the business itself,” he said.

The paper details ways for businesses to share the risk. For instance, it notes several cities have passed laws that require large retail and food service employers to give workers their schedules at least two weeks in advance and compensate them with “predictability pay” if their schedule changes.

Schneider added that the tight labor market created by the COVID-19 pandemic could push firms toward offering more stable and predictable schedules, so they can better find and retain workers.“It requires a more long-term perspective for firms,” he said, “but it may be one that ultimately proves profitable, especially in a very tight labor market.”

Read the brief here.

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