New paper: Volatile schedules hurt workers during pandemic, but there’s been a rebound New paper: Volatile schedules hurt workers during pandemic, but there’s been a rebound

Workers face less unpredictability now, but “work-hour volatility” still having an impact Workers face less unpredictability now, but “work-hour volatility” still having an impact

September 6, 2023

“Work-hour volatility” describes unpredictability in the number of hours an employee works per week or month, and it can be a big problem because it leads to uncertain income. How can someone plan their finances when they’re getting 30 hours of work one week, 45 the next, then 25 the next?

Work-hour volatility spiked during the Great Recession of 2007-2008, but about a decade later, it looked like the long recovery from that was finally taking hold. Then, the pandemic hit in 2020, and work-hour volatility again soared.

But a new issue brief released by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston indicates the high work-hour volatility caused by the pandemic has already diminished. Certain groups, though – including unmarried parents and less-educated workers – are still seeing high levels compared to their peers.

“It got better in 2022, compared to the prior two years,” said economist Julie Cai, the paper’s author. “But there’s still a long way to go.”

Cai: Work-hour volatility has both financial and nonfinancial consequences

Cai works for the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research and was a visiting fellow at the Boston Fed’s Regional & Community Outreach department. Her paper, “Work-hour volatility by the numbers: How do workers fare in the wake of the pandemic?” was released Tuesday. It focuses on work-hour volatility patterns between 2016 and 2022.

Cai said the consequences of the volatility include counting on – but not getting – enough hours to pay that month’s bills. Shifting schedules can also make it tough to plan family life or find child care, which can make it hard to work at all

Cai said work-hour volatility rose among all groups following the Great Recession, though it had significantly abated by 2019. And then COVID-19 hit.

“We know that progress was lost during the lockdowns and the pandemic labor market disruptions we saw in 2020,” she said.

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Spike in work-hour volatility began turning around before pandemic was over

All workers were affected, with the lowest-wage workers seeing the sharpest increase in work-hour volatility – about 53% from 2019 to 2020, according to the paper. But Cai said the trends began turning around well before the pandemic was over and are back to near pre-pandemic levels for almost all groups.

The pandemic era’s tight labor markets likely contributed to the rebound, Cai said. Lots of open jobs meant workers hurt by work-hour volatility had more chances to leave for better situations. That was likely why an initially large work-hour volatility gap between younger workers (ages 19-24) and older employees closed relatively quickly, she said.

Still, the paper says unmarried parents and less-educated workers haven’t fully bounced back.

For instance, Cai’s research shows that while instability is a factor for workers at all education levels, it remains significantly worse for those who aren’t high school graduates.

Workers without high school degrees “comprise a large portion of those working in the low-wage labor market and may often have the least bargaining power,” the brief reads.

Meanwhile, unmarried parents had work-hour volatility about 14% greater than child-free married workers before and during the pandemic. Cai said the gap is not quickly closing and that accessing affordable and consistent child care remains a challenge for working parents during the economic recovery.

“If you have extra hands to help, it makes a difference,” she said.

Work-hour volatility is an issue in growing fields

Cai added that one warning sign is that 4 of the 5 jobs the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics projects will grow most over the next decade are in fields with high work-hour volatility. Those include the health and personal care fields, as well as food and food prep.

Cai said she hopes that more employers begin focusing on improving work-hour volatility, in addition to things like benefits and wages. It’s better than absorbing the significant costs of the high turnover that come with unstable schedules, Cai said.

“If workers have more say in their work schedules and less instability, more workers will stay,” she said.

Read the issue brief.

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