Harvard prof: Employees with 'unstable and unpredictable work schedules' struggle with sleep, depression

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Key Points
  • As many as 786,000 retail workers and 856,000 leisure and hospitality workers quit their jobs in December 2021, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • One among their reasons is scheduling, with many service workers experiencing unpredictable schedules like last-minute cancellations and late or early shifts.
  • These kinds of practices harm workers' ability to sleep and heighten depression, says Daniel Schneider, a professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.

Retail and leisure and hospitality are among the industries most affected by the Great Resignation. Millions of workers in those sectors left their jobs last year: 786,000 workers quit retail and 856,000 quit leisure and hospitality in December 2021 alone, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Many of those who left say they won't be coming back. Their reasons vary, but 38% of hospitality workers cite scheduling as one factor, according to a Q3 Joblist survey of 26,278 jobseekers.

That's not surprising: Jobs in both sectors are notoriously unpredictable. Workers don't always know how many hours they'll be working in the coming weeks, if they'll be asked to stay late or start early, or if their shift will ultimately be canceled.

The pandemic hasn't changed that. In the spring of 2019, just over 60% of service workers got less than two weeks' notice about what their forthcoming schedule would look like, according to research from The Shift Project, which has been compiling data about hourly service workers' schedules since 2016. In the spring of 2021, that number had not changed.

Grow interviewed The Shift Project co-director Daniel Schneider, a professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, about his research, including how schedule unpredictability affects workers' health and whether the Great Resignation could bring about new policies addressing this issue.

The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Why focus your scheduling research on service and retail workers?

In 2015, 2016, this was a group of workers that had become increasingly important in the public and policy conversation. These were the folks behind [the fight for a higher minimum wage called] Fight for $15. These were the folks who were increasingly organizing to try to win changes in job conditions.

It's also a sector which is dominated by some of the largest private sector firms in this country. Firms that were very much in the public eye as part of those social movements: Walmart, Starbucks, and Amazon.

Another reason is that these are sectors, not coincidentally, where workers contend with some of the most precarious working conditions. And I think because of the available data we had before Shift, we often talked about those conditions in terms of wages.

Certainly the service sector is the place where we see the largest concentration of low wage workers. But what we wanted to really bring to light with our data collection was that it's not just wages. There's a lot more going on in terms of difficult job conditions in the service sector, including unstable and unpredictable work schedules.

How do these conditions affect workers' health?

We ask workers the set of pretty detailed questions about how they're doing. We ask, "How well do you sleep at night?" We ask, "How happy are you these days?" We ask a set of questions designed to capture depression, psychological distress.

And what we see are really strong associations when workers work more unstable and unpredictable schedules, they sleep less well at night. They're more depressed. They're less happy.

Why do you think employers are still using the same scheduling tactics?

One possibility here is that employers are really focused on short-term costs, rather than long-term benefits. And so it's true that if you send folks home early when they're not needed, or just call people in when the restaurant is busy, that will lead to lower labor costs in the next pay period. Many other aspects of the business are getting more expensive during the pandemic and labor cost is a cost that in some ways can be controlled.

I think another possibility is that, to some extent, a real part of the story is that these practices are embedded in organizational practice. They're built into the software that companies use like Kronos and Dayforce and other human resource management software. And these are big, clunky things to turn.

I think it might speak to just that it takes a while to implement a change to something so fundamental to the business.

Would you say, for some employers, the financial implications of predictable scheduling matter more than workers' wellbeing?

Many people are stuck in this paradigm where cost above all. Of course a business has to do whatever it takes to ruthlessly maximize profit and deliver value to shareholders. What else could a business do? That's in the law of nature, right?

But it's not in the law of nature. It's just a particular economic paradigm of this moment.

It wasn't the paradigm in the 1950s, when we saw a widely shared wage growth. When there was the notion that if you build cars at the Ford plant, you should be able to afford to buy one. That was a really different way of thinking about what a business's role was.

And I think that's a hard thing to realize, but it's a really true thing we can point to that for this country to allow all Americans to thrive and for many not to be left behind and really cut out of the American dream means that businesses can't just ruthlessly maximize profits. That jobs have to deliver a humane existence.

What kind of laws are currently in place around predictability of work schedules?

The law of the land, nationally, the Fair Labor Standards Act, provides for federal minimum wage and it provides for basic overtime protections and regulations on child labor. But the Fair Labor Standards Act doesn't do much more than that.

What we've seen is a real growth in state and local efforts to update these core labor protections for the modern contemporary economy.

We saw this first in San Francisco with an ordinance that required that retail and food service workers get at least two weeks' advance notice of their work schedule, and then also regulated last-minute changes to schedules that happened within that two-week window. The law required that if your employer changed your schedule at the last minute, told you to go home early because things were slow or come in early because you were needed unexpectedly, that they recognize that those practices have costs for workers and deserve compensation.

And the law required predictability pay to be paid to workers in those instances.

Following San Francisco, we saw a similar ordinance passed in the city of Seattle, the Seattle Secure Scheduling ordinance. And then in the years since similar ordinances have been passed in Philadelphia, in Chicago, in the state of Oregon, and in New York City.

How could the Great Resignation affect these practices?

I think we've seen wage growth, although there's some debate about to what extent it's beaten inflation. I don't think we've seen many employers offer lasting paid sick leave or paid family and medical leave. More likely it's Covid specific, temporary emergency leave.

Have we seen employers improve their scheduling practices? Our report says no.

I think what's going on here is that these practices are just so deeply ingrained into service sector business practices. They're really at the core of how businesses and food service and retail stores and the like do staffing. That's how they think about labor cost, and it's a bad habit, but it's a really hard habit for them to quit.

And my working theory is that many employers are hoping that this labor market situation passes and that they can return to business as usual. They want to hold out as long as possible before making durable changes, changes that can't be walked back.

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