How Unstable Work Schedules Affect Individuals and Families

May 2019Diana Austin

“A lot of the instability in family life comes from uncertainty about time,” says sociology professor Kristen Harknett, of the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the UC San Francisco School of Nursing. While there is ample data on how unemployment and economic instability affect health and family life, little research has been done on how unstable work schedules affect families. As co-directors of the Shift Project, a joint project of UC Berkeley and UCSF, Harknett and UC Berkeley’s Daniel Schneider seek to remedy that, with the aim of using large-scale data to inform labor policy that improves the lives of workers.

Unusual Data Collection Yields Insights

Harknett, Schneider and their research colleagues have spent three years collecting data on more than 60,000 hourly workers in 120 large service and retail businesses, surveying them on their work schedules and the schedules’ effects on issues ranging from general and mental health to parenting challenges. Using this data as a baseline, researchers can compare it with data from follow-up surveys to examine how changes in laws or company policies have affected worker health and well-being.

Some of what the researchers have found is not surprising: unstable work schedules are associated with sleep disturbances, psychological distress and unhappiness. The instability can also make child care arrangements precarious; when schedules change at the last minute, workers are more likely to leave children unattended or in the care of a young sibling.

What may be more surprising is that these problems can affect a significant portion of the workforce. An estimated 10 percent of U.S. jobs are in the service sector, where shift work and unstable work hours are common. In one analysis of Shift Project data, Harknett and her colleagues found that around two-thirds of workers get their schedules with less than two weeks’ notice – a third receive less than one week’s notice. Twenty-six percent of workers reported having on-call schedules, while 50 percent had back-to-back closing and opening (“clopening”) shifts, and 14 percent experienced canceled shifts.

All of these things – separately and together – can exact a psychological toll, as well as rob workers of truly taking advantage of their off time, either by enjoying leisure or family activities or by looking for other work to supplement their income.

“If you think you’re going to work, there’s a certain amount of emotional energy that goes into getting on your uniform, getting to the job. And sometimes you show up and your shift gets canceled. The uncertainty can make it hard to make the most of the downtime when it comes,” Harknett says.

Using Data to Inform Employment Policy

Harknett and her colleagues hope that their work at the Shift Project will give policymakers, businesses and consumers important insights into the effects of the decisions they make.

For policymakers, high-profile media accounts of the effects of businesses’ scheduling practices and advocacy groups’ success in advancing fair wage laws have prompted several municipalities and some states to consider or enact predictive scheduling legislation – laws intended to reduce the negative impact of unstable work schedules on workers. In 2015, San Francisco became the first city to pass an ordinance requiring, among other things, covered employers to provide work schedules two weeks in advance and to offer current employees extra work hours before hiring new employees or using contractors for additional work, a tactic that some employers use to keep employee work hours under the benefit-triggering minimum and to induce employees who need more hours to make ends meet to take last-minute shifts. Since then, several other cities across the nation, including Seattle, New York and Philadelphia, have enacted similar laws, and Oregon’s Fair Work Week Act took partial effect in 2018.

The Shift Project is evaluating the effects of a number of these laws, comparing data snapshots they took of work conditions before the laws went into effect with data from post-implementation surveys to identify differences in worker health and well-being. They are also preparing what Harknett calls “portraits” of shift workers and their experiences in particular areas, describing the prevalence of practices like on-call and last-minute scheduling, “clopening” shifts and other types of schedule instability. They not only evaluate the effects of these programs for the implementing cities and states, but also provide insights for policymakers in places like New Jersey and Washington State, which are just now considering fair-scheduling legislation.

Is Time More Important than Money for Worker Well-Being?

One of the more surprising things to emerge from the data is that having control over time and scheduling may have a more significant impact on worker and family well-being than earnings.

Harknett and her co-investigators arrived at that conclusion after using survey data to simulate health and well-being outcomes related to two laws that increase the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour and others that require employers to reduce unstable work scheduling. “In a head-to-head comparison, we saw that the schedule piece seems to be even more important than the wage piece [on psychological distress, poor sleep and unhappiness],” says Harknett. The findings were reported in an article in the February 1, 2019, issue of American Sociological Review.

Tracking High-Road and Low-Road Companies

Another leg of the Shift Project aims to inform businesses and consumers about scheduling practices companies and industries engage in. Because the Shift Project’s data set includes workers from some of the largest food service, retail, grocery and pharmacy companies in the nation, the researchers are uniquely positioned to compare between and across sectors.

“In particular, we look to see who’s taking a high-road approach, with more worker-friendly scheduling, and who’s taking a low-road approach that exploits vulnerable workers, and we can track change over time,” Harknett says. “We’re hoping to turn this into a public good, where we can inform consumers about the practices at different places they might shop.”

Among the low-road practices Harknett sees as most egregious is the unwritten requirement that workers always be available for shifts, a strategy that supports just-in-time scheduling. The practice allows employers to minimize labor costs by giving workers shifts only when business is busy and withholding them (or sending workers home) when it’s slower.

Workers who need more hours to make ends meet are more likely to accept last-minute shifts and keep their schedules open to accommodate them. This is often done at the expense of family and social obligations – and of seeking other, more regular employment.

“I think it’s shortsighted,” Harknett says. “[In our research] we’re documenting that you end up with a workforce that’s distressed and sleep-deprived, and these are the people interacting with your customers. You’re undermining the consumer experience in the interest of not paying those extra dollars.”

Harknett sees the increasing prevalence of fair-scheduling legislation as a huge opportunity to directly connect changes in scheduling practices with markers of personal and public health, such as improved sleep among workers or more stability for children in a community. And there are other emerging workplace practices that the Shift Project has yet to examine, such as job pacing and work intensity, automation pressures and increased use of technology to monitor workers.

Because the Shift Project has established survey participants in large organizations across several industry sectors, researchers can quickly put together new surveys based on changes within an industry or new company policies affecting workers.

“We’ve built this data collection machine that’s rapid-response and malleable,” says Harknett. “Therefore, as new practices emerge, we’re in a good position to analyze their effects at scale.”