As the advent of the gig economy has highlighted the precarious nature of many non-salaried workers’ incomes, predictable scheduling has practically eclipsed the minimum wage as the labor rights cause of the day, both in the US and in other countries. In the past year, we’ve seen cities like Seattle and New York pass “secure scheduling” laws mandating guaranteed hours for certain classes of hourly employees, and Oregon is on its way to becoming the first state with such legislation.
That many Americans work unpredictable hours from week to week is not in dispute, but opponents of these mandates argue that they impose unreasonable burdens on employers in industries like retail and food service where turnover is high and demand is naturally unpredictable. There is also some debate over just how big a problem variable scheduling is. A recent Gallup survey, for example, finds that among the one in six US employees who are paid hourly and say their hours vary each week, 67 percent say their variable schedules are not causing them financial hardship:
These results are based on interviews conducted Aug. 23-Sept. 4 with 528 hourly workers who say the number of hours they work each week varies. Thirty-seven percent of all hourly workers — equivalent to 18% of all U.S. workers — say the number of hours they work varies from week to week, while the rest say their hours are fixed.
The results of Gallup’s special study on this population of workers with variable hours indicate that while some report not getting enough work hours and likely suffering financial hardship, this represents the minority of such workers. Additionally, the estimated 6% of all employed adults who say they are experiencing hardship as a result of varying hours is small on an absolute basis, although it could certainly have economic and social implications for those who feel this way. Moreover, 29% of all variable-hour workers (or about 5% of all workers) say they wish they could work more hours, while 69% are satisfied with their weekly hours.
Many workers with variable hours actually favor that situation over fixed schedules, Gallup finds, with 52 percent saying they prefer their schedules to vary against 44 percent who would like consistent hours each week. Most don’t have any control over that, however: 57 percent of Gallup’s respondents said their employer determines the number of hours they work each week.
Gallup’s findings paint a diminutive picture of the scope of the scheduling problem, but the report acknowledges that “although the group believing that their variable hours cause financial hardship is small on a relative basis, it is still a problem on an absolute basis for those negatively affected.” Indeed, even a mere 6 percent of employed Americans still represents about 9 million people, and many of those who do not suffer financial hardship as a direct result of their unpredictable schedules may still experience work-life balance issues or increased stress.
It is unlikely that highly unpredictable industries like retail and food service will ever be able to function without some flexibility in how their employees’ hours are assigned, but technological solutions are being explored to make this process easier and enable employees to work flexible schedules without so much stress and uncertainty.