Retail workers struggle with unpredictable shifts — and it’s making their lives miserable

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Forget “executive time” — many employees would trade anything just to have a reliable work schedule.

A new study by researchers at the University of California-Berkeley and University of California-San Francisco examined common scheduling practices among the 80 largest retail firms in the U.S. and the toll they take on workers, based on survey data from nearly 28,000 retail and food-service workers.

People who work on an on-call basis were less likely to report feeling happy.

“Routine uncertainty in work schedules is even more strongly predictive of worker health and wellbeing than hourly wages are,” the report’s authors wrote.

Workers like certainty in their schedules, Alix Gould-Werth, a senior policy analyst at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, wrote in a report based on the study. “When workers do not know what their schedule will be, they cannot plan out their time to accommodate school attendance, second-job holding, or family obligations,” Gould-Werth added.

Workers who had more than two weeks’ notice of their schedule had a nearly 75% likelihood of experiencing happiness. But workers who had two days’ notice of their schedule or less had a 65% probability of being happy.

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Improved technology means ever-changing shifts for workers

In recent years, more companies have begun implementing on-demand scheduling technology that uses data analytics on everything from customer behavior to the weather to determine how many workers are needed to operate a retail location at any given time.

Lawmakers in New York, San Francisco, Seattle and Oregon require more predictable scheduling for workers.

As the researchers explained, this technology has allowed employers to shift their economic risk onto their employees. “Today, employees’ schedules are highly responsive to employers’ perceptions of the ebbs and flows of consumer demand,” Gould-Werth wrote. “As a result, their schedules are irregular and unpredictable.”

Given how negatively that unpredictability can affect workers’ lives, lawmakers have begun to crack down on this practice. Lawmakers in cities like New York, San Francisco and Seattle and in the state of Oregon have passed legislation requiring more predictable scheduling for workers. And politicians elsewhere, including Connecticut, are considering similar laws.

Unfortunately for workers, some states (including Iowa and Georgia) have laws in place that bar local governments from adopting employer requirements in excess of state and federal laws, meaning that cities in those states cannot enact legislation that would require predictable schedules if the state doesn’t do so itself.

Here are some of the study’s other findings

• Only 39% of workers at the 80 largest retail firms reported having regular work schedules and, even worse, 14% of workers reported having a shift cancelled on them in the month before they took the survey.

• Half of the workers surveyed said they had to work “clopening” shifts, where they worked the closing shift the night before they had to open their store. Someone who typically works “clopening” shifts had a 67% chance of getting poor quality sleep.

• 1 in 4 retail workers said they have on-call scheduling, where they had to be available to work on certain days without any guarantee of actually being assigned a shift or getting paid. People who work on an on-call basis were 9.2 percentage points less likely to report feeling happy.

The researchers cautioned that, as always, correlation does not equal causation. There is a chance that the workers surveyed would be less happy or get less sleep regardless of their schedules.

Read more: President Trump says economic growth has benefitted women the most — but is that true?

Scheduling can be more important than salary for workers

Other research has shown that irregular scheduling disproportionately affects lower-wage workers and increases the likelihood of experiencing work-family conflict. And more predictable scheduling was associated with improved sales.

The researchers found that a worker seeing their pay increase from $7.25 per hour to $11.25 per hour was 1.4 percentage points more likely to be happy. That actually represented a smaller change in happiness than a similar worker would experience when they avoided a situation where a shift was cancelled.

The increased salary in question — $11.25 an hour — still falls below the living wage, meaning that while the extra take-home pay is a big deal it won’t go as far in making the worker’s life better, according to Gould-Werth.

Put another way: The bar is already so low for retail workers when it comes to how their schedules are designed that something as simple as not having a shift cancelled can make a huge difference.

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