Part-Time Work, Unpredictable Schedules: What's The Fix?

Many part-time workers have to manage unpredictable hours and schedules, which can take a toll on employees. Host Michel Martin learns about how some government officials are addressing the concern.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We'd like to start the program today by talking about part-time jobs, and how they are working or are not working for millions of Americans. Now for years, part-time work has been touted as a way for young people to get income while going to school or for seniors to supplement their retirements or for working parents to handle family responsibilities. More recently, though, millions of workers are working part-time because full-time work is not available. The part-time workforce is bigger than ever - some 27.4 million Americans. And since 2007, the number of part-timers who say they'd rather have full-time work has doubled to 7.5 million.

And now there is a new focus on the burdens of part-time work as workers say unpredictable schedules are creating more economic and personal hardships for workers who cannot plan childcare, class schedules or even budget how much money they'll have at the end of a week. Now some members of Congress are taking notice. They want to change that with the Schedules That Work Act. It's legislation that would require service sector employers to provide steady schedules to the employees. We wanted to talk more about all of this, so we've called Steven Greenhouse. He is labor and workplace reporter for the New York Times, and he's been writing about this recently. Also with us is NPR senior business editor Marilyn Geewax, here with us once again in our Washington, D.C. studios. Welcome to you both. Thank you for coming.

MARILYN GEEWAX, BYLINE: Hi.

STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Nice to be here.

MARTIN: So Steven Greenhouse, you report on workplace issues. And you recently wrote a story on this topic. And you got so many responses that you had to do - you chose to do a follow-up story only a couple of days later. Can you just give us an idea of what kinds of challenges workers are facing and give us - just tell us maybe one story that really stood out for you?

GREENHOUSE: So last Wednesday, I had a front-page story about the unpredictable, erratic, herky-jerky scheduling that makes life very difficult for a lot of workers, especially female workers. And I wrote about this woman, Mary Coleman - 60-year-old woman in Milwaukee, who has a job at Popeyes. So she commutes an hour each way to her Popeyes restaurant. And Mary told me that about two weeks ago she showed up one afternoon after her hour-long bus ride, and her boss said sorry, we don't need you today. Go home. Don't even clock in. We have enough workers already. And this is even though Mary was scheduled to work that day. So Mary just headed back home. She didn't get paid a cent that day. And, you know, there were over 440 readers who wrote in in response to my story. And one of them - and the second most highly recommend comment on the New York Times website - said, you know, this should be criminal. You know, she paid for the bus. She spent two hours of her time going back and forth. And she wasn't paid a cent. And this reader wrote that this seems Dickensian, right out of the 19th century.

MARTIN: Well, not only that, one of the other things you reported on was the fact that when workers said - like you wrote about, like, for example, one comment was for a teacher who had been laid off from a job and was shocked to find out that when he told people, look, I need to go back to school as well, that they either cut his hours or, in one instance, walked him out of the interview and said, you have to leave now because if you're not willing to be available for this entire period of time - say six days a week, all day long - when we call you, we won't even talk to you. Or workers who did ask for more regular schedules were sometimes had their hours cut. How common was that?

GREENHOUSE: It's quite common, Michel. I think there are several forces at work that have made work schedules much more erratic, herky-jerky, unpredictable. One is, you know, work, you know, the unemployment rate has been fairly high. Workers are much more insecure and, I think, employers therefore feel they can kind of push their workers more, you know, jerk them around the schedules. There's this phenomenon now called on-call work. And I interviewed this retail employee in New York City who said she was scheduled for one regular shift in a week and four on-call shifts, meaning every morning, she had to call in first thing in the morning to see whether they needed her at the store that day. So she wasn't able to plans that day, wasn't able to, you know, schedule lunches with friends or whatever. And, you know, there's this rise in on-call scheduling. A second factor - there's been this development, this sophisticated scheduling software that many retailers and restaurants use that kind of keeps hour to hour computation of how many workers you need at any moment. So, you know, there are restaurants - fast food restaurants that say well, we need, you know, eight workers for the morning - for the breakfast shift then, you know, we want our workers to clock out from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., and then we want them to clock back in for the lunch shift. And workers feel really jerked around. They feel it's unfair that they have to clock out those two hours and sometimes have to stay around the restaurant. So this teacher I wrote about, you know, who was laid off after 20 years teaching because the school district didn't have enough money. So he, you know, he needed money to support his family. So, you know, here's a guy who's used to being - you know, he has a master's degree. He's used to being treated with respect. He applies for some retail jobs, and they say, we're not going to hire you for more than 29 hours a week. And you have to be scheduled - as you said, Michel - you know, 24/7. And he said, well, you know, can you just schedule me like from 9 to 2 for this job so I could, you know, look for a second job. And they said, if you're not going to be able to be available 24/7, forget it. This interview's over. Get out of here. I mean, it's pretty shocking.

MARTIN: Get out of here. Marilyn Geewax, you know, as we've mentioned, a number of employers have traditionally touted the flexible schedule as way to kind of live your life and accomplish other goals as well. Has something changed? I mean, Steve Greenhouse started talking about this. What's changed in recent years that are leading to these kinds of complaints, or are people just more willing to voice complaints?

GEEWAX: Well, I think one of the big things that's changed is probably in your pocket. It's the mobile phone. You know, when I was working in retail in college, if I had a schedule and it was set, I knew that's when I was supposed to be there. If my boss wanted to change it, she had to call my house, make the phone ring, and I had to answer it. And you didn't have the expectation that workers would absolutely answer the phone and know to come out. Now a lot of employers expect you to have a mobile device of some sort so that they can text you, instant message you. They want you to be on call literally all the time. So the ability to reach your workers for last-minute scheduling changes has really had an impact. Also, our social norms have changed. Again, you know, when I was younger, if I wanted to see the latest adventures of the Huxtables, I would have to be home on Thursday night at eight o'clock because that's when the networks were going to show it. But, you know, now everything is on-demand. I watch TV when I feel like it because I can time-shift. Well, everyone has sort of gotten used to this idea that things are very flexible, that it's all on-demand. So there's kind of a social change in the way employers see workers. They now view them more as inventory than human beings. You know, you're supposed to be on the shelf ready to be used when needed. And all I have to do is text you, and you'll show up. So it's a different way of looking at workers.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are talking about the impact of unpredictable schedules on part-time workers and growing complaints about that. Our guests are NPR's Marilyn Geewax and Steven Greenhouse of The New York Times, who recently wrote about this. So, Steven Greenhouse, one of the points that a lot of people made, though, is that how do you plan childcare around something like that? - because kids aren't human spackle. You can't just, like, you know, put them on the shelf and take them off the shelf. So I see that members of Congress are taking note of this. What are they suggesting? And what has been the response to that?

GREENHOUSE: So there was a news conference yesterday on Capitol Hill where George Miller, the senior Democrat on the House Education Labor Committee, Rosa DeLauro, you know, another, you know, senior Democrat from Connecticut, Elizabeth Warren and Tom Harkin, Democrats in the Senate - they're pushing a bill that would - you know, that calls for two weeks advance notice for your work schedule, that if your work schedule is changed 24 hours before you have to go to work, they have to pay you an extra hour that day. I told the story about this woman Mary Coleman in Milwaukee, who showed up for work. They said, sorry, we don't need you now; go home. Under these proposals, you'd have to pay someone at least for four - a minimum of four hours just for showing up for work on a scheduled day. Even if you send them home after three hours, you still have to pay them four hours because you want to - the idea is if workers schedule their day so they have, you know, to show up at work and they do so, you've got to pay them for at least four hours that day. I think Marilyn made a good point before - just I wanted to add one other thing. This, you know, terrific professor I interviewed at University of Chicago, who's really the nation's foremost expert on scheduling, Susan Lambert, said, remember, employers, you know, store managers, restaurant managers are under huge pressure to hold down costs. They don't have a lot of power to hold down wages, to hold down benefits. But one way they could easily reduce, you know, what they spend on labor is cutting employee hours. I think that's another reason that we're seeing a lot of employers telling people like Mary Coleman or other workers, well, you know, we don't need you. You can go home after three hours. Business has slowed down. And Marilyn was absolutely right. That's made much, much easier now because people have mobile phones. And your employer can text you and say, you know, maybe we don't need you to come in today because it's raining or business is slow.

MARTIN: Marilyn, one of the other people who commented on Steven's piece, obviously, were employers whose attitude was, you should be glad you have a job, or who do you think you are to be making these kinds of demands? - that this is the way the market works, and you just have to adapt to the current environment. So you have to assume that that point of view is kind of present as well. You're here in Washington, and you talk to members of Congress all the time. Is there any - we've mentioned that there's some growing interest in this. But does that interest have traction? What's the growing sentiment here? We have about a minute and half left.

GEEWAX: It's complicated because there are some things that are very popular with voters. For example, raising the minimum wage is actually extremely popular. There's almost unanimity. Polls are anywhere from 80 to 90 percent of Americans of think that $7.25 an hour is too low. So it's not hard to get people on board with this in terms of the voters. But actually getting something through Congress at this time is very difficult because Congress is quite divided. The idea that this kind of legislation would get through especially the Republican-controlled House seems very unlikely right now. But, you know, it is something that, at the very least, it's now a topic of conversation in a way that we were not hearing four or five years ago. At the worst of the recession, actually, there was a sentiment that any work is better than no work. But the further we get into this more technologically sophisticated workplace, the more these work - flexible schedules are happening, there's almost a rebellion among people. A lot of workers are very frustrated about this. And it's becoming a political issue, especially a lot of women are affected by this. But in terms of specific legislation passed in Congress, I think that's quite unlikely, at least for the foreseeable future.

MARTIN: Marilyn Geewax is NPR's senior business editor. Steven Greenhouse is labor and workplace reporter for The New York Times. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

GEEWAX: Oh, you're welcome.

GREENHOUSE: Great to be here. Thanks.

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