It’s Not Just Low Pay Stressing Out Part-Time Workers

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In this June 2, 2014 photo, Wendy Harrison, a waitress at the icon Grill in Seattle, carries food to a table as she works during lunchtime. An Associated Press comparison of the cost of living at several other major U.S. cities found that a $15 minimum wage, like Seattle adopted this week, will make a difference, but won’t buy a lavish lifestyle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
In this June 2, 2014, photo, Wendy Harrison, a waitress in Seattle, carries food to a table as she works during lunchtime. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Besides struggling to make ends meet because of low wages, millions of part-time workers in America also face uncertainty over when they will be called in to work. Irregular schedules and last-minute notice make it hard for these workers to find other work, go to school and make arrangements for child care or caring for aging parents.

As The New York Times reported last week:

About 27.4 million Americans work part time. The number of those part-timers who would prefer to work full time has nearly doubled since 2007, to 7.5 million. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, 47 percent of part-time hourly workers ages 26 to 32 receive a week or less of advance notice for their schedule.

In a study of the data, two University of Chicago professors found that employers dictated the work schedules for about half of young adults, without their input. For part-time workers, schedules on average fluctuated from 17 to 28 hours a week.

“Frontline managers face pressure to keep costs down, but they really don’t have much control over wages or benefits,” said Susan J. Lambert, a University of Chicago professor who interpreted the data. “What they have control over is employee hours.”

According to the National Women’s Law Center, food service workers experience a 70 percent average variation of work hours every month. For retail workers, the variation is 50 percent and for janitors and housekeepers, it’s 40 percent.

Lawmakers across the country are beginning to notice how irregular schedules complicate the lives of part-time workers, and are taking measures to address the problem. Employees of federal agencies now have the right to request work schedule flexibilities. Workers in San Francisco and Vermont can ask for a more flexible or predictable work schedule. In a report released in June, New York City comptroller Scott M. Stringer made a case for a legislation that would give employees the chance to make such requests “without fear of reprisal.”

Congress is swinging into action on this issue as well. On Tuesday, Representatives George Miller and Rosa DeLauro introduced the Schedules That Work Act. Miller admits that the bill may meet with opposition, but thinks that it will highlight “often callous scheduling practices.”

The Guardian reports that another version of the bill is brewing in the Senate:

Senators Tom Harkin and Elizabeth Warren are co-sponsoring of the Senate’s version of the bill. Carrie Gleason, co-founder of Retail Action Project, said [that] Warren will introduce the Senate version in upcoming weeks.

A single mom working two jobs should know if her hours are being canceled before she arranges for daycare and drives halfway across town to show up at work,” said Warren. “This is about some basic fairness in work scheduling so that both employees and employers have more certainty and can get the job done.”

Although some businesses are saying the bills would represent government overreach, the clothing store Zara has already promised to start giving its part-time employees two weeks notice on their work schedules.

Neha Tara Mehta is a multimedia journalist based in India, and a former digital research associate at She is a dual degree graduate from Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism and the School of International and Public Affairs. Previously, she worked at Al Jazeera English in New York City. She also worked as a print reporter in India for several years and has reported from Pakistan, Australia and Italy.
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  • Cynthia Davis

    This isn’t just part timers – If there is shift work involved especially in retail sales at those “24 hour” places I’ve seen all sorts of these games being played out with “fulltime” employees as well with the threat of job loss if the employees cannot comply to the erratic scheduling.

  • Thaddeus Kozubal

    What these capitalists are doing is nothing short of feudalism. Tkae your job and shove it.

  • Catherine

    This is just another example of absolute disregard for people and their normal daily lives. One week you get 30 hours and a normal schedule and the next week it’s 14 hours and it’s all nights or weekends and not once is there any consideration given to workers with children or workers who have other scheduling issues. If your boss liked you they would help you out but, if they didn’t, you would end up with the exact hours you didn’t want in retaliation for whatever “crime” you had committed, maybe sticking up for yourself or not being their personal whipping girl. It’s so sad that normal and decent behavior always has to end up being mandated by gov’t because the corporations never do what is decent unless it’s the “law”.

  • Leave A Mark

    Apathy will not solve this. We must stand for one another on all aspects of inequality. If we can form a united front on one single example, it should be the disregard for the worker; to effect some good and prove that we matter, that we have the numbers to effect change, that we should be listened to or feared. A new labor day revolution whereby every one of us peacefully walk out, turn away, boycott, refuse, stop, call off, strike in united PROTEST. A day of national support for the worker, who’s hours have been cut, insurance removed, benefits stopped, and paychecks reduced. No work and no patronage. If we get just a few million to support the protest, it would be a good way to revoke plutocracy – even if just for a day. Repeal Plutocracy Day!

  • Anonymous

    Right, Cynthia. My son worked for a while as a nursing assistant at a care facility. He was supposed to be full time, but when the # of residents dropped, they didn’t want to pay for full staffing (even though they could have used more staff) so he would be put “on call” one day per week, getting that call about 1-2 hours before he was supposed to begin work. And he never knew which day it would be so he couldn’t plan anything else. He didn’t get paid for that day even though he’d planned to work and had showered and dressed in his scrubs, ready to go. In addition, he had to stay available for one hour after his shift was supposed to start in case another staffer didn’t show up or was sick and they needed him to work after all. So basically no money and a wasted day. At least they didn’t change his shifts around which was good since it plays havoc with your sleep schedule.

  • Suzaku

    Who truly needs to be on-call though? I would think perhaps only doctors, nurses, police, and firemen. The worst part is going in and you truly weren’t needed. This happened to me a few months ago. My employer called and said they were swamped with work and to come in early. When I got there everything was normal and boy was I angry. As a society we need to rethink quality of life. Try juggling work with school and perhaps even kids! Quick facts: The U.S works more than any other industrialized nation. The U.S has one of the lowest amount of paid vacations in a year. By the way the amount of paid vacation days in the U.S that’s required by government is zero. So add that to your repetoire of employee abuse. Juliet Schor has done some great work in regards to quality of life.

  • Dave Lister

    until the revolution comes

  • Anonymous

    Every low wage worker is flying on a trapeze with no safety net below. Job security is a thing of the past. Low wage workers are a single job loss, a single illness, from losing everything,, with no way back up. You can’t get a job once you no longer have a home address, phone, bus fare. The last I heard, there are 7 jobs for every 10 people who urgently need one. What do you think happens to the remaining three? This generation got damned tough on the poor, our “surplus population.”

  • Anonymous

    Paid vacations? Paid for not working? America opposes that. Mentioning the “quality of life” brings up an interesting point: The overall quality of life in the US was rated at #1 among all modern nations when Reagan was first elected. By the time Obama was elected, it was down to #43 — as a direct result of policies supported by the middle class. Now we hear people call, “Rebuild the middle class!” Out of what? It’s impossible to rebuild the middle class without shoring up the poor, and we won’t do this.

  • Anonymous

    Well, we really are at the mercy of employers today. There’s nothing to fall back on. We are competing for jobs with workfare labor, prison labor, foreign labor — all of which can be paid a fraction of the minimum wage. Step by step, we got what we demanded.

  • Anonymous

    We tried that. Each time, the protest gets turned into a Middle Class Only rally, so the rest of us walk away. America has a poverty crisis, not a middle class crisis.

  • Anonymous

    I saw an ad on craigslist for an office worker, a list of at least fifteen daily duties, must be bi-lingual, must have a bachelors degree, and at least 2 yrs experience. Nine dollars an hour. I replied only to ask who this company thought would spend four years in school to work for such a creep. They sent me an email saying I have a terrible attitude. Go figure.

  • Cathryn Sykes

    Right now, if you are a freelance worker, on-the-internet-worker, you deal with ads that say something like this: “We need someone who can write three 1000 words articles a day, SEO compliant, no mistakes, no typos, or no pay. $10 per article.” I’m not kidding. You are in competition with everyone in the world, including people who will actually respond to that ad.

  • JonThomas

    Well said!

  • JonThomas

    Good for you! The ideologues want people to think that humans are a ‘commodity’. The only way to prove them wrong is to have a mind and to make decisions. You made the right one. Unfortunately, too many people have responsibilities such as hungry families. When the birds chirp, they must be fed.

    These conditions have not come about by accident. The dismantling of unions, the transition to IRA’s, the stalling of the minimum wage in relation to inflation… all are decisions made by those whose self-interest and prosperity depended on warfare tactics of starving out the enemy.

    Any worker who desires a living wage is an enemy of those in management, and of investors who are covetous of that same dollar. One is faced with the necessities of life, the other with excess.

    Ideologues don’t like being called compassionless, but when their greedy actions cause people to become desperate, that is exactly what they are… compassionless!

  • Leave A Mark

    America’s poverty is a middle class crisis. Who do we think are the patrons of our services – you don’t think it comes from the 1% do you? Pulitzer Prize investigative journalists Bartlett and Steele warned, “The betrayal of the American dream is the story of how a small number of people in power have deliberately put in place policies that have enriched themselves while cutting the ground out from underneath America’s greatest asset – it’s middle class”. If you’re not aware of the economic engine a strong middle class creates for us all, then by all means, walk away. Walk away from our greatest asset, our greatest supporters and our greatest patrons. If you believe in what you’re preaching, then what possible benefit do you see in splitting the 99%?

  • Glenda Berg

    Yes, we have a poverty AND a middle-class crisis as poorly paid workers never can reach middle-class status and the cycle continues unabated. The shame of it all is that such inequality is sanctioned by the Govt., who are not even able to guarantee minimum wage increases to its citizens.

  • Angie D

    Part of the problem too is that actual fulltime workers are being required to work 50+ hours without comp time or any incentive to do so other than “not losing your job.” I work in a mainly fulltime company, 50/50 blue/white collar and people of all job descriptions are being required to work 60 hours a week, over and over, without a break. It’s an ongoing engagement issue for some people to even TAKE THEIR PTO! They have it banked out at the maximum and lose it because they can’t use it.

  • Catherine

    Wow…I think you are right about the future. It’s good to know it’s going to be even worse. lol