As we kick off Women’s History Month this week, it is interesting to look back on WOW’s own history, and how at many points we were quite a bit ahead of our time! One interesting find I came across is a book that WOW’s founders published in 1967. Washington Opportunities for Women: A Guide to Part-time Work and Study, emerged from discussions that women in Washington DC were having – the challenges of integrating work and family; how to return to the labor market after time off to raise children; finding ways to complete or achieve further education; and creating workplace practices that can help women succeed. The findings in the book were based a survey completed by 3,000 women in Washington, DC and covered industries from law, government, teaching to science and technology. And it ended with a concluding chapter on “new skills”—including computer programming! Quite innovative and forward thinking for the 1960’s.
As a researcher dedicated to these issues it was quite amazing to see that, while not using the word “workplace flexibility,” our founders’ book was actually all about workplace flexibility. The authors wrote that workplace practices must be adapted so that women can integrate work, family and education. While the authors looked to part-time work opportunities as one significant solution to these challenges—they stressed the importance high quality jobs, and how even in the male dominated fields of science and engineering, women cannot only make a significant contribution, but the workplace can be organized in ways to encourage women to enter these jobs and stay in them.
Close to 50 years after the publication of this groundbreaking book, WOW continues to support policy and workplace practices that offer real flexibility so that women can be both productive workers and family members. And while advances have been made to improve opportunities for women, many women—particularly those in low wage hospitality and retail jobs—finds that workplace flexibility eludes them.
In fact, for low wage hospitality and retail workers, flexibility often means having control over one’s schedule. In 2011 WOW partnered with Social Dynamics to produce a series of literature reviews for the US Department of Labor, Women’s Bureau, on workplace flexibility in several different low-wage industries. In my research on restaurant workers I found that much of their workday is characterized by “just-in-time scheduling”. This means that many service industries, including retail and hospitality, attempt to keep costs down and profits high by achieving a tight fit between labor supply and labor demand. This scheduling practice means that both the number of hours and timing of those hours can change day to day, week to week, and season to season at the discretion of management.
This creates unpredictability for workers, as they may have to work different hours and different days each week with no set time off. Working hours at these nonstandard times creates stress for workers and their families. Often child care options are not available, forcing workers to find alternative arrangements, such as informal childcare with friends and family. While this option may always be difficult given the last-minute nature of the request, friends’ and families’ own busier schedules may make it impossible when workers need informal networks the most. This system of scheduling also complicates the ability for workers to plan for anything other than work—be it a doctor’s appointment, child care or a family dinner. And when working hours differ from children’s school times, it drastically reduces the amount of time families can spend together eating meals or helping with homework. These volatile scheduling practices are a result of employers establishing work schedules based primarily on their concerns for fluctuating customer traffic. These “just-in-time” management practices have placed the costs of inconsistent customer demand on retail’s lowest paid and most vulnerable workers.
Congress is currently considering The Schedules that Work Act that seeks to address these problems by giving employees the ability to request changes to their work schedules without fear of retaliation. As well, it seeks to give workers in certain industries known to have erratic scheduling practices more predictable and stable schedules
Some of the important provisions for workers include –
- Employers must provide employees with their schedules at least two weeks in advance.
- Once the schedule has been posted two weeks in advance, an employer must provide one extra hour of pay for each shift that is changed with less than 24 hours notice to the worker. If the reason for a shift change is the unexpected unavailability of an employee scheduled to work (e.g. another worker takes a sick day), the employer does not have to pay the extra hour.
- If any employee reports to work for a scheduled shift but is sent home before the end of the shift, s/he must receive a minimum of four hours of pay at the employee’s regular rate, or pay for the entire shift if it is less than four hours.
- If an employee is required to call-in for a shift but is not given any work, s/he must receive at least one hour of pay.
- An employee must receive an extra hour of pay for each split shift s/he is required to work.
Schedule control and workplace flexibility are important aspects of economic security that WOW advocates—and clearly has been advocating for during the past 50 years. Perhaps 2015 will be the year when our founders’ vision will be closer to being realized, and all workers will have Schedules that Work.