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Once praised as ‘pandemic heroes,’ nothing has changed for service workers who face low pay and unpredictable schedules

February 14, 2022, 2:58 PM UTC

Robert “Happy” Allen runs a dog hospice from his home, taking care of anywhere between six and 22 dogs at a time. Right now, he’s caring for five miniature pinschers and a schipperke named Minchi, who toured with Legally Blonde the Musical before the pandemic.

Allen started working at PetSmart in 2015, which seemed to be the perfect job for his situation. His store in Tullahoma, Tenn., a small city about halfway between Chattanooga and Nashville, was only a three-minute commute from his home, making it easy for him to go back to care for his animals when he needed to.

The same year that Allen started his job at PetSmart, the company was acquired by private equity firm BC Partners in an $8.7 billion deal. Within months, he noticed that jobs were being cut without new employees hired to fill them. Allen was assigned shifts at two other locations and found himself driving three to four times a week to work at a PetSmart that was 85 miles away.

Allen’s story isn’t unique. Millions of part-time workers across the country are subject to volatile schedules making it hard for them to earn a living wage. Last week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), working alongside Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), reintroduced two pieces of legislation aimed at remedying the issues hourly workers face every day: the Schedules That Work Act and the Part-Time Worker Bill of Rights Act.

Warren and DeLauro first introduced the Schedules That Work Act in 2015, and then again in 2017 and 2019. In its current form, the bill would require employers to provide schedules two weeks in advance for workers in retail, food service, cleaning, hospitality, and warehouse occupations. It calls for additional compensation when schedules change abruptly or when workers are assigned to particularly difficult shifts, and it would protect workers from retaliation when they ask for schedule changes.

The Part-Time Worker Bill of Rights Act, first introduced in 2020, would give workers better access to the hours they need to support themselves and their families, requiring employers to offer available hours to existing workers before hiring new staff. It would also extend Family and Medical Leave Act protections to part-time workers and make it easier for them to access the retirement benefits offered to their full-time counterparts.

The majority of the part-time workforce is made up of adults over the age of 25, according to Laura Narefsky, counsel at the National Women’s Law Center. “Often people have this misconception of part-time workers as the high school student looking for a job after school,” she says.

They represent an especially vulnerable portion of the workforce, too. Part-time workers were “already really struggling” when the pandemic added new concerns in 2020, says Narefsky.

In the first few months of the pandemic, they were heralded as heroes for staying on the job while white-collar employees had the privilege of working from home. Between then and now, there’s been little material change for part-time workers, whose schedules are just as unstable today as they were in March 2020, according to a report released at the end of January by the Shift Project, an initiative housed in Harvard’s Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy. 

For Allen, the pandemic made his difficult situation much worse. While he was supposed to know his PetSmart schedule two weeks in advance, he was frequently learning about schedule changes with just a few days’ notice when people would inevitably call in sick. 

“It was just mayhem,” he says. “Not only did it impact my life, it impacted the money I was making as an hourly, commissioned salesperson.”

Allen is a dog trainer, and while at PetSmart, he earned most of his money teaching classes. When he returned to work after being furloughed at the start of the pandemic, his manager began to schedule him for cash register shifts during prime training hours, or for training sessions at times when it was unlikely anyone would sign up.

“We live in Tennessee, and you can’t schedule training classes on Wednesday night, because everybody’s in church on a Wednesday night,” he says. “I had to adjust to the idea that I didn’t know from day to day whether I would be working or not, or at what time.”

Allen also cares for his 85-year-old aunt who suffers from Alzheimer’s. With his unpredictable schedule, it became a daily puzzle to find someone who could cover his shift for the 30 minutes it took to go home and make sure she had food. He was constantly rescheduling vet and doctor’s appointments when he was unexpectedly called in. 

In a statement to Fortune, a representative for PetSmart said, “At PetSmart, we do our best to accommodate scheduling preferences and provide our associates with as much advance notice as possible. Our scheduling practices balance the needs of both our customers and associates as well as the unique demands of retail during a pandemic.”

Bad schedules lead to economic insecurity

The Shift Project grew out of joint research by sociologists Daniel Schneider and Kristen Harknett into how work instability during the Great Recession affected families. Now the largest source of data on scheduling for hourly service workers, it uses Facebook and Instagram ads to target surveys. The data in the most recent report comes from over 110,000 workers who answered questions about scheduling conditions between spring 2017 and fall 2021.

“These bad schedules are related to poor well-being, economic insecurity, and just generally a lot of stress and anxiety because folks can’t plan their future,” says Elaine Zundl, the project’s research manager.

Pablo Garcia works at a Los Angeles Cheesecake Factory, where he started as a back-of-house staffer in the restaurant’s bakery in late 2019. Now a server, he typically receives his schedule just over a week in advance, though it doesn’t necessarily reflect the hours he’s going to work. 

“You could be scheduled for three hours, but that’s an estimation, because the restaurant industry can be messy,” he says. If there’s not enough work for scheduled employees when they get to their shift, they’re likely to be sent home early. As a result, servers earn just the hourly wage (now $15 an hour in California as of Jan. 1, 2022) for the hours they worked and miss out on the tips that make service work lucrative. 

There are some states and cities that already have limited labor protections in place. In California, there’s a provision that requires employers to pay workers for at least half of their scheduled day’s work if they show up just to be released early.

Stronger protections are in place elsewhere. In its report, the Shift Project points to Seattle’s Secure Scheduling Ordinance, which went into effect in 2017 and requires that workers get their schedules at least two weeks in advance or else be compensated with extra pay. It also requires extra compensation when workers are scheduled for multiple shifts with fewer than 10 hours of rest in between as well as giving employees access to additional hours before employers hire new workers. 

Because of the ordinance, workers experienced increased schedule predictability, and as a result, “better sleep, economic security, and overall happiness,” according to the Shift Project’s report.

Other laws, which vary in the protections they provide, exist in other cities across the country, including Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, and New York. Instability, though, is the norm.

“Volatile schedules means volatile incomes, which means that people have really fluctuating monthly or weekly wages, which means that it’s hard to budget, it’s hard to plan,” says Narefsky. 

Beyond the negative financial impact, unpredictable schedules also make it “difficult to find and keep reliable childcare, or pursue additional training or education opportunities, or manage your health care needs,” she adds.

Lindsay Ruck, who has worked at the Cheesecake Factory for 14 years, enjoys the privileges that come with that seniority. She’s firm on only working four days a week—she needs the rest of the time to take care of her kids. Unfortunately, she’s not guaranteed she’ll get hours on the days she’s available, and she often has to scramble to find additional hours, taking into account her husband’s and kids’ schedules as well. 

“It puts a strain on you financially, but then there’s the stress of finding [a shift] that will work as a substitute,” she says.

The Cheesecake Factory did not respond to Fortune’s request for comment.

Change is slow, but support is growing

It’s been seven years since the Schedules That Work Act was first introduced, and even with a pandemic that forced hourly workers into the spotlight, federal part-time labor regulation is slow-moving, even if there is growing support at the state and local level. 

“Firms don’t have to wait for a policy to start implementing fixes to this problem,” Zundl argues. “They can do things tomorrow to help workers have consistent hours and more stability in their schedules.”

And it could potentially have a big impact on their bottom line.

In 2015, the Center for WorkLife Law at the UC Hastings College of Law conducted the Stable Scheduling Study at 28 Gap locations in San Francisco and Chicago. The study tested different methods for stabilizing part-time schedules, including requiring two weeks’ notice for schedule postings and eliminating on-call shifts.

The study “showed that not only were employees more happy and more satisfied, [stable scheduling] reduced turnover and reduced all the costs associated with turnover,” says Narefsky. “And it also helped drive a real sense of employee satisfaction, which then has additional ripple effects of positivity.”

But the study’s results have had little real effect on the service sector. “In our data, we don’t see that study leading to any overall trends,” says Zundl. “Unfortunately, we’re still seeing firms use the same just-in-time scheduling.”

“Right now we’re dealing with a lot of instability in the supply chain due to COVID,” says Zundl. “A way that firms have traditionally managed risk is to manipulate labor hours and shifts as a way to save money. But there’s a really detrimental impact on workers when they choose to do that.”

Because of inaction on the part of employers, Narefsky sees policy as the only recourse. “If employers are not choosing to take these beneficial actions on their own, I think there is a role for federal, state, and local governments to step in and set the foundation for employers to modify their scheduling practices.” 

“Workers and their families deserve stability and security, not schedules left to the whims of their employer,” says Congresswoman DeLauro in a statement provided to Fortune. A long list of labor unions and labor rights nonprofits have signed on in support of the bills, showing significant support outside of Congress to push the protections through.

Allen, who is a member leader for workers’ rights nonprofit United for Respect, now works at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, where he does admitting and triage in the emergency room. He was recently enjoying his first day off after working for three weeks straight when he was called in to cover a shift from two to five. Though he said he was unavailable, it reminded him of work at PetSmart, when he felt obligated to show up. “It was just scary,” he says. “It’s still scary.” 

Some level of instability comes with the territory when working at a hospital, he admits. But with a higher wage and no problem getting the hours he needs, he’s more willing to make it work. “At PetSmart, it was a little bit different,” he says. “They really didn’t have a reason to have an unstable schedule.”

With better pay, Allen is now able to afford a caretaker for his aunt and a separate worker to come by once a week to care for the dogs. 

“Little things like that are just a huge relief,” he says.

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