More to Bad Jobs Than Low Hourly Pay

March 24, 2014

New York Times columnist Steven Greenhouse profiles a nurse’s aide and several other low-wage workers in Chattanooga, Tennessee to show why low-wage workers generally are “finding poverty harder to escape.”

One reason is simple enough. Their hourly pay rates are too low. All the profiled workers get somewhat more than the federal minimum, which applies in Tennessee and 28 other states — not, however, as much as the proposed $10.10 an hour. So the increase would help.

But low pay rates alone don’t account for the troubles the workers have paying for basic expenses. The nurse’s aide, for example, like a growing number of low-wage workers across the country, doesn’t have a regular work schedule, let alone a full-time job.

“For today’s low-wage, hourly workers, … scarce, unstable and unpredictable hours are the new norm,” write Professors Charlotte Alexander and Anna Haley-Lock.

Employers aren’t only cutting back on full-time jobs. Those that can are, in many cases, relying on “just-in-time” scheduling, i.e., adding and subtracting workers’ hours according to immediate need.

It’s reportedly common in restaurants and other retail businesses, which can now establish very short shifts — 15 minutes, in some cases — and use software to fill them, based on customer traffic, sales or predictors like weather conditions.

Workers may show up for what they think is a five-hour shift and be sent home early. They may be told they’ll need to put in extra hours — or to be available for them, with no guarantee they’ll be working.

They may have no regular hours at all, but instead have to call in daily — or be constantly accessible by phone. More commonly, their work days and/or hours change from week to week. And they don’t know what their schedule will be until a day or so before they’ve got to meet it.

“Even then,” said one chain restaurant worker, “it was only a guesstimate.”

Likewise, of course, the budget planning that low-income people are enjoined to practice. “I have been scheduled for as few as six hours in a week and as many as forty,” says a New York City sales associate. “How is anyone … supposed to plan a budget with such erratic schedules?”

And how is a parent supposed to manage childcare arrangements, when she’s sometimes needed, sometimes not, sometimes for far longer than scheduled — or at altogether different hours?

And how will she afford child care when a center may tack on a hefty fee for late pick-ups — or when her hours are suddenly, though perhaps (or perhaps not) temporarily cut in half?

Iffy schedules pose other problems for low-wage workers. For example, they can’t take on a second part-time job because they can’t commit to any work schedule, even if not another “just-in-time.”

They often can’t try to improve their prospects by getting more education or specialized training because they never know when or how often their work schedule will conflict with their classes.

The surges and plunges in working hours also wreak havoc on eligibility for many public benefits and the support they provide because recipients generally have to recertify, i.e., periodically reapply.

A woman in Massachusetts says, “A good month, I can work thirty-eight to forty-five hours and it just happens to be that month they want my pay stubs for food stamps. OK, the next month comes around I’ve worked three hours one week, twelve hours another week … They don’t want my pay stubs for that month.”

So she could lose at least part of her food stamp benefit — and then have to try to recover it. Temporary hours spikes can also jeopardize¬†childcare subsidies, WIC, housing assistance and Medicaid.

On the other hand, earnings plunges make it even more difficult for low-wage workers to qualify for unemployment benefits. Yet they’re at high risk for unemployment — in part because they’re expected to work whenever.

Finally, as many have written, the on-again, off-again, never-know-when schedules create high levels of stress for workers. They’re also harmfully stressful for their children, whose daily routines and caregivers constantly change.

CLASP and partners have identified two policies that some employers have adopted to mitigate the problems of unstable schedules for low-wage workers.

One, also favored by Professors Alexander and Haley-Lock, guarantees workers who’ve reported when told to a certain number of hours of pay.

Seven states and the District of Columbia actually have so-called “reporting pay” laws, but they vary considerable in whom they cover, the number of hours guaranteed and the required pay rate.

These laws may be on the books, but it’s doubtful they’re consistently enforced, since they hinge on vulnerable workers filing complaints. And, of course, they do nothing about schedules that constantly change.

Nor does the other policy, though it comes closer. It guarantees workers a set number of hours a week — or pay for those hours if there’s not enough work for them to do. Costco, among others (probably not very many), has a version of this policy.

There’s a business case to be made for a work guarantee. It can help reduce turnover, for example, and increase productivity — not only because workers know their jobs, but because they want to do them well.

But, as the CLASP report says, “relying solely on voluntary employer action will not suffice.” We’ll need new and/or revised laws and regulations to make bad jobs better in the rapidly-growing low-wage service sectors.


Too Many Bad Jobs and Plenty of Blame to Go Around

December 17, 2012

“We’re better at pulling people out of the stream than walking up to see who’s throwing them in.”

Bishop Gene Robinson, who said this, was speaking about the faith community at the launch of the Half in Ten campaign’s new shared prosperity report.

But I think his twist on the oft-quoted precept of another Christian social justice advocate applies more generally.

Look at public policies, for example. The safety net surely isn’t all it should be, but it does protect a large majority from utter destitution.

On the other hand, we see a high tolerance for employment practices that effectively throw people into the safety net.

Our federal policies, for example, allow employers to pay workers as little as $7.25 an hour — even less if they’re home care workers, who’ve got no minimum wage or overtime rights at all.

Companies can duck not only the minimum wage and related overtime requirements, but their obligations for the payroll taxes that will ultimately provide workers with Social Security and Medicare benefits.

They can shift jobs overseas — either directly or by contracting out work formerly performed by employees here in the U.S. Our tax code gives them incentives for the former.

When offshoring isn’t possible, companies can still contract out essential parts of their operations to other companies or to agencies that employ workers on a short-term basis — again ducking whatever payroll tax obligations they’d otherwise have.

Contracting out, whether here or abroad, can also relieve them of legal obligations for workers’ health and safety — and for maintaining insurance to compensate those who suffer on-the-job insurances or workplace-related illnesses.

And for the legal obligations they’d otherwise have under nondiscrimination laws.

In theory, temporary workers have the same basic protections they’d have as regular company employees — though none of the optional benefits, of course.

In reality, they’ve got to put up with whatever the agency and its client firms dish out because they’ll get fired if they complain. And they can have a lot to complain about, as this report from a former “warehouse slave” shows.

Unions used to provide a strong counterweight to such practices. Now they don’t because they represent only a small fraction of the private-sector workforce.

We can attribute some of the decline in union strength to changes in the economy, including the shift to temporary contract labor. But public policies have played a role too.

Twenty-four states, for example, have “right to work” laws that allow employees to benefit from the wages, benefits and other terms of employment unions negotiate without paying the dues unions need to effectively represent the workforce as a whole.

At the federal level, the National Labor Relations Board arguably doesn’t have the authority to keep companies from crippling union organizing campaigns or from making them effectively meaningless by refusing to bargain in good faith.

It’s easy to blame our policymakers for staying safely downstream. But that’s too simple, I think.

We’re collectively responsible for choosing them — and to some extent, for the policies they pursue.

But we also make other choices that give companies incentives to keep throwing people into the stream — or at the very least, no compelling reason to stop.

We may have joined the Black Friday boycott of Walmart, but how many of us don’t bargain-hunt, even when we know that our choice of rock-bottom prices puts companies that try to do the right things at a competitive disadvantage.

How many of us buy clothing, electronics, toys and other goods even when we know — or could know — that the companies they’re made for tolerate dreadful conditions in their suppliers’ factories?

Yet we sometimes do keep companies from behaving badly. Look at what’s just happened at Darden Restaurants — the company that owns some popular sit-down chains, including Olive Garden, Red Lobster and Capital Grille.

Word go out that Darden planned to exploit a deliberately-created loophole in the Affordable Care Act by cutting its workers hours just enough to put them under the threshold for mandatory employer-sponsored health insurance.

Next thing you know, a flood of negative feedback from customers, lower satisfaction scores at restaurants where Darden was testing its strategy and (horrors!) lower sales projections, leading analysts to drop their target prices for buying its stock.

The company does an about-face. Says it has no intention of converting full-time workers to part-time — or of cutting back on the health insurance coverage full-timers can get.

I don’t want to sound like a cock-eyed optimist. Darden has merely pushed the pause button on its workforce changes. Some other companies reportedly are moving ahead to convert full-time to part-time jobs. Still others are planning to do so.

And targeted consumer pressures alone aren’t going to transform working conditions in the lower layers of our growing service sector anyway.

But the Darden episode suggests that we’ve got some leverage if we care to use it.


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