What Made DC Councilmembers Back Off Just Hours?

Picking up where I left off on a dormant, though perhaps not dead proposal to make the lives of some low-wage workers less hectic — and perhaps less cash-strapped too.

I’ve already summarized the problems the proposed Hours and Scheduling Stability Act would have addressed, for whom and how. Here, as promised, are the main arguments that apparently persuaded a majority of DC Councilmembers to shelve it.

But I should first note that the bill the Council tabled was substantially different in various ways from the version opponents testified against. The responsible committee clearly sought to accommodate objections.

Nothing it could do, however, to placate the chain businesses the bill covered because they want to keep on doing exactly what they’re doing now. And, they say, their workers want that too. Or so one gathers from their champions who testified.

Our Businesses Are Unique

Spokespersons for retail stores, restaurants and other businesses in the hospitality sector, e.g., bars, nightclubs, all claimed that each and every one has unique staffing needs — and the best way of meeting them.

The bill would impose a “one size fits all” system — a case of government micromanaging operations “typically decided between employers and employees.”

Note here — and not here only — how the erratic schedules and insufficient hours workers have complained of become mutually agreed-on, win-win arrangements.

Workers Will Be Harmed, Not Helped

We’re told, by one spokesperson after another, that workers value the flexibility in their schedules. If they can’t work the hours they’re scheduled for, they just tell their manager, who usually finds someone else to fill in.

But that wouldn’t happen any more because the business would have to pay that someone for an extra hour.

This is true, but only if the manager asked a particular worker to fill in. The business would then owe her, on average, less than twelve bucks, I figure. No such hit to the bottom line if workers just agreed to switch hours or freely volunteered. So the much-touted flexibility isn’t necessarily hampered.

We find other overblown harms in the testimony. The National Restaurant Association, for example, claims that the bill “prohibits restaurants from offering part-time employment to new employees.” But it doesn’t.

It could, however, deny some prospective workers part-time jobs because businesses would have to offer current part-timers more extra hours first. Several spokespersons referred specifically to students trying to earn money to pay for their educations.

Some still might gain jobs in the covered businesses. But they couldn’t count on schedules that would let them go to classes, do their homework, etc.

More generally, spokespersons equated part-time work with “flexibility” that accommodates workers’ needs. That’s, in fact, how large retail stores “create and maintain” their schedules now, says a senior vice president at the Retail Industry Leaders Association.

Reading the testimony I’ve summarized here, I felt as if transported to an alternative universe. Schedules designed as workers want them, readily changed when they ask, generally far less than full time because that’s their preference.

What then to make of the fact that four out of five low-wage D.C. workers surveyed said that getting more hours was important to them? Or that nearly one in four said they’d been disciplined and/or told they might be fired when they asked for a different schedule?

Or the McDonald’s cook who was told she’d have to choose between work and going to school?

The District Is Piling On

The curbs on erratic schedules, pay disparities and hiring are the straw that would break the camel’s back, all the heavy hitters said.

Businesses already have to pay a higher minimum wage. They’ve got to provide some (modest) amount of paid sick leave. They’ve got to provide a transportation benefit (though not necessarily to pay for what their employees must shell out to get to work and home again).

They can’t automatically refuse to consider job applicants who’ve got criminal records. They’ve got to deal with tougher protections against wage theft.

The fast food restaurants and other carryouts have had to switch from styrofoam cups, plates and the like to more environmentally-friendly alternatives.

The skyrocketing growth of the local restaurant industry has already slowed — not because the market is reaching capacity, as one might think. More likely the collective impact of the mandates, says the National Restaurant Association’s local affiliate.

Both it and its parent warn that the hours and scheduling requirements will stunt the growth of “homegrown chains” because they’ll chose to open only as many restaurants as will keep them exempt (and far less profitable than they might be).

So the District will forfeit tax revenues — not only what the restaurants would pay, but what workers who live here would. Because, make no mistake about it, the bill’s a job killer. Further proof that the District is not “a business-friendly city.” Thus, a further incentive for businesses to locate just across the borders.

How often have we heard this, folks? How often the claim that proposals to help low-wage workers will harm them instead?

Others Dampers on the Bill

I don’t want to leave the impression that the bill would have solved the problems low-wage workers struggle with. Nor that a Council majority would have passed it if spokespersons for the retail and restaurant chains hadn’t come out with all guns blazing.

The Bowser administration didn’t expressly oppose it. But the Director of the Department of Employment Services leaned heavily on the negatives — mainly, but not entirely related to compliance and enforcement.

Basically, a very business-friendly position, reflecting the Mayor’s. So she might have vetoed it. We’ll never know.

But the initiative will rise again from the ashes. The head of the recently-formed Subcommittee on the Workforce has announced a public roundtable* on fair scheduling for November 3. So we can look for another lively exchange — and, I think, another bill.

* A roundtable is essentially a hearing open to testimony by anyone who signs up or submits a written statement by date certain.

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