What We Know (and Don’t) About How DC Spends Its TANF Funds

January 19, 2017

Mayor Bowser and the DC Council will soon have to make a critical decision: What to do about the families that have reached the rigid time limit local law sets on participation in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

As I said before, a working group convened by the Mayor has recommended significant revisions to the law. They include both indefinite-term extensions for parents who are complying with requirements set for them and ongoing benefits for their children, no matter what.

This would be probably the single most important thing the District could do now to alleviate poverty. It arguably would save money too — in healthcare costs, for example, homeless services and special education for children who’d suffer brain damages due the high levels of stress that acute poverty can cause.

But sustaining TANF benefits beyond the point that federal block grant funds can be used for them won’t be cheap. So where will the money come from? No one, to my knowledge, has figured that out yet. And it’s certainly beyond my ken.

But it’s worthwhile, I think, to look at where the District’s TANF funds are going now. We have a partial answer from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which publishes annual state-by-state analyses of TANF spending, based on reports states must submit to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The Center proceeds from the view that TANF has three core purposes—cash assistance, work activities and child care. These reflect a widely-shared view that the program should serve as a safety net and help parents get (and keep) jobs that will pay enough to make them more self-sufficient.

The District spent only 63.% of its TANF funds, i.e., its share of the block grant, plus local funds, on the core purposes in 2015.

This is relatively more than states as a whole spent. But it still leaves a lot of money to account for — about $99 million, assuming the reported total spending is right.*

Drilling down, we see that the District spent 26% of its TANF funds — roughly $70 million—on cash assistance.

An additional 14% — somewhat over $37 million — went for work activities, most if not all of this presumably to the organizations the District contracts with to provide services that help parents prepare for and find work.

Another 22% — a generously rounded $60 million — funded vouchers that subsidize child care for low-income families. These need not necessarily all be families in TANF. But TANF families are a top spending priority so long as parents fully participate in their required work activities.

The District used 7% of its TANF funds — nearly $18.7 million — for refunds from its Earned Income Tax Credit, i.e., money paid to workers whose allowable income tax claims exceeded their liabilities.

Needless to say (I hope), few of the recipients were TANF parents. As the name suggests, only people with income from work can claim it. They need not be poor or even nearly so. For example, a parent with two children remains eligible until she earns $45,000.

The EITC is nevertheless generally viewed as a powerful anti-poverty measure — in part because it puts money into people’s pockets and in part because it provides an added incentive to work. To this extent, it’s consistent with the over-arching purpose of TANF.

Those keeping track will note that we’ve got about $80 million left to account for — a larger percent than any core purpose received. It’s also a considerably larger percent left over than states as a whole reported.

The Center puts it all but administrative costs into an “other services” bucket. HHS allows states to report some spending as “other” too, but not spending on as many different things as could be left after what I’ve thus far itemized.

So where did the millions go? I asked the Department of Human Services and have thus far not received an answer. I’m hopeful, however, because looking at those “other” items in light of TANF families’ needs seems a useful exercise.

We — and the DC Council — could then better decide if each and every one of those unspecified programs and/or services should continue to receive a share of TANF funds if that means that core purposes don’t get enough.

And should they continue to receive them if the administration and Council then can’t find enough to extend a lifeline to all the at-risk TANF families?

* The Center reports that the District spent about $267 million in TANF funds. This is nearly $100 million more than its share of the block grant, plus the local funds it must spend. The Center accounts for $2 million as block grant funds left over from a prior year, but that obviously leaves more unaccounted for.


DC Set to Make Family Caregiving More Affordable

January 2, 2017

Followers may have noticed that I’ve taken a break from blogging. The rapid recovery I was experiencing after my fall in late November took a 180 degree turn such that I could barely sit due to the pain, let alone concentrate on policy issues.

Ultimately, I wound up back in a rehab facility and have only recently returned home. As I lay in bed there and now sit propped up in a pillow-cushioned chair, I find my thoughts riveted on our healthcare system.

One hardly needs fractured bones to worry about the fate of many millions of people who may no longer have affordable health insurance. I’ll have more to say about this.

But, for the time being, an insight that reaches beyond healthcare policy per se.

During both my brief stays in rehab, I raised concerns about how I would cope alone when deemed mobile enough to return home. The therapists, caseworkers and on-the-scene physician invariably responded with “Don’t you have family?”

Yes, as I suppose most patients do. But that doesn’t mean we have family members who can take on responsibilities for helping us with what the professionals call activities of daily living, e.g. bathing, dressing, cooking, housekeeping.

Lots of reasons that family members can’t become our primary caregivers. They may, for example, live so far away that they’d have to temporarily relocate. They may have children who need their daily care. They themselves may have health problems that limit what they can do.

Not much policymakers can do about these. But they can address one common barrier—potential lost wages or even jobs.

As you probably know, the federal Family and Medical Leave Act protects some workers from the latter. But it covers only about 60% of workers.

Laws in eleven states and the District of Columbia expand eligibility in various ways. But only five states and the District require employers to directly or indirectly compensate workers for any of the wages they lose when they take time off because of illness.

A handful of local governments have more expansive paid sick leave mandates than the state they’re in. But virtually all these laws exclude workers employed by small businesses—in some cases, very small, in others not.

The District also expressly excludes whole categories of workers, including all restaurant wait staff and bartenders who receive the subminimum tip credit wage.

In short, this safety net is a patchwork of protections that force hard, consequential choices between working for pay and caring for sick or disabled family members.

The District, however, is set to join the four states that enable workers to take time off for illness or other compelling reasons without forfeiting the income they need.

The DC Council recently approved a bill that would replace all but 10% of the wages that lower-income workers lose when they take time off to care for family members—not only those who are sick or disabled, but newborns and newly-adopted children.

It would also effectively supersede the paid sick leave exemption for most tip credit workers. And it would cover, at a lower replacement rate, all high-paid workers, as Rachel Sadon at DCist explains.

The bill caps the amount of paid leave workers can claim for each of the specified reasons, allowing up to eight weeks to care for their babies and/or develop a trusting relationship with a newly-adopted child.

Care for the likes of me would be capped at six weeks—a maximum the Council whittled down to add two weeks of personal medical care.

The bill adopts the paid leave model that California pioneered. Instead of requiring employers to pay their workers when they take time off for authorized reasons, it imposes a tiny payroll tax—0.62%.

The funds would go into a pool and then to workers entitled to replacement wages. So all District employers would collectively pay time off for all people who work in the District, except government employees.

The bill is the latest iteration of a proposal Councilmembers have worked on since 2015. It’s proved very controversial—and still is. “This [the final vote] is the battle, not the war, says a member of the DC Chamber of Commerce board.

The Mayor seems inclined to let the bill become law without her signature, thus indicating her disapproval without triggering a vote to override a veto. She clearly views the legislation as unfinished business, predicting the Council will have to revisit it before it becomes effective.

Translating the bill into a viable system would prove challenging, even if the administration wanted to make it work. One can only hope that it sets aside its reservations or comes up with a better solution.

I don’t know enough to know whether there is one. What I do know is that our healthcare system assumes a family caregiving role that our labor laws don’t accommodate.

The lack of paid time off leaves sick and disabled people vulnerable. My summary here indicates other compelling needs that may get short shrift.

But they often don’t because workers (mostly women) quit their jobs or shift to part-time work so they can fulfill family responsibilities.

This puts them at a disadvantage when they’re ready to return to the workforce or full-time employment. And it’s likely to disadvantage them when they’re ready to retire because the years when they earned nothing or very little often become part of the base for calculating Social Security benefits.

In the meantime, families whose breadwinners sacrifice to provide care have to make do with less or no earned income. This is a problem for all working families, but especially those dependent on a low-wage worker.

It’s also a problem for state and local governments because they must make do with less tax revenues and increased needs for safety net benefits.

Ideally, we would have a nationwide paid sick and family leave law. That’s obviously not in the cards during the next four years. So here’s another case where states and the District must do for their residents what Congress and the President won’t do for all Americans.

 


My Blog Turns Eight, Looks Back to Its Birth and Forward

December 6, 2016

Today is my blog’s eighth birthday. I’m amazed that something I started in a fit of pique has lasted so long and become so valued part of my life.

People sometimes ask me how the blog began. So first about that fit of pique.

My late husband and I had a joke about one of our temperamental differences—or rather, a way I’d joke about myself. I’d say, “Jesse, you know I’m the soul of patience, but …”

If I hadn’t become impatient, I wouldn’t have started this blog — or at least, not when and with so relatively little forethought. The leader of a local (now defunct) virtual community agreed to publish posts I’d written to gain more grassroots support for policy decisions an organization I volunteered for was advocating.

But the person who administered the blog took her own sweet time to publish them — no matter how time sensitive. So one day, when another deadline had passed, I said to myself, “Well [expletive deleted], I’ll start my own blog.”

I knew from the get-go that the blog had to do more than replicate action alerts. And I wanted it to do more anyway. I didn’t know quite what, but as title suggests, I carved out broad swathe of territory.

Like many children, the blog has had growing pains, as long-time followers may have noticed. My posts were originally short and easy to write because I generally borrowed from a single source to gin up support for (or against) a single issue.

Over time, I’ve tried to provide more information because that’s what I myself want when I read a post, news article or column about a policy issue. I’ve tried to include links to original sources—again, because that’s what I want.

And I’ve tried, when possible, to show the nexus between developments at the federal level and my local level, the District of Columbia. The challenge in part is that developments at either level link to others — and they to others.

How do I — or anyone for that matter — who chooses to look at poverty in America through a policy lens resist simplistic (if heartfelt) rhetoric or deep dives into the weeds that obscure the main issue? Still haven’t come up with an answer that snaps into place whenever I start drafting.

Well, so much for the strictly me. Here, very briefly, is what I see when I look back to my first posts — and forward to likely fodder in the upcoming year.

The Great Recession had just set in when I started blogging. The District, like all states, faced a pressing problem because tax revenues were dropping and needs for safety net services rising. And like all states, but one, it had to keep its budget balanced every year.

So the District decided, among other things, to eliminate a small pending increase in cash benefits for families in its Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. That occasioned my very first post.

The District only recently put a multi-year increase in place. So full benefits are now somewhat higher than they would have been, if the DC Council had done nothing further.

But, in the meantime, the Council, with the former mayor’s hearty approval, set a rigid 60 month lifetime limit on TANF eligibility. So what’s better for some very poor District families is offset by what’s worse for thousands of others.

Another early post flagged the likely impact of the Great Recession on the national poverty rate and summarized a handful of remedies the federal government could put in place.

We all assumed — rightly — that Obama and the Democratic majorities in Congress would swiftly agree on a legislative package to jump start the economy and expand the federally-funded safety net — in itself, an economy booster.

So we had hope and reasons to believe we’d soon see positive changes. And we did — not only in temporary stimulus measures, but in new and improved programs we thought we could count on for the long-term and rules for existing programs that would benefit lower-income people.

Well, the Great Recession is behind us, though we still have more poor people than we did before it began—largely because we’ve got more people living in the U.S now. We’d have about 38.1 million more in poverty were it not for Social Security and our major safety net programs.

District policymakers apparently will do something to extend TANF benefits for at least some families headed by parents who can’t conceivably earn enough to pay for basic needs — and perhaps for all children who’d otherwise be plunged into dire poverty.

They’re intent on making more housing affordable for the lowest-income residents. They’re making progress toward providing homeless families with smaller, more habitable shelters—and enabling more to remain safely housed.

They’re providing shelter year round for those who can’t, rather than leaving them to fend for themselves unless they have a legal right to shelter because they might otherwise freeze to death.

Not saying all is well, but we have sound reasons for hope insofar as our local officials have the freedom and resources to effect progressive change.

What then to say about prospects for low-income people nationwide? We’ve got a host of predictions — some reflecting proposals likely to become blueprints for legislation, others based on pronouncements and past actions by Trump’s top-level nominees.

I can’t help feeling that we’ll watch the safety net unravel, while knowing it needs strengthening. Can’t help feeling we’ll see other programs that also serve basic human needs undermined — or altogether eliminated.

Neither the District nor any state or other local government can compensate for the multi-pronged attack we’ve good reason to expect — even for just the prospective federal funding losses.

I tell myself to absorb the spirit of the many organizations that have already proved they’re ready to keep fighting on behalf of the disadvantaged people in our country. They’re working together, as they often do, to educate us with less expertise and to help us join the fight in effective ways.

But right now, I’m profoundly disheartened. Yet I know that silence implies consent. So I’ll blog on in hopes of a cheerier future blog birthday.


What We Know About DC Parents Up Against the TANF Time Limit

November 3, 2016

The working group deputed to advise on the District’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program gathered various kinds of information before making the recommendations I recently blogged on.

Among the most influential, I’d guess, were two newly-gathered sets of data that tell us — and decision-makers — more about the 6,560 or so TANF parents whose families will be at or over the 60-month lifetime participation limit next October, unless the Mayor and Council agree to an alternative.

For one set, the Department of Human Services did what seems a limited analysis of the families’ case records. For the other — and to me, more enlightening — it asked the parents some questions. The working group’s report includes an analysis of the results.

They bolster the case for eliminating the time limit because they cast grave doubts on the parents’ prospects for getting — and keeping — jobs that pay enough to support themselves and their children. Not such grave doubts for all, however, if they’re given more time in the program.

Here’s a sampling of what we learn.

Twenty-two percent of the survey respondents reported they were working, but very few of them full time. All but 39% usually worked for no more than 30 hours a week.

The fact that most of those already over the time limit have children under 10 helps explain this, but so may the hiring and scheduling practices that depress earnings for so many low-wage workers.

Nearly half the working parents earned less than $250 a week. A mother with two children would need about $388 a week, every week, just to lift the family over the federal poverty line.

About half the parents hadn’t participated in TANF for 60 months running. Three-quarters of those who’d left had done so because they’d gotten a job and/or began earning too much for their families to still qualify.

About the same percent were back in the program because they’d lost their jobs or couldn’t find a job that would enable them to support their families. These may include the 11% who said they’d re-enrolled because they couldn’t afford child care. Seems they’d lost the subsidies TANF parents get.

Their resumes may have lacked proof of the high-level skills so many local employers require. Thirty-one percent of the parents surveyed said that lack of sufficient education and/or training made it difficult for them to work.

The same percent are currently trying to get a GED or high school diploma — hardly something they could invest as much (if any) time in if kicked out of the program.

They’ll have a hard time getting any job without even this minimal credential. The unemployment rate for working-age residents with less is nearly 20%, according to the most recent analysis we have.

More than three-quarters of all jobs in the District will require at least some postsecondary education by 2020, the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce projects.

This, of course, suggests that the job market will remain very tight — if not get tighter — for the least educated TANF parents. Hence, the need to ensure that TANF will remain a safety net for them and their children.

But it also argues for eliminating the time limit in a different way because 38% of the at-risk parents are taking college-level courses now. And scholarships the District provides exclusively for TANF parents probably help them cover the costs, as do the childcare and transportation subsidies.

Lack of work experience caused problems for 35% of the parents — perhaps some of the same who cited insufficient education and/or training as a barrier.

Far from all parents face only these barriers. More than half cited at least one sort of health problem as a reason they weren’t working, looking for work or regularly participating in a TANF training program.

Physical health problems pose a barrier for well over one in three. The case review found 18% with mental health needs that remained unmet — presumably meaning that the parents still suffered from them.

The federal Supplemental Security Income program provides modest cash benefits for people whose disabilities make self-supporting work impossible.

But relatively few who apply get them — and none who can’t prove, among other things, that their disability will last at least a year (or that they’ll die sooner) and precludes any sort of paying work.

A top-flight TANF expert at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities put the chances that the 60-month or over parents could make up for their lost benefits with SSI at no more than 10%.

Understandably, more than half the parents facing lifetime banishments from TANF believe it will be harder for them to meet their families’ needs. An additional 25% don’t know.

They’re, of course, viewing their prospects in today’s job market. Come the next recession — and one will come — there’ll be fewer job openings and more recently-employed people competing for them.

What then for the many thousands of families tossed out of TANF — and others who’ll reach the 60-month limit during the downturn?


A Time Limit for the DC TANF Time Limit?

October 31, 2016

Maybe — just maybe — the Mayor and the DC Council will decide to do the right thing about the families who will lose what remains of their thrice-cut Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits.

I’ve written about the plight of these families often — and more recently, about a proposal to relieve those who’d suffer specific hardships.

The Council could have folded it into the budget for this fiscal year, but kicked the can down the road again — largely because the administration said it had to study the issue.

It still hasn’t taken a position, but it now has recommendations that the Department of Human Services asked a working group to produce, plus advice on what it should do to make TANF better.

So a brief review of the issue, plus an update seem in order.

Families Facing a Crisis

Less than a year from now, roughly 6,560 families, including more than 10,000 children will lose their TANF benefits unless the Mayor and Council agree to reprieve at least some of them.

These families — and more as time goes on — will not only lose those benefits, but have no chance of ever getting them again because the current law sets a 60-month lifetime limit on TANF participation, with no exceptions, no matter what.

They’ll have little or no cash income, unless the parents manage to find steady work on their own. Not a likely prospect, given what we know about TANF “leavers” elsewhere.

We can reach a similar conclusion from the District auditor’s report on parents over the 60-month limit who’d recently received services designed to get them into the workforce.

How the Program Would Change

As I’ve said, the report includes many recommendations, but its main purpose is to guide action on the time limit. To that end, the working group’s first preference would do three things.

First, it would split the per-family cash benefit into a child grant and a parent grant. The child (or children) would get 80% and the parent (or parents) 20%.

This, the report says, would support children, give parents an incentive to participate in work activities and protect the most vulnerable. It would also shield children from sanctions, i.e., benefits cuts imposed when someone in authority decides that parents aren’t doing what their work activity plans require.

Second, it would eliminate the time limit for both child and parent grants. Families would remain eligible so long as they met already-established requirements.

Third, it would adjust the benefit reductions imposed as sanctions — these, recall, to the parent grant only. The initial sanction would remain the same — a 20% cut. The second would be 10% less than now — and the third 40% less, rather than the total cut-off in the current rule.

The less drastic cuts would indirectly help protect children because both grants will, of necessity, go to the parents. Infants, after all, don’t buy their own diapers, preschoolers their own shoes, etc.

And many of a family’s largest costs can’t be divvied up among members — housing, for example, and food, which poor and near-poor families generally have to buy, even if they receive SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

Advantages to Recommended Approach

The overhaul has one obvious advantage. No families would be plunged into dire poverty, with the long-term harms we know that often inflicts on children, e.g., brain damage, chronic physical and mental health problems, neglect and even abuse from over-stressed parents.

Children would also have some protection from the harms stemming from such practical consequences as homelessness and malnutrition. Rolling all these together, they’d have a better chance of completing high school “college and career ready,” as our public schools intend.

The other advantage to the working group’s preferred option is that it’s far simpler to administer than the extensions the pending bill would establish. And it’s free from cracks some families could slip through, e.g., the need for victims of domestic violence to share their problem with virtual strangers.

Instead of various criteria, each with its own tracking system and potential time limit, there’d be only two clear reasons for ending a family’s participation in TANF.

Either it moved out of the District or the parent gained more income than the maximum for eligibility. Parents would still have every reason in the world to prepare for jobs, look for them and do their best to keep them because cash benefits would remain very low.

But there’d always be a safety net for those who initially succeeded, then fell on hard times again. What we now know about the parents over the current time limit or soon to reach it shows how important that’s likely to be. (More about this in a followup.)


What Made DC Councilmembers Back Off Just Hours?

October 27, 2016

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.


Just Hours Not Just Yet, DC Council Decides

October 20, 2016

A DC Council majority recently decided to table a bill that would have given some low-wage workers more predictable schedules — and, in some cases, more wage income too.*

The nay-saying Councilmembers could have let a newly-formed subcommittee try to fix what troubled them, as its chair urged them to. They instead killed the proposal for the rest of this Council session — and, of course, opened the door to further efforts to block it.

We’ll surely see them, since they succeeded so well this time. We might also, I suppose, expect efforts to further scale back the worker protections that the tabled bill provided — just in case the Council won’t altogether cave again.

I’d thought to dive right into the debate, but realized it wouldn’t make much sense to anyone who didn’t know what the parties were arguing about. So I’ll deal here with the bill itself and why supporters (self included) say it’s needed. Look for the arguments that apparently won the day in a followup.

Which Workers Would Have Benefited

Only some workers in the District would have gained schedules they could rely on for even a couple of weeks — or the chance to gain more hours, also more predictable.

The bill set requirements only for retail businesses, including restaurants that were part of chains — at least five nationwide for businesses that sell goods and at least twenty for restaurants.

The report that inspired the bill focused mainly on workers employed by retailers, restaurants and other food services businesses, e.g., grocery stores, but the survey it reflected also included others — people who work for cleaning services, for example, and for parking lots and garages.

So the bill could have gone much further than it did — and, in fact, went further when introduced. The committee that narrowly approved the bill revised it to exclude hotels, healthcare facilities and six other types of enterprises.

Why Workers Need Predictable Hours and Schedules

The aforementioned report cites several major problems that irregular schedules cause, though the survey also picked up problems all low-wage workers face, i.e. simply not enough money and the consequences thereof.

Erratic schedules specifically make it very difficult for workers and their families to budget, since pay is inevitably erratic too. The workers can’t take second jobs to ease the financial stress because they may have to show up at the first.

They can’t improve their prospects in the labor market by getting more education or training — again, because they don’t know which hours they’ll be free.

They struggle with childcare arrangements, not knowing when they’ll need someone to look after the kids. Nor, one guesses, whether they can pay the fees when due. Further problems, including extra fees when they can’t pick their kids up on time.

And still other problems when they or their kids need medical or dental care, when they need to talk with a teacher, etc.

National research and advocacy organizations have flagged problems of another sort — threats to the safety net benefits many of the workers and their families need.

Some must work a certain number of hours regularly to get them — those in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, for example, and those without children or other dependents who rely on SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

Those in any of our major safety net programs can lose some or all of their benefits when their incomes rise. But then their incomes will probably fall again. And getting those benefits back takes time — especially, as CLASP notes, when a sudden schedule change forces them to miss an appointment.

What the Bill Would Have Done

The proposed Hours and Scheduling Stability Act would have done three major things. First, it would have required the covered businesses to give part-time workers more hours, if they wanted them, before hiring more part-timers.

Second, it would have required them to pay part-time workers as much as full-time workers with roughly equivalent jobs. An exception here, however, for pay differentials based on seniority systems like those built into some union contracts.

Third, the bill would have required the covered businesses to give workers their schedules two weeks in advance. No day-by-day — or even hour-by-hour — scheduling according to expected customer traffic.

The businesses could have changed schedules with a day’s advance notice, but they’d have owed an extra hour’s pay for that. More extra hours of pay if less warning.

This only if workers agreed to the scheduling change — in writing, as all the scheduling communications would have had to be. Workers could refuse and wouldn’t have to find someone else to fill in.

District law already requires employers to pay workers when they show up as scheduled and are told they’re not needed — or were scheduled for more than four hours and sent home sooner or told to sit around for awhile.

The bill would have extended a somewhat similar pay protection to workers told they should call in and be available to come in if needed.

It did, however, recognize that businesses sometimes need no workers because they can’t operate. They’ve no electricity, for example. A big snowstorm has shut down public transit. They been told to close because of a terrorist threat.

No pay owed in these or some other specified cases. Nor if a restaurant scheduled additional staff expecting a nearby event that got cancelled, thus reducing expected customer traffic.

In short, some carve-outs, but generally provisions that aim to make just-in-time scheduling and similar practices less profitable to some businesses that use them.

Or at least, seem less profitable. Relatively stable schedules can reduce turnover — and with it, the costs of hiring and training. They can also increase productivity because workers feel better, physically and emotionally — and do more to help the businesses do better because they feel better about them.

Trader Joe’s reportedly gives its workers their schedules at least two weeks in advance. And it’s doing just fine.

*  I’m linking to the Business, Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Committee’s report, rather than the online version of the bill because the committee’s version reflects what the Council considered.