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.”
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.
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.