Service sector workforce pummeled by erratic scheduling, research shows

shop, er, work til you drop
Irregular and on-call scheduling is particularly prevalent in Nevada's largest employment sectors, food service and retail. (Photo: Jeniffer Solis)

As we head into the holidays, a significant share of the Nevada workforce will power through the busy retail season without knowing what time they’ll start work, how long their shift will last or even if they’ll be working at all, regardless of what the company schedule says.

In recent years unstable scheduling has spread through some of the nation’s fastest-growing and lowest paying occupations, including retail sales, food service and home care assistants.

New research by the Shift Project at the University of California, Berkeley sheds light on the human costs of unpredictable work schedules. 

The findings come from surveys of 30,000 employees at 120 of the largest retail and food-service firms in the United States and shows that the working poor frequently find themselves up against erratic work schedules, with hours and shifts that change day-to-day and week-to-week with little advance notice. 

Those working unpredictable schedules reported more economic insecurity and dramatic increases in serious financial hardships like going hungry, falling behind on utilities and other bills, losing housing, and forgoing medical care because of the cost. 

“These are workers who are just barely making ends meet in a good week, so you can imagine that any unanticipated cut in hours can lead directly to not being able to make rent or not being able to afford groceries that week,” said Kristen Harknett, a sociologist at the University of California, San Francisco, who is the co-director of the Shift Project along with Daniel Schneider, a sociologist at UC Berkeley. 

Shifting schedules make income unreliable, earnings spiking in some months and plummeting in others, driving workers to “short term survival strategies” like payday loans to make ends meet, said Harknett.

“It’s not hard to imagine how this traps people and gets in the way of trying to better your circumstances in the long term,” Harknett said. “When we asked about longer range plans, it’s almost impossible for them to even imagine or think about because there’s just a survival imperative that’s immediate. It’s almost like these workers didn’t even have the space in their brains or bandwidth to lay down the groundwork for any of that.”

Nevada government, labor and academic sources said there is little if any research on the prevalence of uncertain scheduling in Nevada’s workforce. That’s not uncommon. “Most places have no idea how big a chunk of their local workforce is participating in irregular work,” according to a report in Governing magazine.

By one estimate, from the General Social Survey, about 10 percent of workers nationwide are subjected to irregular or on-call scheduling, though other analysts have contended that estimate is probably low.

‘Mom guilt’

Paola Duren, 26, works retail sales at a bath and body products shop in a hotel on the Las Vegas Strip. She has a one year old son, and describes her anxiety about the instability of her child’s life due to her unstable schedule as “mom guilt.”

“He has been more aggressive,” Duren said. “But I feel like maybe that’s normal for kids. But maybe I just tell myself that to take off some of that mom guilt because I feel like it does affect him. When he sees me, he just wants me to hold him all the time.”

Children of parents who experienced more frequent time changes and canceled shifts in their schedules were much more likely to exhibit sad behaviors— feeling worthless, anxious, unhappy, or worried — than children of parents with stable schedules, according to survey results from 4,300 workers with children 15 and younger. They were also more likely to argue, destroy things and have tantrums.

One of the biggest stressors for parents with unpredictable schedules is finding child care, forcing parents to rely on more complicated arrangements, according to the study. Formal daycares don’t allow families to drop off children unplanned and rarely operate outside of typical business hours. 

Duren said she often has to scramble to arrange child care with family and friends, or turn down much-needed hours.

“I have a baby so I have to say ‘I can’t’ or ‘alright’ and I have to figure it out that night,” Duren said. “It’s hard to have a job and have them change your schedule because sometimes I don’t have the time to cook and make homemade meals. I’m just so tired and I do feel stressed out.”

On top of the difficulties with childcare, Duren said that due to her unstable schedule she hits weeks where she and her husband’s income is not enough to pay utility bills and she often has to call and ask that the payment deadline be moved.

“I would like a job where I know what’s going to happen,” Duren said.

Harknett said after years of studying low income families she became interested in unstable and unpredictable work schedules after noting a dearth of research on its impact on families. 

“These schedules are not only affecting the workers themselves, but are generating instability in the lives of American children as well,” she said.

Two-thirds of workers surveyed by the Shift Project said they are given less than two weeks advance notice of their schedules and 15 percent had less than 72 hours of notice. The survey also found 80 percent of the workers have little to no input into their schedules, and 69 percent are required by their employer to keep their schedules “open and available” to work whenever needed. 

“I feel like I don’t have a choice but to say ‘OK’ and that’s just how it is at work.” Duren said. “It’s hard.”

Race, gender, and scheduling

The study also found that African-Americans, Hispanics and other minorities — particularly women — receive less advance notice and have less control over their schedules than white workers.

When researchers compared workers with similar levels of education who worked at the exact same companies workers, of color still had more unstable and unpredictable work schedules than white workers. Overall, workers of color were 30 percent more likely than white workers to have had a shift canceled in the last month.

“That result is a really intriguing and unsettling one because it isn’t just that workers of color are disproportionately represented in these jobs. It really goes beyond that,” Harknett said. “Even when we take that into account and look within a particular employer, we are still seeing that workers of color end up having more canceled shifts, for instance, than their counterparts who are white.”

In New York and seven other states and Washington, D.C.,  laws require employees be paid for a minimum of two to four hours of work – known as “minimum reporting pay” – if their shift ends earlier than planned or is outright canceled. Other states have no laws regulating the practice, including Nevada.

The study focused on retail and food service due to the prevalence of on-call work in those industries. Looking at the size of this sector the number of people affected by unpredictable schedules is considerable: More than 9 million people in the U.S. work in food service and nearly 17 million in retail.

Nationally, the “leisure and hospitality” sector — which covers service jobs such as those in accommodations and food service, including fast food — accounts for 10 percent of the workforce. In Nevada, it’s more than twice that.

Between January 2004 and June 2019, leisure and hospitality in Nevada averaged 23.7 percent of the workforce, topping out at 25.5 percent in 2015. As of June, the roughly 333,000 people working in the sector accounted for 21.8 percent of the workforce.

The next largest employment sector is “trade, transportation and utilities,” a categorization that includes retail sales, which has long been one of the state’s largest sources of employment. The sector’s 295,000 jobs account for 19.3 percent of the workforce.

‘Flexibility’

U.S. employers for years have defended what they sometimes call “flex scheduling” as being a perk that many employees prefer.

Caesars Entertainment, one of the largest employers in Nevada, said flexible scheduling is a business necessity for a company with natural ebbs and flows. 

“We have many employees who prefer scheduling flexibility, and that’s a principle reflected in our collective bargaining agreements achieved in collaboration with our union partners,” said a spokesman for Caesars. “Students, people looking to reduce work hours,  full-time employees of other companies, as well as some people looking for more control of work hours in the lives, are all attracted by more flexible scheduling.”

“We need more staff when we have major meetings and events.  It would not be productive for either company or workers to be at work but idle during slack periods, nor would it be acceptable to under-staff for peak periods because we lack scheduling flexibility.”

MGM, the state’s largest employer, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

But companies with union contracts, like Caesars or MGM, are typically less likely to schedule employees irregularly than are small businesses and food and retail franchises.

Neither the Retail Association of Nevada nor the Nevada Restaurant Association responded to requests for comment on the social and economic impacts of irregular scheduling in Nevada.

Jeniffer Solis
Reporter | Jeniffer was born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada where she attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas before graduating in 2017 with a B.A in Journalism and Media Studies. While at UNLV she was a senior staff writer for the student newspaper, the UNLV Scarlet and Gray Free Press, and a news reporter for KUNV 91.5 FM, covering everything from the Route 91 shooting to UNLV housing. She has also contributed to the UNLV News Center and worked as a production engineer for several KUNV broadcasts before joining the Nevada Current. She’s an Aries.