When ‘flexible’ schedule means unpredictability

shutterstock/heather hopp-bruce/globe staff

It’s been almost 80 years since the federal Fair Labor Standards Act established the 40-hour work week, protecting laborers from demands for toil without end. These days, however, many Americans are trying to get more hours of work — or at least more stable, predictable hours.

A new trend of erratic work schedules, split shifts, on-call positions, and “contingent” employment is bedeviling workers who are trying to keep their balance in a rapidly shifting economy. Not surprisingly, those most at the mercy of these irregular schedules are low-income workers, women, minorities, and single parents — the same people whose real wages haven’t budged in three decades.

Almost 7 million American workers are employed part time not by choice, but because full-time jobs aren’t available. This is unusually high given the overall economic recovery, according to the Federal Reserve Board, and some Fed economists suspect that a permanent structural change in the labor market may be afoot.


Partly to blame are new “just in time” computer technologies that let managers predict how many workers will be needed on any given day, factoring in conditions from traffic congestion to the weather. In some sectors — retail, food service, and home care, for example — the majority of workers don’t know their schedules even a week in advance. Many employees get just a few hours notice, or show up at work only to be sent home. Obviously this makes it difficult to juggle family responsibilities or, often enough, a second job. And this doesn’t even consider unscrupulous employers who manipulate schedules to keep workers from full-time benefits such as health insurance or overtime pay.

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This labor flexibility is supposed to make American businesses more efficient and productive, but it’s clear that workers haven’t shared in the prosperity they’ve helped create. Since 1979, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, worker productivity has increased eight times faster than wages. There ought to be a way to reap the benefits of the flexible economy without putting all the costs on the workers.

To that end, a coalition of progressive policy groups last month announced a new campaign to push for more equitable work environments on several fronts: a $15 minimum wage, universal sick leave, better childcare and unemployment benefits, job security for part-time workers, an end to wage discrimination based on gender or race. According to a report by the Center for Community Change and others, almost a third of all families now say they are living paycheck to paycheck. Nothing less than belief in the American experiment is at stake.

At the kickoff of the campaign, Senator Elizabeth Warren recalled the minimum wage job her mother was forced to take at Sears when her father’s heart attack put their home and family in jeopardy. The year was 1961. “I never forget,” she said, that it was “a time in America when a minimum wage job could support a family of three.” The $15 wage is the rate needed to lift a single parent working full-time above the federal poverty line.

To the surprise of some, momentum is building for these reforms. Seattle and Los Angeles already have passed citywide $15 minimum wage laws. San Francisco passed new protections for workers in retail chain stores, requiring that the businesses partly compensate workers for schedule changes made without sufficient notice. In Congress, Warren has co-sponsored legislation to amend the Fair Labor Standards Act to give employees more rights to dependable work schedules.


In 1938, when the 40-hour work week became law, American workers were desperate for jobs, and it seemed like the bosses held all the cards. Now, as then, they need a new deal.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.


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