Conor McGrath, MPA, Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives
In January, the District of Columbia City Council Committee on Business and Regulatory Affairs held a hearing on a bill that would make the District’s labor code one of the most progressive in the country. The Hours and Scheduling Stability Act, introduced by Councilmember Vincent Orange (D-At large), would reduce the scheduling uncertainty many hourly workers face by requiring employers to post work schedules three weeks in advance, thus guaranteeing more work schedule stability for thousands of workers. The bill was spearheaded by DC Jobs With Justice, a labor rights nonprofit that has been advocating for fairer schedules for several years.
In recent years, many retail establishments around the country have adopted “just-in-time scheduling,” a practice where employee schedules are adjusted to match business demand. While specific policies vary across establishments, generally under this approach, employees are expected to be available at a moment’s notice. Shifts can be changed, cancelled, or even added as the total amount of weekly hours can vary greatly from week to week. Furthermore, employees hired to do part-time work have no guarantee of minimum hours, making financial planning difficult and rife with uncertainty. According to a collaborative report by DC Jobs With Justice and the DC Fiscal Policy Center, the typical work week for a part-time retail worker in DC can fluctuate from as high as 35 hours a week to as few as 23 per week. Similar patterns have been observed for those working in the food service industry.
Service industry workers in DC are already struggling. Their median hourly pay is only $10, well below the living wage of $13.80. Many are also working more than one job. A recent survey found that one-in-four service sector employees worked a second job, but would prefer to work only one if they could get enough hours to do so.
The Scheduling Stability Act
Under legislation introduced last December, employers would be required to post schedules at least 21 days in advance. If any changes are made to a worker’s schedule thereafter, the employee will receive one hour’s pay as compensation. Furthermore, if any changes occur within 24 hours, the employee receives four hours of compensation each time a change is made.
Not everyone would be covered under the bill. Only franchises with at least 20 locations nationwide or retail chains with five establishments in the District would have to follow the new regulations. This allows smaller businesses more flexibility while keeping the focus on big stores that are often the worst offenders.
Opponents of the bill, such as the Retail Industry Leaders Association, say that it places too much of a burden on businesses and could jeopardize employers’ ability to prepare for unexpected weather events. Because of a lack of comparative data, it is difficult to empirically evaluate that claim.
Nevertheless, pressure is building on large retail chains to tackle flex-scheduling on their own – several companies from Starbucks to Urban Outfitters have adopted fairer scheduling practices at their own initiative. However, research conducted by The Center for Popular Democracy suggests that many companies don’t live up to their promises. Requiring companies to do so by law will eliminate this problem.
The Scheduling Stability Act would be only the second of its kind in the United States. San Francisco enacted similar legislation in 2014. Eight other states have laws that require employees to be compensated if they report to work but are sent home before the end of their shift.
Fortunately for the Scheduling Stability Act, its prospects for passage are bright. After an initial hearing in January, the bill has been marked “Under Council Review”. The next step is to put the bill to a vote. With eight co-sponsors, which constitutes a council majority, and 86% public approval, passage is very likely. The next challenge is to encourage other jurisdictions to do the same. With similar bills up for consideration in California, New York, and Massachusetts, 2016 could shape up to be a good year for workplace fairness.