Woman shopping at Wal-Mart

(WOMENSENEWS)–For millions of low-wage retail workers, the holidays aren’t about spending time at home, relaxing with loved ones and celebrating the season. They’re about catering to shoppers and ringing up sales around the clock; and they often involve more time at work and even less predictable schedules than normal.

Many retail workers don’t have control over their schedules, and don’t know whether–and when–their schedules will change.

This unpredictability causes stress, creates work-family conflict, has negative health consequences and even undermines child development, according to Teresa Tritch, a member of The New York Times editorial board who addressed the issue at a December panel discussion sponsored by the Aspen Institute.

Workers with unpredictable schedules often don’t know if they’ll earn enough to cover costs and have trouble attending school or managing another job. Working parents and caregivers face additional challenges in finding and arranging child care.

“Many of the scheduling practices today are unfair and abusive, and need to change,” Tritch said.

I agree. And fortunately, some policymakers do, too.

Last year, San Francisco became the first jurisdiction in the country to enact legislation requiring large chain stores to notify employees two weeks in advance of schedule changes and to compensate them when shifts are canceled. This year, the Washington, D.C., City Council is considering its own fair scheduling proposal.

Some employers are getting on board, too. Urban Outfitters announced in October it would free its workers of “on-call” scheduling in its New York state stores, joining other brands that have done so in the state, such as the Gap, Bath and Body Works and Abercrombie and Fitch. Victoria’s Secret has ended the practice nationwide.

Progress has come about thanks in part to an effort led by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who has filed suits against companies for breaking “reporting time” laws in place in eight states and the District of Columbia.

Starbucks Under Fire

Starbucks, meanwhile, has urged managers to “go the extra mile” to improve scheduling in response to a report that found the company failed to deliver on promises to improve scheduling practices. The report was produced by the Fair Workweek Initiative, a collaborative effort spearheaded by the Center for Popular Democracy, a nonprofit organization in New York.

The coffee chain came under fire for “on-call” scheduling practices last year after The New York Times exposed their damaging impact on Jannette Navarro, a single mom and Starbucks barista, and her 4-year-old son. The company’s automated scheduling software, put in place to enhance efficiency and maximize profits, was leaving Navarro tired, stressed and unable to find reliable care for her child. Her boyfriend broke up with her, which left her homeless and threatened her access to day care and, in turn, her ability to work.

At the other end of the income spectrum, white-collar professionals are seeking more flexibility in their schedules, often for the same reasons that lower-income counterparts are seeking regular hours: so that they can care for their loved ones and continue to earn a paycheck.

Workers need more opportunities to work remotely, negotiate alternative work schedules (by coming in and leaving an hour early, for example, or working four 10-hour days instead of five eight-hour ones) and find high-quality part-time and freelance work.

They need such options not only so they can manage caregiving responsibilities but for many other good reasons, like shorter commutes, less work-life stress and stronger relationships.

Employers benefit, too, according to 1 Million for Work Flexibility, a coalition of groups working to promote flexible work arrangements. Flexible work schedules can increase savings and productivity, lower turnover rates and reduce absences, it says.

‘A Need, Not a Perk’

“Flexible work is often marginalized as an accommodation for working parents,” said Emma Plumb, director of 1 Million for Work Flexibility. “But flexible work is a need, not a perk, for a wide range of workers–from caregivers and retirees, to military spouses and millennials.”

Thankfully, more people are winning the right to request flexible schedules without fear of losing their jobs.

In 2010, President Barack Obama signed into law a bill that requires all federal agencies to establish telework policies for federal employees. And last year, he gave federal employees the right to request flexible work schedules and ordered managers to “carefully consider” those requests.

Meanwhile, employees of medium-sized companies (20 or more employees) in San Francisco won the right last year to request flexible or predictable work arrangements to assist with caregiving responsibilities. And all employees in Vermont are now able to make job-protected requests for flexible work arrangements for any reason. Employers must grant the request unless it is “inconsistent with business operations or its legal or contractual obligations.”

Eighty percent of companies offer flexible work arrangements to employees, according to a September survey by WorldatWork, a nonprofit human resources association in Scottsdale, Ariz., and FlexJobs, a professional job site with flexible work options.

But fewer than half of those (37 percent) have a formal, written philosophy or policy to support employee flexibility option. Far fewer still (only 3 percent) measure productivity to determine the return on investment of flexibility programs.

“The survey results show that a majority of companies are missing a win-win opportunity with work flexibility that’s right within their reach,” Sara Sutton Fell, CEO of FlexJobs, a job site that advertises part-time, freelance and flexible work, said in a statement. “There is a strong, positive connection between flexible work and the bottom line, with forward-thinking companies utilizing flexible work options such as telecommuting and flexible schedules to save money, recruit and retain workers and increase productivity.”

Bills are pending at the national and municipal levels to protect workers who request flexible and predictable schedules. Let’s get these–and more–bills passed! We need to modernize the workplace and protect and support all workers, whether they need more predictable, or more flexible, schedules.

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