Moneisha Bryan at her work as a pharmacy technician. Yehyun Kim /

Service sector workers have been newly recognized as essential during the COVID-19 crisis. These frontline heroes have been essential to meeting our basic needs throughout the pandemic, doing everything from stocking grocery store shelves to driving delivery vehicles to staffing pharmacies.

These workers stepped up and faced serious risks at work while many white-collar workers stepped back and sheltered in place. We owe these workers not just a debt of gratitude, but also a close look at their working conditions.

Before the pandemic struck, Connecticut, service sector workers struggled with work schedules that were unstable and unpredictable. More than four in 10 reported a variable work schedule that changed from day to day. These schedules were also posted with short advance notice – 25% of workers learned of their schedule with less than one weeks’ notice, and more than half had less than two weeks’ notice.  Even once published, schedules were subject to change, with 25% working on-call and 11% reporting at least one last-minute shift cancellation in the prior month.

Let’s be clear: for workers, these scheduling practices don’t offer flexibility. Instead, they are a recipe for instability and unpredictability. How do we know? As co-directors of The Shift Project, we have surveyed thousands of service sector workers twice a year since 2017. When we asked workers in Connecticut directly if they would want a more stable and predictable work schedule, 74% said that they would. We also found that workers were eager for more hours. Just one in 10 workers get at least 40 hours a week, and 58% of workers told us that they would like more hours at their job.

Nationally, we have found that women and workers of color experience significantly more unstable and unpredictable work schedules on the job. For all workers, our research shows that the arrhythmia of on-call shifts, last minute timing changes, “clopenings,” and limited advance notice increases household economic insecurity and hardship, reduces workers’ wellbeing, and makes arranging regular, high-quality childcare all but impossible.

Despite lofty rhetoric about the heroism of frontline service-sector workers, little has changed on the ground for them. Survey reports gathered by our team from thousands of service sector workers in 2020 show that unstable and unpredictable schedules remain the reality for far too many service sector workers.

Connecticut’s Fair Work Week bill (SB 668), currently pending before the House, has the potential to make a real difference. While taking bold action can feel risky, in this case, we have good evidence that a law like SB668 can work. We have carefully studied the effects of a similar law, the Secure Scheduling Ordinance, that went into effect in Seattle in 2017.  Two years on, service sector workers in Seattle had benefited significantly. They were getting more advanced notice of their schedules and were less likely to have to cope with last-minute schedule changes. What’s more, Seattle workers also reported improvements in their sleep quality and economic security.

Providing workers with more schedule stability and predictability isn’t just good for workers and for their kids, it can also help the bottom line. Unstable and unpredictable schedules precipitate significantly more worker turnover, in large part because of worker dissatisfaction.

A recent randomized experiment carried out at Gap, Inc found that improving schedule stability and predictability increased productivity and same store sales.  Data from Deputy show that labor costs are actually 3% lower in Fair Work Week jurisdictions and employee absenteeism is 30% lower.

The provisions in Connecticut’s Senate Bill 668 aren’t radical. Indeed, several cities or states have already enacted or are moving towards passing similar legislation. SB 668, which was recently approved by the State Senate and now moves on to the House, sets a standard for what any worker should expect in terms of fundamental fair treatment and respect on the job.

Practices like providing two weeks’ of advance notice — a provision in the original Connecticut bill later shortened to one week — and ensuring adequate rest between shifts are also already standard business practice at several large employers, including Costco and IKEA. With SB 668, Connecticut ensures a level playing field at a reasonable standard across firms in the service sector.

Daniel Schneider is a professor of public policy at Harvard Kennedy School and Kristen Harknett is an associate professor at the University of California, San Francisco. They co-direct The Shift Project.

Leave a comment