Analysis Law and Policy

San Francisco Workers Can Now Request Flexible Work Schedules—But Not Predictable Ones

Sheila Bapat

The philosophy underlying the policy is one that recognizes the importance of parenting and other caregiving roles—which women are still disproportionately saddled with. But even as San Francisco sets trends, the city’s policy could improve, especially with respect to low-wage positions, which also tend to be dominated by women.

San Francisco continues to be ahead of the curve in terms of progressive work and family policy. It was the first city to enact a paid sick leave policy six years ago—legislation we are now seeing in several other cities. And last month, San Francisco became the only city in the nation to enact an ordinance guaranteeing workers legal protection when they request flexible work arrangements so they can care for their children or other loved ones. (Vermont is the only other U.S. jurisdiction to have such a policy.) San Francisco’s ordinance applies to employees who have been with an employer at least six months and who work eight hours or more per week. A flexible schedule can include varied hours, telecommuting, or other schedule changes.

The philosophy underlying San Francisco’s flexible schedule policy is one that recognizes the importance of parenting and other caregiving roles—which women are still disproportionately saddled with. But even as San Francisco sets trends, the city’s policy could improve, especially with respect to low-wage positions, which also tend to be dominated by women.

Restaurant work, for example, is one of the fastest-growing U.S. sectors. Like many low-wage and tipped jobs, more than half of all restaurant and food service positions are held by women. In a report from earlier this year, the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) points out that two million restaurant workers are mothers, and 1.2 million are single mothers.

ROC’s report lists predictability in scheduling as a critical need for mothers who work in restaurants. But of women they polled who work in restaurants, 40 percent had unpredictable schedules, and one in five women restaurant workers had actually lost their child-care support because of changing work schedules.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

But the San Francisco policy does not address predictability.

“We were involved in discussions with Council members before the ordinance passed,” ROC Director Saru Jayaraman told Rewire. “While I think it was a well-intentioned effort to address some very real issues workers face in our industry, this ordinance does not unfortunately have any real teeth to help workers in our industry.”

In crafting the policy, San Francisco Board of Supervisors President David Chiu originally did include language that would have required supervisors to provide two weeks’ notice for schedule changes. ROC and other worker advocates were encouraged by this provision. Over time, however, due to opposition from employers’ groups, this provision fell away.

“There is additional work to be done to address scheduling predictability, which is important to many workers, including restaurant employees,” Chiu told Rewire. “To that end, we will convene a working group on the topic, and the conversation will include ROC, as well as other advocates for employers and employees.”

There are some restaurant owners who think work schedule predictability is a fair and achievable goal. Jennifer Piallat, owner of Zazie Restaurant in San Francisco, has advocated for better policies for workers, including paid sick days and set schedules. “Many restaurants change the schedule every week—supposedly to give everyone some good and some bad shifts, but I think it’s to keep people from being able to rely on their schedule and thus get other jobs,” Piallat told Rewire. “For employees to be able to go to school, have child care, have other jobs, or schedule doctor appointments, they need to know more than 24 hours in advance what their schedule will be that week.  It’s amazing how many restaurants don’t have set schedules.”

In addition to evolving policy to address the needs of all workers, an assessment of how workers utilize San Francisco’s policy will be instructive as well. While protecting the right to request flexibility is an important first step, is it something workers will take advantage of in today’s economy? Though the ordinance mandates that the flexible schedule policy must be visible for workers to see, it still puts the onus on the worker to request flexible time. Many workers simply may not feel they have the leverage to make such a request—or that they can afford to, given that finding enough work continues to be a challenge for many.

At the federal level, in 2007, then Sens. Barack Obama (D-IL) and Hillary Clinton (D-NY), along with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), advocated flexible work schedules for employees who are responsible for caring for their loved ones, but the policy did not go anywhere. There have been murmurs of family-friendly federal workplace policies since then, evidenced by the 2010 White House summit as well as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY)’s five-point family policy plan.

Still, recent polls show that U.S. workers want more family-friendly workplace and economic policies generally. And despite the popularity of policies that enable better family care, protecting the right to request flexibility is still limited to Vermont and San Francisco.

News Politics

San Francisco Now Has Nation’s Most Generous Family Leave Policy

Nicole Knight Shine

The sweeping benefit is the first of its kind in the country, which remains the only industrialized nation not to guarantee paid parental leave to all workers.

San Francisco on Tuesday became the first place in the country to require that employers provide six weeks of fully paid leave to new parents.

The ordinance, approved by the Board of Supervisors, covers employees in San Francisco county and city who wish to take time off to care for a newborn baby, newly adopted child, new foster child, or to attend to an ill family member.

The law, which goes into effect next year, intially applies to employers with 50 or more workers. Beginnining July 1, 2017, it extends to employers with 20 or more employees.

The sweeping benefit is the first of its kind in the country, which remains the only industrialized nation not to guarantee paid parental leave to all workers. California offers six weeks of family leave at 55 percent of pay—one of three states to enact paid leave policies, according to the National Partnership for Women and Families.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

New York’s governor this week signed a $15 minimum wage law that includes a new provision for 12 weeks of paid parental leave—a measure that offers longer coverage, but fewer financial benefits than San Francisco’s. New York’s policy phases in paid parental leave beginning in 2018, and offers workers a maximum of 67 percent of their average weekly wage when fully implemented in 2021.

“The vast majority of workers in this country have little or no access to paid parental leave, and that needs to change,” San Francisco Supervisor Scott Wiener, who sponsored the measure, said at a news conference before the vote, as the Associated Press reported.

Under San Francisco’s ordinance, employers will now make up the difference between what the state covers (55 percent) and what the law now mandates.

San Francisco is a leader in pro-worker measures, requiring paid sick leave and passing a law to lift the minimum wage to $15 an hour by July 2018. California’s governor on Monday signed an unprecedented statewide $15-per-hour minimum wage bill that is expected to raise the wages of more than six million people who work in the state by 2023.

Small business owners in San Francisco have complained that the paid leave ordinance is the latest in a string of mandates that burden their companies, according to the Associated Press. Business groups like the Bay Area Council, the members of which include Google and Facebook, voiced support for paid parental leave.

Documents leaked to the Center for Media and Democracy this week show that most business leaders support parental leave policies and boosting the minimum wage, despite fierce opposition to those measures from chambers of commerce.

“Paid parental leave increases the probability that employees will return to work, be more productive, and earn higher wages,” Jim Wunderman, president and CEO of the Bay Area Council, told the Associated Press. “That is good for business and for families.”

California’s paid leave program is financed through the state insurance program. The California Employment Development Department approved roughly 1.8 million paid family leave claims totaling $4.6 billion in 2014. About nine out of ten claimants took leave to bond with a new child.

A 2014 report by the California Senate Office of Research indicates that claims filed by highly paid employees outnumbered claims filed by workers who earn less, suggesting that the state’s low-wage workers can’t afford to take time off for their families.

Vicki Shabo, vice president of the National Partnership for Women and Families, said the San Francisco measure could help boost momentum at the national level, where federal law provides for 12 weeks of unpaid leave.

“It’s great to see local leaders stepping up,” Shabo told the Guardian, noting that California’s first-of-its-kind law served as a model for other states. “There’s a growing consensus that the nation must do something to address this.”

Commentary Human Rights

Holiday Retail Jobs: Great for Sales, Tough on Workers (Updated)

Jean Stevens

The holiday rush, expected to be a boon, exacerbates not so rosy conditions facing the majority of the nation’s 7.8 million retail sales workers and cashiers year-round.

UPDATE, November 21, 2:31 p.m.: On Tuesday, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a set of policies aimed at giving hourly workers more predictable schedules. Scheduled to go into effect in six months, the legislation will help ensure “more men and women in our community have schedules and hours that allow them pay their bills, plan their lives and take care of their loved ones,” said Gordon Mar, executive director of Jobs With Justice San Francisco, in a statement.

At 6 a.m. Thanksgiving Day, Christina of Long Island, New York, will be wide awake under the fluorescent lights of her local Old Navy for a six-hour shift, setting up signage for sales and new merchandise for the store to open at 4 p.m. that afternoon. The store will remain open for another straight 31 hours, with staff cleaning up past midnight.

Christina, 25, who declined to share her last name for fear of being fired, will also work another shift on Black Friday, but she’s not sure when she’ll be called in. “I have to be available to work even from midnight to 6 a.m.,” she said. “It frustrates me.”

Retail industry analysts expects this year’s holiday shopping season to be a boon, and to accommodate it, more major stores this year plan to open on Thanksgiving Day itself to cash in early on Black Friday sales. Stores also announced plans to hire thousands of seasonal workers across the country: Target planned to hire 70,000 workers, Kohl’s to hire 67,000, and Wal-Mart 60,000. About 43 percent of retail employers expect to hire these part-time workers, according to a Harris Poll survey of more than 2,000 companies nationwide.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

But while holiday rush store openings and hiring represents a rosy outlook to sales this season, they exacerbate not so rosy conditions facing the majority of the nation’s 7.8 million retail sales workers and cashiers year-round: nearly 24-hour “on-call” demand from employers, reduced hours with only a couple hours notice (even after arriving to work), and fluctuating set schedules worked per week. Workers who complain or ask for specific hours never get called in, said Christina, who has also worked for Gap and Kohl’s.

Extreme holiday hiring is the next step, said Chris Tilly, director of UCLA’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment who has studied retail labor for more than 20 years. “In the United States, it’s been a slippery slope from expanding part-time work to having unpredictable scheduling, to now, if we can an edge by selling on Christmas, we’ll do that,” told RH Reality Check in a phone interview. “It’s uncivilized.”

Part-time retail workers today face these scheduling practices, especially workers in major clothing, grocery, and big-box stores like Wal-Mart and Target. Women workers, who make up about 55 percent of the retail sales workforce, are particularly hit by these scheduling practices, as these practices make it impossible for them to arrange child care or elder care, attend school or work another part-time job, all of which likely required them to seek a retail job in the first place. One in every ten working poor women work in retail, or about 1.3 million, a number expected to increase if retail work conditions do not change. Only 17 percent of retail workers in New York City have a weekly set schedule, and about a third knew their schedule one week in advance.

“You don’t know how when you’re going to work, how many hours you’re going to work, and how much money you’ll earn,” said Susan Lambert, associate professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Administration who studies low-wage work. “It creates high levels of instability and makes it very difficult to do anything else in your life.”

While working at Gap, Christina said, some days she’d be called in, and other days she’d wait for a call that never came. At Old Navy, she learns her upcoming week’s work schedule with only two days’ notice, which she says is not enough time to schedule other jobs or, say, doctor’s appointments. “Some days I’ll open, some days I’ll close. I don’t know which days I will work.”

Many workers also do not receive “reporting pay” when they arrive to work and are told to go home if they are not needed. This results in wasted money for transportation, child care, or turning down another job, Lambert said.

Christina remembers trekking for nearly two hours through a snowstorm one afternoon from her home in Queens to report to a four-hour shift at a Manhattan Gap store. “I clocked in, I’m working for half an hour, and my manager tells me, ‘we don’t need you today, you can go home,’” Christina said. “It felt like they didn’t have respect for my time. I could’ve planned my day to other things. That’s money that’s spent, time wasted.”

Why such scheduling? Employers compensate for flagging sales or meet profit goals by cutting hours as needed, minute by minute, depending on consumer traffic, sales predictions, even the weather, Tilly said. Stores now closely monitor these conditions through certain software.

Retailers also must meet certain profit quotas set by corporate leaders, and if store managers recognize they are not hitting those quotas, they’ll begin cutting hours. Holiday workers are often “hired” but may never be called in once if sales do not meet expectations, Lambert said.

A generation ago, retail work served as lifelong career. Retail workers kept regular hours and earned enough to pay a mortgage and feed their families. They rose through ranks to managerial and even ownership positions. Through the 1970s and ‘80s, retail stores faced increased competition from new big-box megastores like Wal-Mart, and took advantage of widespread unemployment to hire workers at low wages, to cut hours, and to encourage turnover, Tilly said. People today are desperate for jobs, and retail jobs are often the only jobs they can find.

“It’s not, I want to do the job, I need to do the job,” said Christina, who has been applying for other work. “I know a lot of people who think they would be unemployed if not for this job.”

Retail and wholesale employers have cut one million full-time jobs since 2006 and have hired back half as many part-time employees, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Today, 41 percent of retail workers work part-time and earn 35 percent less than full-time employees. These workers are overwhelming women, and more than 70 percent are 25 years old or older. Retail workers are an expense, not an asset for investment, Lambert said, and therefore cut as much as possible.

Most of these practices have been completely legal—employers can lawfully change an employee’s work hours without any notice or without asking the employee’s consent, and in most states, employers do not have to pay employees who report to work but are sent home upon arrival. Employers are not legally required to provide any benefits—such as health coverage, paid time off, or workers’ compensation—to part-time workers.

Retail workers have begun to fight back for more legal protections, and legislators nationwide have begun to catch on: cities of San Francisco, Milwaukee, and SeaTac, Washington, have passed legislation requiring employers to provide, if requested, more hours to part-time workers and schedules in advance. In September, San Francisco introduced an additional ordinance that would require employers to give two weeks’ notice to part-time employees, to compensate for shift changes, and provide similar benefits to part-timers as to full-time employees. New York and Michigan introduced bills this fall to allow workers to request certain hours and to guarantee reporting pay.

Congress is considering the Schedules That Work Act, which would create a right for all employees to make scheduling requests and require employers to consider them and grant them, if reasonable. This bill would also require employers to pay employees reporting time pay, split shift pay, and two weeks’ notice of work schedules.

Such laws would create much needed fair standards in retail work, Lambert said, much like standards on child labor, overtime work, and weekend shifts. These standards will encourage workers to stay in their jobs and become better-trained, more reliable, and financially secure. Retail workers deserve set schedules, shift change, and reporting pay, Christina said, because the work is just as vital to the business.

“We all play a part in the company,” Christina said. “If you treat me well, the way we should be treated, I’m going to be a happy worker and we’ll have happier customers.”