A century ago, low-wage, hourly workers faced long shifts and low hourly pay.
Today, many of their counterparts face a new set of challenges: receiving too few work hours to guarantee adequate earnings and facing unpredictable, variable schedules. Many employers send workers home early, and dock their paycheck accordingly, when business is slow.
These are among the findings of researchers Anna Haley-Lock, a professor of social work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Charlotte Alexander, a professor of legal studies at Georgia State University, who studied the problem of work-hour insecurity among low-wage, hourly workers in the U.S. and current legal and other institutional responses to the problem.
They report that underwork, rather than overwork, is the norm for many low-wage jobholders in today’s growing service sector, and that unstable and unpredictable work schedules are typical.
This is an about face from the 1930s, when overwork and underpay were the norm for low-wage workers, and Congress sought to enact a remedy in the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The FLSA’s stated goal was to eliminate “labor conditions detrimental to the maintenance of the minimum standard of living necessary for health, efficiency, and general well-being of workers.”
The FLSA set a minimum hourly wage and mandated premium overtime pay for hours worked over 40 in a week. Since that time, a growing employer focus on labor cost containment has meant that work hours, as well as pay and benefits, are kept at a minimum when possible, often through “just-in-time” reductions in workers’ schedules in times of low customer demand.
The FLSA, with its focus on hourly wages and overtime protections, remains the main source of wage and hour protection for workers, but does not address the work hour insecurity faced by today’s workers, the report by Haley-Lock and Alexander finds. Though states and localities are free to establish higher minimum wage or overtime rates, just 18 states and the District of Columbia have done so, leaving most American workers covered solely by the FLSA.
In addition, political advocacy to end working poverty through campaigns to raise the minimum wage and create a “living wage” effectively assume that ample work hours are available. While the authors note that these efforts remain critical, they are insufficient for addressing the problems of low earnings and schedule instability of many of today’s low-wage jobs.
These changes in the low-wage work landscape can be attributed to the decline of U.S. manufacturing over the last several decades, the expansion of the service sector and, more recently, the economic downturn. Many firms have reduced their human resources investments to contain costs, and seek to tightly align labor costs to customer demand through staffing and scheduling flexibility.
For workers, this employer flexibility means less access to permanent, full-time jobs and experiencing “just-in-time” scheduling that changes their hours during the week, day, or even shift. These last-minute adjustments include being sent home before the end of a scheduled shift, being called in unexpectedly for non-scheduled work and not receiving their work schedule until the last minute.
The lack of guaranteed work hours, combined with unpredictable schedules, makes it difficult if not impossible for workers to budget and save, arrange childcare, and maintain family routines, as well as hold a second job to supplement their earnings or take classes to improve their employability, Haley-Lock and Alexander find. In addition, failure to work a minimum number of hours per week jeopardizes eligibility for many public assistance programs, even if it is the employer and not the employee who is limiting those hours.
The FLSA protections, while important, don’t address the 21st century low-wage workers’ “new normal” of scarce, unstable, and unpredictable work hours. As part of their study, Alexander and Haley-Lock evaluated several established options for protecting this vulnerable group, especially “reporting pay” laws.
Eight states and the District of Columbia have passed reporting pay laws, also known as “show-up pay” laws, which attempt to discourage employers from sending workers home early before the end of their scheduled shifts in response to slow customer traffic. The laws require firms to pay for a guaranteed number of hours, but Haley-Lock and Alexander found that they may have limited impact due to the range of exemptions allowed employers, low levels of enforcement, and paltry penalties levied on violating employers.
The researchers suggest that amending the FLSA to effectively address the multiple facets of just-in-time scheduling and the work hour insecurity that results would come closer to achieving the Act’s goal of “a minimum standard of living necessary for health, efficiency, and general well-being of workers.”