"Flexibility" for Whom? Irregular Schedules, Other Practices Wreak Havoc on Workers

New proposals on the state, local, and federal levels aim to tackle inconsistent hours, haphazard scheduling practices, and on-call shifts among part-time workers. Such practices can wreak havoc on workers' finances, families, and health.

Part-time workers are an incredibly diverse group. Part-time work was first envisioned in the wake of the Second World War to cater to the needs of married women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). As a result, part-time positions were never designed to feed a family, provide health insurance, or supply a pension.

Approximately 45 percent of part-time workers are primary wage earners for their families.


Today, approximately 45 percent of part-time workers are primary wage earners, or breadwinners, for their families, according to the most recent data. Part-time employees are more likely to be women, and they are more likely to be uninsured and impoverished.

These employees often have only a vague idea of when and how often they’ll work from week to week, let alone how much they will earn. Figuring out when they will be able to pay a utility bill is just as difficult as arranging irregular or last-minute childcare because of ever-shifting schedules.

In the wake of the Great Recession, more people have been forced to accept part-time work. Though some measures suggest the labor market is improving, the number of workers who are working part-time because they are unable to find full-time work remains quite high by historical standards. (See graph below.)

Part-time work is most often found in the retail, social services, and food industries, and workers in these industries are disproportionately vulnerable to abrupt changes in income and scheduling.

These part-time employees often have only a vague idea of when and how often they’ll work from week to week, let alone how much they will earn.


When it’s cheaper, businesses hire two part-time employees instead of hiring one employee for a full-time position. When business is slow, managers order employees to go home without pay. When things pick up, managers call employees on short notice and demand that they leave their families, education, and other commitments to put in extra hours. The need for income means the explicit threat of a pink slip isn’t even necessary.

The current increase in involuntary part-time work (“part-time work for economic reasons”) is a symptom of our continuing weak labor market. Having a part-time job is certainly better than having no job, but for many involuntary part-time workers, working less than 35 hours per week at low wages is unsustainable. And juggling two part-time jobs, each with erratic schedules, low pay, and no benefits, can be overwhelming.

In the wake of the Great Recession, many more traditional full-time jobs have disappeared while industries relying on part-time work have flourished. According to the National Employment Law Project (NELP), low-wage jobs, many of which are part time, made up 22 percent of the jobs lost in the downturn but 44 percent of the job growth during the recovery. Conversely, mid-wage jobs, a good deal of which were full time positions, made up 37 percent of jobs lost during the downturn but 26 percent of the jobs created during the recovery. Strikingly, approximately 35 percent of women’s job gains during the recovery occurred in the ten largest low-wage occupations, many of which rely on part-time workers.

In the next ten years, service-sector jobs are expected to grow the fastest. This includes the health care and social assistance sector.

Public officials are trying to address these growing abuses of part-time workers with various initiatives.

  • Inability to Request Time Off: Two million federal employees were given the “right to request” by the president in late June, empowering them to “request work schedule flexibilities available to them under law […] without fear of retaliation or adverse employment action as a consequence of making such a request.” The proposal mirrors new “right to request” policies in San Francisco and the state of Vermont.
  • Abusive Scheduling: The Schedules that Work Act (H.R. 5159, S. 2642) would protect workers from retaliation for making scheduling requests, encourage employers to collaborate with employees in scheduling, ensure that workers are paid for a minimum number of hours if they are sent home due to a slow business day, penalize businesses for changing schedules with less than 24 hours’ notice, and discourage employers from scheduling split shifts.
  • Too Few Hours: Citizens of SeaTac, Washington have barred employers from hiring additional part-time workers if any of their current employees want to take on additional hours. This provision is aimed at employers who balance their books on the backs of part-time employees while circumventing requirements to provide benefits and stability to full-time employees.
  • Part-Time Workers’ Rights: Advocates in San Francisco are supporting the creation of a Retail Workers’ Bill of Rights, addressing hours, on-call pay, job security, and equal treatment for part-time workers.

In addition to providing part-time workers more certainty regarding their schedules, policymakers should also aggressively pursue policies that make education, health care, and childcare more accessible to all workers, whether part- or full-time.


For Further Reading

Unemployment Insurance: A 79-Year Old Promise to American Workers That Needs RenewingThe Fine Print blog, Aug. 14, 2014

Unemployment Benefits Keep Families in their HomesThe Fine Print blog, August 8, 2014

Bill Would Eliminate Child Tax Credit for Many Low-Income Families in 2018The Fine Print blog, Aug. 4, 2014

Senate Bill Would Ensure Negligent Corporate Officials Are Held AccountableThe Fine Print blog, July 16, 2014

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You go Jessica!
excellent article
employers have all the leverage, question is do average folks rise up, like in ferguson
Someone else knows about this but me.?? This has been going on for decades and needs to stop!! Employers now a days are like slave masters on the working class! they do and get away with anything and everything they do bad to employees. Time to rise up and riot and make the scumbags do the right thing!!! or accept 4th world country tactics and conditions here at home!!
I used to have to override the scheduling software every time
How do you get a job once you no longer have a home address, phone, bus fare? You can't buy a loaf of bread with another decade of calls for job creation.