The recent reports of moms getting arrested for leaving their kids unattended while they work or go to a job interview shows the reality of “work-life balance” when you’re living paycheck to paycheck. The burden for many low-wage hourly workers isn’t seeking balance, it’s walking a tightrope. Millions of workers have nonstandard schedules, irregular shifts or on-call jobs without set hours, so they scramble from shift to shift, from daycare to night classes, or anxiously call in each day in hopes of getting a few hours of work. Having no control over your work schedule means your boss controls not only how much you’re paid but how much time you spend with your kids.
Labor advocates are calling for workplace policies that give workers more stable schedules and more control over their hours. Now Washington may step in with legislation to check the volatility of the daily grind.
The “Schedules that Work” bill (introduced by Representatives George Miller and Rosa DeLauro and Senators Tom Harkin and Elizabeth Warren) is the proletarian answer to the workplace “flex” policies that are common in corporate offices. After all, poor parents need flexibility more than anyone, as they cope with the chaos of economic hardship and work unstable jobs with few benefits..
The bill provides workers a so-called “right to request,” or the ability to engage in a dialogue with their boss about a schedule change ahead of time, without fear of retaliation. In some cases, the employer would be mandated to accommodate a family or medical issue. Shift and on-call workers in some low-wage industries would also gain protections against arbitrary schedule changes.
Middle-class professionals may regularly negotiate work time through flexible work arrangements, generous paid leave time and telecommuting options. But in industries like retail chains or fast food, where “just in time” production systems require round-the-clock processing and sales, part-time and shift workers struggle between not getting enough hours to earn a living wage, and having to work whatever shift their manager dumps on them at any hour. Survey data shows that about half of hourly wage workers lack control over their work schedules.
Unless they can persuade their boss to accommodate their needs, a volatile schedule can destabilize their family lives. Parents struggle to find last-minute babysitting arrangements to take a shift, or they may be unable to enroll in a regular daycare that requires up-front monthly payments, since their income varies week to week.
A punishing work schedule derailed Tiffany Beroid’s whole career path. She was trying to hold down a full-time position as a customer service manager at a Walmart in Maryland, while studying to be a nurse. But when she asked for a schedule change to allow her to juggle her school and work duties, she tells The Nation, the management was less than family friendly: “[Walmart] retaliated by cutting my hours. So even though I was full-time in the system, I was receiving nineteen or twenty-five hours some weeks, maybe forty hours if I was lucky, once a month.”