If you’re an on-call overnight security guard, or part-time retail clerk, or another one of millions who work without a set schedule, the most consistent thing about your job is being constantly broke and exhausted. But if you think that’s a slog, wait until you get laid off. The safety net is thin to begin with, but often the most precarious workers go from being stuck in a bad job to being shut out of unemployment insurance.
Unemployment insurance provides a critical income support to workers who lose their jobs “through no fault of their own.” But this compensation, which states generally award on the basis of past earnings, doesn’t quite work for the millions who are forced to work irregular part-time shifts or stuck in unstable “casual” service work. For these “irregular” workers—filling our retail stores, restaurants and warehouses—being forced to quit because of unsustainable hours is routine. But the standard unemployment check is often out of reach.
An analysis by Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) and National Employment Law Project shows that UI is inaccessible for the growing portion of the workforce with unstable schedules. These precarious low-wage service workers, like Walmart associates, have schedules with erratic shifts or without guaranteed minimum weekly hours. They tend to lack benefits and be economically unstable even before losing their jobs—problems that often hit women and people of color especially hard—and are doubly disadvantaged by UI rules out of step with workplace reality.
Take the example of a store manager who slashes payroll costs by cutting hours. The employer may boot a worker from a five-day workweek to, for example, three back-to-back night shifts. Then she may have no choice but to quit due to family needs—for example, because she can’t find another childcare arrangement. But the benefits office might not see this as being forced to quit “through no fault of their own,” which can bar her from unemployment benefits.
Because an “erratic schedule in and of itself” does not automatically excuse quitting, the report notes, a working parent who quits due to a childcare scheduling conflict could be deemed ineligible, despite a systemic lack of affordable childcare in her community. And state-level rules often impose on workers a so-called “duty to exhaust all reasonable alternatives before quitting,” So they’re expected to plead in “good faith” for a reasonable “accommodation.” But in a workplace like a Big Box store, where schedules are computer-generated and the supervisor doesn’t know your name, this may be an obvious exercise in futility.