Emeryville, California, is a tiny municipality surrounded by Oakland and San Francisco. Its population hovers under 12,000, yet the city has four shopping centers, making it, in essence, a giant outdoor mall for the Bay Area. Every chain you think of—Target, Gap, Sephora, Apple—has set up shop there. During the holiday season, that meant demand for workers spiked.
Monique Hendrix, 30, works part-time at the Bath and Body Works in Emeryville. She’s a “key holder” at her store, which means she performs the same duties as a manager, but with a lower hourly wage—and no ability to control her own schedule. That means Hendrix often gets her schedule a few days in advance, and the hours tend to be erratic—they change week to week. Sometimes she works more than 40 hours a week, sometimes she works less.
This past holiday season was one of Hendrix’s most difficult. She worked six or seven days a week, often closing some shifts and opening the next ones. That meant she would leave work at 11:30 pm, make the 45-minute trek home, and arrive for work again at 8am. One week, she worked nearly 60 hours. Hendrix wanted to request more days off, but she knew there was a risk if she did: When another worker at her store told their district manager she was thinking of getting another part-time job, the manager made it clear to this worker that she’d have to leave if she did.
“I get no slack,” said Hendrix, who is the mother of a 9-year-old son. “It’s starting to affect my home life. I had an emergency meeting with my district manager, but all she cares about is numbers.”
Happily, workers like Hendrix may soon get a reprieve. This past October, the Emeryville City Council became the latest municipality to pass a “fair workweek” law. Starting July 2017, the law will require large employers like Bath and Body Works to give their employees two weeks advance notice of their schedule, pay them more if they make last-minute changes to it, and offer them extra hours before hiring more part-time staffers. It’s part of a nationwide push being led by the Fair Workweek Initiative of the Center for Popular Democracy and a slew of nonprofits in cities where part-time, unpredictable work has become as big a scourge as low wages.
The fight for a humane work schedule has a long history in the struggle for workers’ rights in this country. Beginning at least as far back as the 1820s, when East Coast craftsmen began agitating for a 10-hour day, workers have been pressing for more control over the days and times they’re required to work. For many decades, the emphasis was on limiting hours, which could be copious and overwhelming: In 1890, when the government first began tracking such information, manufacturing workers reportedly averaged 100 hours a week. It was this outrage—the outrage of overwork—that led unions to fight for, and win, an eight-hour workday, and a two-day weekend.