Fair Work Schedules Next on Agenda for Unions, Labor Advocates

Fair Workweek Act would require two weeks’ notice for shift schedules, restrict back-to-back shifts, prioritize current employees before hiring more part timers

A coalition of unions and labor advocacy groups announced support yesterday for a bill designed to protect as many as 500,000 workers in New Jersey by requiring that their corporate bosses give them more predictable work schedules.

The Fair Workweek Act was introduced this week and sponsored by state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, the Bergen County Democrat who also serves as majority leader in the upper house. Among other provisions, it would require that companies with 250 or more workers produce shift schedules at least two weeks ahead of time, restrict back-to-back shifts, and allow current employees to build up their hours before additional part timers are hired.

Researchers at the University of California-Berkeley released a report last year showing that unpredictable work schedules are common in retail, warehouse, fast food and hospitality industries, which employ one in six in the country. Many of those workers get little notice of when they’ll be working or whether shifts they had planned to work had been canceled. In large measure, the researchers laid blame for their plight on sophisticated just-in-time programs that allow companies to fine-tune their workforce to match customer demand.

Among those on hand Thursday was Donna Fotiadis, who described the five years she worked at a Walmart as a customer service manager.

“I was a hard worker. I did everything for them,” she said, adding that her work schedule routinely included back-to-back shifts.

“If I was closing that night, I wouldn’t leave until, like, 2 a.m.,” she said. “And then they’d have me opening the next day at 5:30.”

Walmart claimed that its records do not reflect that Fotiadis worked back-to-back shifts. The company also said that it now requires employees to take eight hours off between shifts.

But back-to-back shifts like that affect 50% of low-wage New Jersey workers in the industries identified by the UC-Berkeley researchers. Their survey of 30,000 workers also showed that 59% receive schedules with less than two weeks’ notice, 81% have little or no input into their work schedules and 29% work on-call shifts, getting just a few hours’ notice of when they are expected at work.

None of it is currently illegal, and workers often feel powerless to push for change.

“It’s not right. It’s not fair,” said Nelli Etienne, an airline meal caterer. “But many times, we have to make the sacrifice because you can lose your job. You don’t want to lose your job. You don’t want to lose your benefits.”

Battle for shift security

Advocates view shift security as the next big progressive battle on the workplace front, in the wake of legislative victories over increasing the minimum wage and improving paid sick leave.

“New Jersey can do something about it,” said Adil Ahmed of Make the Road New Jersey, which champions the rights of immigrants and working-class families. “New Jersey can stop the most abusive scheduling practices, and make a huge difference for workers by updating our existing labor laws.”

The bill, which now heads to the Senate Labor Committee, would also allow workers to tell employers in writing about their preferred work schedules and would provide extra pay for schedule changes that occur with less than two weeks’ notice. Employees could not be compelled to report back to work less than 12 hours after the end of a shift, and if they volunteer to do so, they would be entitled to time-and-a-half for those hours.

A focus group survey released by the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers on Thursday noted that women of color often end up disproportionately harmed by workshift insecurity.

“Social justice means economic justice,” said state Sen. Nia Gill (D-Essex). “You can’t have one without the other.”

Elaine Zundl is the research director for the Rutgers center and the report’s author.

“I think a lot of these bad schedules are driven by algorithms in software that really crunches and squeezes managers to find creative ways to cut hours,” she said.

Warning of harm to businesses

In a statement, the New Jersey Business & Industry Association warned of harm to affected businesses. The bill “adds to their expenses, shrinks their slim profit margins and challenges New Jersey’s business climate, affordability and competitiveness. Further, this bill could eventually harm employees who actually seek more flexible hours,” the statement read.

Fotiadis, the former Walmart worker, said she will rally for the bill.

“I think it’s amazing, because it’s actually going to force them to do the right thing towards these workers,” she said.

Similar workplace protections are already in place in Chicago, San Francisco and Philadelphia.

This story was updated on Jan. 30 to include additional information from Walmart, which was not available at the time of initial broadcast.