By Melissa Stevenson
At the June 22nd brown bag lunch, “Changing Workplace Scheduling as an Anti-Poverty Strategy,” sponsored by Half in Ten  and the Women of Color Policy Network at NYU Wagner , presenter Joan Williams  discussed how erratic workplace scheduling policies prevent many low-income parents from maintaining regular employment. She believes that anti-poverty policies that focus entirely on workforce readiness may be misplaced; instead, the problem rests with the employers and companies who use outdated workplace scheduling practices that make it impossible for low-income workers to be both an ideal worker and a responsible parent.
“Just-in-time” scheduling – when employers make staffing and scheduling decisions for this week using the prior week’s customer numbers – results in many low-wage employees receiving their work schedules less than a week in advance. Workers then face tough decisions if their child caregivers cannot accommodate their new schedules at the last minute. Without the financial resources to afford daycare, many two-parent households find themselves “tag-teaming”: switching off between work and childcare, while single parent families often leave the childcare responsibilities to a family member (or often, multiple family members). This leaves the family vulnerable if a parent’s workshift changes suddenly and the second parent or caregiver is unavailable. In addition to child-rearing, low-income women in particular are far more likely to be taking care of elderly or ill family members. Any change in an employee’s schedule can result in a child left home alone or an elderly family member without care and many workers simply stop showing up to their jobs.
Employers need to start viewing the problem of turnover, which can be as high as 80% a year, as inextricably connected to their organizations’ scheduling and paid leave policies. High turnover rates do not have to be uncontrollable costs of doing business. According to Williams and Heather Boushey in the Center for American Progress report, The Three Faces of Work-Family Conflict: The Poor, the Professionals and the Missing Middle , “Low-income workers who have flexibility are 30 percent less likely to leave their employer within two years than are those who have none.” Furthermore, replacing lower salaried workers costs the employer approximately 22 percent of that worker’s annual salary. The facts show it is clearly in the best interest of employers to increase scheduling flexibility and reduce employee turnover.
At a time when all employers are looking to cut costs wherever possible, advocates should emphasize the value to employers of keeping employees on the job through changes to their scheduling practices. Online scheduling platforms, which would allow employees to easily swap shifts and alert employers to times they can or cannot work is one innovation that would alleviate the stress of erratic schedules. Cross-training employees to cover other roles when their coworkers must miss work would alleviate the burden on employers when an employee calls out sick.
Many Americans take for granted how their regular work schedules, employer sponsored health insurance, and paid leave allow them the ability to be both responsible workers and parents. Even if universal health and childcare were a realistic possibility in the United States, low-income workers would still deal with erratic work schedules that hamper their ability to care for their families. Shifting some of the focus of anti-poverty work toward workplace scheduling policies could do a lot toward helping low-income parents achieve job and income stability.
Melissa Stevenson is a Research and Programs Intern with the National Council for Research on Women. She is pursuing a Master of Public Administration at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University.