How Unpredictable Work Hours Turn Families Upside Down

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Brandy Powell outside her home in Fontana, Calif., before heading to work. “They expect you to always say yes,” she said of employers who change her schedule on short notice.

Kendrick Brinson for The New York Times

Unpredictable schedules can be brutal for hourly workers, upending their lives. New research shows that African-Americans, Hispanics and other minorities — particularly women — are much more likely to be assigned irregular schedules, and that the harmful repercussions are felt not just by the workers but also their families.

The findings come from continuing surveys of 30,000 hourly workers by the Shift Project at the University of California. The researchers compared workers who earned the same wages, including at the same employers, but had different degrees of predictability in their schedules. Those with irregular hours fared worse — and so did their children.

Black and Hispanic women had the worst schedules, and white men had the best, the researchers found. The children of workers with precarious schedules had worse behavior and more inconsistent child care than those whose parents had stable schedules.

“We’re talking about serious deprivation from relentlessly unstable paychecks,” said Daniel Schneider, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, who works on the Shift Project with Kristen Harknett, a sociologist at the University of California, San Francisco.

On Wednesday, the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, a left-leaning policy group, published five papers based on data about various subsets of the 30,000 survey respondents who are part of the Shift Project.

Workers at all income levels are increasingly expected to be on call. At the high end, it can lead to overwork. At the low end, it means getting work schedules at the last minute, varying day to day, and not being guaranteed the number of hours that employees may need to support themselves. Software enables employers to call in more workers when demand surges and save money on labor when demand is low.

The researchers said the biggest reason for the scheduling differences by race was not because of factors like education or which jobs workers chose, but because managers gave worse shifts to employees who weren’t white.

Workers of color were 30 percent more likely than white workers to have had a shift canceled in the last month, for example. They had more schedule instability even when they had the same education, age and other characteristics as white workers, and worked at the same companies.

“We think what’s left after parsing out all these other reasons is discrimination,” Mr. Schneider said.

Another indication that discrimination was at play: Workers’ job quality was worse when they had a direct supervisor of a different race. Eighty percent of white workers said their managers were white, while 38 percent of nonwhite workers had a manager of the same race. The results were based on a subset of 20,400 survey respondents from 81 of the nation’s largest retail and food service companies.

The researchers used a novel technique to find survey takers: They placed ads on Facebook. The full sample is of workers at 120 of the largest retail and food service companies in the United States, industries that employ one-fifth of American workers. It is not a random sample, but they said it is reflective of the retail and food service work force. It is much larger than any other survey of this group of workers and provides more fine-grained data. Social scientists not involved in the research said it was carefully done and convincing.

Two-thirds of workers said they received less than two weeks’ notice of their schedules, and 15 percent had less than 72 hours of notice. Eighty percent said they had little or no input into their schedules. A third said they wanted more hours than they were assigned.

Not knowing when they will work worsens the challenges of people living on a low income, the survey found.

Over all, hourly workers described going hungry, not being able to pay bills, scrambling to arrange child care, losing housing, losing sleep and feeling stressed and unhealthy. But those with unpredictable schedules were twice as likely to report hardships as those with stable schedules — even when they earned the same wages, worked the same number of hours and had the same employers.

“They expect you to always say yes,” said Brandy Powell, 38, a single mother of five in Fontana, Calif., who has spent almost all her working life in hourly retail jobs.

She worked more than 15 years at Toys "R" Us, which she said often cut her hours or changed her shifts at the last minute. “I was like: ‘Wow, what am I going to do? How am I going to feed my kids?’” she said. “I would go to food banks, churches to survive, and it was embarrassing but I had to do it.”

Several cities and states, including New York and San Francisco, have passed fair scheduling laws. On Thursday, Representative Rosa DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut, plans to announce that she and Senator Elizabeth Warren will reintroduce the Schedules That Work Act, which would require employers in the United States to provide schedules two weeks in advance and compensate employees whose schedules are changed abruptly or are particularly long or difficult.

One in 10 American children have parents with these jobs, the researchers estimated, and they suffer consequences, too.

Children of parents with precarious schedules were much more likely to exhibit anxiety, guilt or sadness than children of parents with stable schedules, according to survey results from 4,300 workers with children 15 and younger. They were also more likely to argue, destroy things and have tantrums.

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Families’ economic hardship was one reason, researchers found, and another was time pressure. Parents with irregular schedules had less money and time for family meals, playing with children or helping them with their homework. The biggest way parents’ work schedules affected their children? Those with unpredictable schedules were more likely to feel stressed, irritable or depressed.

“The most important thing in parenting is parenting that’s sensitive and responsive and warm, and you think about what your ability would be to do that if you’re worrying about money, the child care schedule, your work schedule and how you’re going to scramble and cover things,” said Jane Waldfogel, a professor of social work at Columbia who studies policies that affect children and families.

Because parents were reporting on their children’s behavior, it could be that those who were tired and stressed judged their children’s behavior more harshly. But a lot of other research has also found that financial hardship, inconsistent routines, low-quality child care and family stress affect children for years to come.

Perhaps the biggest stressor for parents with unpredictable schedules was finding child care. Formal, high-quality day cares don’t allow families to drop off children unplanned and rarely operate outside typical business hours.

Workers with unpredictable hours had a greater number of child care providers, the survey found. Those with on-call shifts and last-minute schedule changes were significantly more likely than those with regular schedules to leave a child younger than 10 home alone or with a sibling younger than 10.

When Ms. Powell’s children were very young, she said, she was lucky to find a day care provider who would look after them when she had unexpected or overnight shifts. Later, she sometimes had them stay on school grounds when her shifts were unexpectedly extended, until the school asked her to stop. Instead, they walked home alone, even though she felt they were too young to safely do so.

She missed their athletic events, she said, and broke promises of spending weekend time with them. That missed time is her biggest regret: “I kind of think they think I’m not reliable, the kids, and I don’t want them to think that because I’m doing the things for them.”

She worries that they’ll end up working in retail, too, as one son is already doing, and face the same conditions. “I just want this to be not so stressful,” she said.

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