While it is often overlooked among advocates, research, employers and policymakers, lack of schedule control can have a profound impact on workers’ economic security. And the waiters and waitresses that serve us our food in our nation’s restaurants face this challenging situation every day.
With a federal minimum wage of $2.13 for tipped restaurant workers and large numbers of them working without employment based benefits, advocates understandably focus on the issue of inadequate wages for these workers. Income, however, is just one aspect of economic security. WOW propose that economic security is comprised of five elements: income, job quality, education and training, savings and assets and supports. Economic security then is defined as a worker’s ability to access and build several of these elements. However, all too often, when we conceptualize job quality for restaurant workers, we do not examine their access to workplace flexibility – one of the keys to security. Restaurant servers’ low wages are compounded by a high degree of schedule inflexibility, making their economic insecurity even more precarious.
A common practice in the restaurant industry is “volatile workplace scheduling.” Here, both the number of hours and the timing of those hours can change day-to-day, week-to-week, and season-to-season at the discretion of management. This unpredictability means that a worker may have to work different hours and different days each week with no consistent days off. Further, schedules are often posted with little advance notice. Without advance knowledge of one’s schedule, it is difficult to schedule life appointments around work. Hotels and restaurants often post schedules on the Thursday or Friday of the week, and this upcoming schedule begins just a day or so later.
In addition, managers can make last-minute changes to the work schedule once it is posted if it appears that customer traffic may be higher or lower than anticipated. For example, managers may send a worker home if the establishment is not busy. These changes are made with no advance notice, compounding work and life problems. In my book on restaurant workers, I learned that they are often scheduled with a start time but no end time. Workers at the restaurant where I conducted particiant obersvation were scheduled as a “12 BD;” worker would arrive to work at noon and then leave when “business declines.” That could be anytime and at the discretion of the management. Such scheduling practices assume that workers are able to easily adjust home responsibilities. For example, if an employee is forced to work late, they must have someone available to care for their children or provide needed medication to an elderly or disabled parent—and the idea that workers will have someone “on call” to perform that care work as their schedule changes is not a reality
Even if a worker is scheduled for an end time, if customers remain and the restaurant is busy, workers may be forced to stay later, a practice known as mandatory overtime. Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, workers have virtually no legal recourse to challenge terminations or retaliations for refusing mandatory overtime. These last-minute requirements and unpredictable schedules create challenges for workers. Workers who depend on public transportation may not have the means of getting to and from work and they also may not be able to meet their general family obligations. In addition, sometimes workers are “on-call”—where they are scheduled to work only if the shift is busy. In essence, the worker needs to be able to leave at a moment’s notice to go to work. Further, schedules are affected by the time of the year: tourism and holiday seasons can lead to longer hours for workers.
We know that “restaurant server” is a growing occupation in the US, and it is also one of the lowest paid and most economically insecure. According to our research with the Restaurant Opportunities Center-United, restaurant workers 88 percent of adult servers earn an income that is economically insecure. Lack of schedule control is a key source of that insecurity. We must take a comprehensive approach to the workplace practices and the public policies that are impacting these workers’ lives and address all the elements of economic security.