New Report Reveals Harsh Reality of Unstable Work Schedules on Workers, Families

30,000-person survey found women, people of color among hardest hit

October 16, 2019 AT 5:00 AM
Giovanni Rocco, 202-753-6521

Washington, D.C. – New research released today by The Shift Project at the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at the University of California, Berkeley offers unprecedented insight into the prevalence of unstable work scheduling conditions and the impact of this instability on U.S. workers and their families. The research documents, in more detail than ever before, the widespread negative consequences of so-called just-in-time or unstable work schedules on our nation’s most vulnerable workers.

Sociologists Daniel Schneider at the University of California, Berkeley and Kristen Harknett at the University of California, San Francisco surveyed 30,000 workers at 120 of the largest U.S. retail and food service companies. The food service and retail sector—which together employ 17 percent of American workers—have relied heavily upon just-in-time scheduling practices for their workforce.

“Our research makes clear that the time dimensions of work matter a lot for the well-being of workers and their families. Chronic uncertainty about when and how much you’re expected to work is hard on anyone. For workers with few resources, this uncertainty can have dire consequences,” said Harknett.

“Unstable and unpredictable scheduling practices appear to perpetuate inequality. Workers of color are more likely to be exposed, and the consequences are intergenerational: Children whose parents have unstable and unpredictable schedules suffer, limiting their life chances from the starting gate,” said Schneider.

This newly available data, reported in a set of five working papers released today by the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, reveal four key consequences for workers, firms, and the broader economy. Specifically, unstable work schedules are associated with:

  • Workers’ material hardship, including food and housing insecurity
  • Destabilized routines and care arrangements for children, as well as heightened anxiety and increased the incidence of behavioral problems
  • Higher rates of job turnover
  • The perpetuation of racial inequality because workers of color, particularly women of color, experience more unstable work hours than their white co-workers at the same employer

The data compare workers who experience different scheduling practices but who are otherwise similar in terms of industry, wages, and educational level in order to zero-in on the effects of just-in-time scheduling practices.

These findings come at a time when policymakers in Washington, D.C., and across the country are re-evaluating workplace policies and how they affect U.S. workers and the broader economy.

“These findings are a major breakthrough toward understanding how workers across the country experience just-in-time scheduling practices. The research shows workers of color with white managers are particularly vulnerable to experiencing these scheduling practices, with effects rippling to affect their families, perpetuating racial inequality throughout the workplace and across generations,” said Alix Gould-Werth of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth. “In cities and localities across the country, policymakers have advanced fair workweek laws to support workers, their families, and the economy. Congress should keep in mind the growing body of evidence on the benefits of stable schedules as they consider legislation such as the Schedules that Work Act to promote an economy that delivers strong, stable, and broadly shared growth.”

Read more about the new report, the working papers, and an accompanying charticle highlighting key takeaways.


The Washington Center for Equitable Growth is a nonprofit research and grantmaking organization dedicated to advancing evidence-backed ideas and policies that promote strong, stable, and broad-based economic growth. For more information, see and follow us on Twitter and Facebook @equitablegrowth.

October 16, 2019

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