Published in the Spring 2007 issue of SSA Magazine

Working families are challenged by many policies of low-wage employment

By Tom Waldron

Aneya, a part-time employee at a discount retailer in the Chicago area, is one of the parents that School of Social Service Administration Associate Professor Julia R. Henly has interviewed in recent years about the struggles of low-wage workers to manage their jobs and families. Aneya, identified by a pseudonym, described how her employer required her to accept extra hours, even if they conflicted with her child care arrangements. At times, the job required her to stay well after the store closed at 11 p.m.

"I don't have no problem with [staying late] but after two, three hours go past... I think that that's too much because I have a child to go home to, and so does everybody else," Aneya told Henly. "They have family to go home to. And...they [employer] didn't care. It was just, whenever we're done, we're done."

Aneya's situation exemplifies a problem facing large numbers of low-wage workers: many workplaces impose burdensome scheduling policies that make it difficult to manage family responsibilities. Henly and SSA Associate Professor Susan J. Lambert are in the forefront of studying how employers manage the challenges of scheduling and how those scheduling practices affect workers and their families.

"Fluctuating hours and posting schedules at the last minute so employees can't plan....These are basic features of today's low-wage jobs, and they have implications for many aspects of people's lives," Lambert says of firms she has studied during 20 years of research into work-family issues. "It's a trend in business to pass risk and variation in consumer demand onto workers, particularly those in lower-level jobs."

A fair wage is the issue affecting low-income workers that generates the most attention (see "Making a Living Wage"). But researchers, advocates, and some policy makers are increasingly focused on a wider array of issues: scheduling, child care, health insurance, transportation, unemployment insurance, paid sick leave. "How do we structure work and public policy so people with limited earnings have greater access to a decent standard of living when their jobs fail them?" Henly asks.

Making Work Schedules Work

Harriet Presser, a sociologist at the University of Maryland who has extensively studied work schedules and their implications for family life, finds that the traditional full-time, Monday through Friday, daytime schedule does not actually characterize the majority of workers' schedules. National data indicate that at least forty percent of employees work the majority of their hours outside of daytime, weekday hours. While some workers choose to work nonstandard hours, for many—and especially for low-income workers with limited job autonomy and control— these hours are a requirement of the job rather than a preferred arrangement.

Henly and Lambert are collaborating on a project that will assess the effects of a workplace intervention designed to build more predictability and flexibility into the scheduling process, which could reduce work-family conflict, improve worker productivity, and facilitate family management and caregiving. It's a program they hope will benefit both the employer and the employee.

The project, the Scheduling Intervention Study, is underway in a national clothing chain, which has agreed to participate in the random-assignment experimental study. The intervention being evaluated is targeted at improving both schedule predictability (advance notice of work hours) and flexibility (control over work hours): Intervention stores will post work schedules four weeks in advance while control stores will continue the usual practice of posting schedules a few days before the start of the workweek.

The researchers will track how these changes affect measures such as absenteeism, turnover, sales-to-labor ratios, and employee attitudes about the company, as well as its potential impact on family processes and practices such as elder and child caregiving activities, child care arrangements, and parenting stress. The study, supported by grants from the Russell Sage Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, is currently being fielded in stores in the Chicago area but is designed to include sites in three additional regions of the country.

"What is unique about this intervention is its focus on changing employer practices directly. Rather than targeting workers by trying to find ways to help them survive an unpredictable work environment, this intervention targets the unpredictability of work itself," Henly says. "We want to know whether employers can deliver greater predictability to workers by giving them more advance notice about their schedules, without compromising business goals."

The Impact of Work on Families

The Scheduling Intervention Study comes at a time when many American employers are increasing demands on employees to meet the preferences of customers and to maximize profits. This year, for instance, Wal- Mart, the nation's largest private employer, began requiring many of its 1.3 million workers to move into a new system that schedules workers based on how many shoppers are in stores at a particular time. As described by the Wall Street Journal, "the move promises greater productivity and customer satisfaction for the huge retailer but could be a major headache for employees."

Such practices have drawn the attention of a cadre of researchers, including Henly and Lambert. The two came to the issue from different backgrounds. Lambert's expertise is on corporations and how low-level jobs are positioned compared to other jobs in the firm. In their joint research, Lambert has focused on the nature of the jobs low-wage earners hold and the obstacles these jobs pose to workers trying to support themselves and raise families. Henly began looking at the struggles of low-wage earners as welfare reform took place in the mid-1990s, and she has published research on the impact that unpredictable, low-wage jobs have on workers' home life, particularly on child care.

"A growing body of empirical work suggests nonstandard work schedules have negative implications for worker and family well-being," Lambert and Henly wrote in an article, "Low- Level Jobs and Work-Family Studies," published this year by the Sloan Work and Family Research Network at Boston College. While research is not conclusive, it has demonstrated negative associations between nonstandard schedules and the health of workers, marital quality and stability, and parent-child interactions.

"Instability at work gets passed on to home life," Henly says. "Even when kids are with parents, instability results. Family time is really compressed by unstable work or work time that doesn't provide employees with adequate flexibility. What stands out to me is how complicated managing child care arrangements can be when your work life is unpredictable."

Take the example of "Jenna," a retail sales clerk who was interviewed in a chapter the two researchers wrote for the 2005 book Work, Family, Health, & Well-being. In one week, Jenna was scheduled two shifts 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., a Friday evening from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., and a Saturday shift from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. That meant she had to find child care starting as early as 9 in the morning and ending as late as 10 at night, with no set pattern at all. The schedule forced Jenna to rely on her mother—her primary caregiver—her sister, her boyfriend, and her son's paternal grandmother to accommodate her various work shifts. "The demands of work and the demands of running a family, when you're being called in at unpredictable times, can be overwhelming," Henly says.

Lisa Dodson, a research professor in sociology at Boston College who has studied the challenges confronting low-income working parents, has interviewed many parents who have little choice but to accept extra shifts, even though it means they spend less time with their children. Dodson believes that the message being delivered to these low-wage workers is that they are expendable. "The ramifications of treating children and parents as if they don't matter are profound," she says. "What is shared by a lot of them is this sense that it's reached the point where the larger society is not concerned about what's happening to them."

Changing the Workplace

In a 2003 study, Lambert analyzed employers' practices in 22 workplaces in Chicago in four business sectors—retail, hospitality, transportation, and banking – and documented how some businesses strived to achieve "just-in-time" labor to minimize worker costs. Lambert's analysis, as reported in her working paper, "Managing Work Flows: How Firms Transform Fluctuations in Demand into Instability for Workers," demonstrated that the companies were minimizing their own financial risk (such as having too many workers on hand, given the work load) by forcing employees to accept more uncertainty in their work lives. For example, one retailer used hour by- hour sales figures from the previous week to set schedules. Employers also sent workers home when there weren't "enough" customers to justify the staffing level, Lambert wrote, while some companies forced workers to be available for work on a call-in basis.

While the study did not assess how those employer practices affect worker performance or contribute to absenteeism or turnover, other research in the field has shown a link. "When jobs are unpredictable and unstable, so are workers," Lambert says. "That's the key point."

As part of their work, Lambert and Henly meet regularly with employers in the National Retailers Work-Life Forum, made up of major retailers, including Sears, Nordstrom, and Federated Department Stores. They have also met with Chicago-area employers to discuss workplace issues. Their goal is to get employers to focus on the challenges that workplace practices pose for workers and to convince employers to consider different ways of doing business.

"Part of the impetus for this is the Wal-Mart phenomenon," Lambert says. "Not all firms want to be pressed to take the Wal-Mart road. They want a business case for how to offer something else."

Some studies do show there very well may be a bottom-line benefit to firms. Jennifer Swanberg, an associate professor in the College of Social Work at the University of Kentucky, and Jacquelyn James of Boston College's Center for Work & Family have surveyed 6,000 hourly and salaried employees of a national retail chain to gauge how they are affected by the company's workplace practices. For example, the survey asked if employees had input into their schedules and if employees had opportunities to make las-tminute changes in their schedules without jeopardizing the number of hours they worked. "Some of the preliminary analyses support the idea that employers who have this flexibility...that it is associated with a higher level of employee engagement," Swanberg says.

Employers will need to hear that type of message to make changes, says Helen Neuborne, senior program officer in economic development at the Ford Foundation, which has funded research in workplace issues, including the Scheduling Intervention Study. "If you talk about this by making a business case you win the argument," she says. "It's not a simple argument of, 'Let's be nice to the employees.' It's about making an economy function better for everybody."

Wanted: Public Policy Improvement

There is a role for government in building better quality low-income jobs. More than 45 million people in America have no health insurance, with the working poor particularly likely to be uninsured. Federal and state child care subsidies have failed to keep up with the demand, leaving many low-income parents unable to afford dependable, high-quality care. Unemployment insurance—a vital safety net for a worker who loses a job—is disproportionately unavailable to low-income workers, who often don't work enough hours to qualify. And mass transit in many communities does not reflect evolving employment patterns, making it difficult for many low wage workers to reach the jobs they qualify for.

"The nation has a policy focused on putting people to work, but it's doing very little to make work viable for people," says Alice O'Connor, a poverty researcher and history professor at University of California, Santa Barbara. "The biggest barriers many people face are work related: child care, transportation, a lack of health care. All of these are huge issues that are only spottily and sporadically being addressed."

The United States trails much of the developed world in how its laws treat working families. Although the U.S. has one of the highest guaranteed pay rates for overtime work in the world (150 percent), on many other measures, the country lags, according to research by the Institute for Health and Social Policy at McGill University.

Perhaps most glaringly, most low-wage workers have no paid sick leave and often are ineligible for unpaid leave—making it difficult to attend to family problems and remain employed (see "Healthy Sick Days"). Of 173 countries around the world the institute studied, 145 provide paid sick days. The U.S. only requires some employers to provide unpaid time off for serious illness through the Family Medical Leave Act. The institute found that 168 countries offer guaranteed paid leave to women in connection with childbirth. Of those, 98 countries offer 14 or more weeks of paid leave. The U.S. guarantees no paid leave for mothers and, unlike 137 other countries, does not mandate any paid vacation leave.

While such numbers are discouraging enough, Lambert points out that the practical reality is that workplace protections in America are often not available to low-wage workers. Employees who are entitled to paid sick time can receive demerits for actually using the time. Some employers sometimes vary the day of the week that a pay period begins, a practice designed to prevent workers from claiming overtime pay. "We're far behind in many ways," Lambert says. "And even when there are policies on the books, they may not be available to workers in practice."

Rhonda Present, A.M. '89, is the unpaid director of ParentsWork, an Illinois group that is among many advocates at the state and federal levels attempting to organize working parents to advocate for change. Low-wage workers, she notes, have the fewest resources to cope with disruptions in their lives, such as an unexpected early dismissal at their children's schools. "Most people at a lower wage level don't get any pay for this. They're lucky if they can get the time off," she says.

A range of changes are on the agenda in state capitals and in Congress. Advocates identify key policy changes to bolster low-wage workers:

  • Expand the federal Family and Medical Leave Act to cover all workers and allow for use for care of same-sex partners, siblings, and other family members.
  • Create a living wage requirement.
  • Provide better health care and child care.
  • Give employees more union organizing rights.
  • Require employers to provide paid sick days and allow parents to take time off to attend to important school activities.
  • Provide parity for part-time workers, so they don't get penalized with lost benefits if an employer cut their hours.

SSA's Lambert agrees with the need for public policy reforms because, she says, no matter how well businesses respond to the needs of employees, "there will always be a group of workers who are left out of opportunities." For example, she notes that many social benefits defined in both workplace and public policy—such as unemployment insurance, time off guaranteed by the Family and Medical Leave Act, or, in many cases, health insurance—are conditioned on the number of hours worked. "This is why we focus on scheduling. It's central to many public policy issues," she says.

Many efforts remain targeted at improving individuals. Some nonprofits are seeking clearer pathways for low-wage workers to move into better-paying jobs by obtaining additional skills. The Working Poor Families Project, which was launched by several national foundations, including Ford, Rockefeller, and Annie E. Casey, has found that many states do not adequately fund educational and training programs geared toward adult workers or have failed to align their programs with the needs of workers and employers. Without a system that encourages them to improve their skills and provides an affordable way to do that, these low-wage workers are hard-pressed to move into better-paying, family-supporting jobs.

"None of these things is a panacea, but education and skills training is a very important component to helping a low-income worker's opportunities now and in the future," says Brandon Roberts, manager of the national Working Poor Families Project. "Putting this issue on the radar screens of policy makers in the states is critical."


Sidebar

Making a Living Wage

Much attention has fallen recently on Congress as it considered the first increase in the federal minimum wage since 1997. But the reality is that another important debate—this one over the concept of a "living wage" rather than a minimum wage—has been taking place for more than a decade, not in the nation's capital, but in cities and states around the country.

A living wage is calculated to be what is minimally necessary to support a family. To date, 140 cities and other local governments have approved a living wage for municipal workers or, in some cases, employees of contractors doing business with those local governments.

The first locality to approve a living wage ordinance was the city of Baltimore in 1994. The ordinance increased the pay for about 1,300 employees of city contractors to $6.10 an hour, a rate that was more than 40 percent higher than the existing minimum wage. Following Baltimore's example, other local governments have accepted the notion that workers who work full-time should be better able to support themselves and their families.

Maryland recently became the first state to move toward enacting a living wage law. In 2004, the Maryland General Assembly passed a measure requiring state contractors to pay their employees at least $10.50 an hour, but it was vetoed by then-Governor Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr. The legislature was considering a similar measure this year, with the support of a newly elected governor.

Some nonprofit groups have made the living wage a key focus. The Tides Foundation in San Francisco has spent $3.4 million since 2001 to support local living wage campaigns and related efforts. "We identified the living wage effort as one of the most effective tools to affect economic justice," says Christopher Herrera, director of communications at Tides.

Support for living wage laws has been buttressed by intensive research into the actual financial conditions of low-wage earners in America. Leading that research has been the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Wider Opportunities for Women, which worked with Diana Pearce, a professor at the University of Washington's School of Social Work, to develop realistic self sufficiency standards for how much it costs for families to support themselves, reflecting local costs for such expenses as housing, child care, health care, and transportation. While these costs can vary widely from area to area, the bottom line remains consistent: families that earn slightly more than the federal poverty income threshold are hard pressed to support themselves.

In Miami, for example, Wider Opportunities has determined that a single parent with two young children requires an annual income of $39,053 to be self-sufficient. By comparison, a family of three, throughout the 48 contiguous states, is considered to be out of poverty if it has an annual income of more than $16,600. Even starker was the finding that that same parent of two, if paid the minimum wage, would earn only 31 percent of what is needed to support the family.


Sidebar

Healthy Sick Days

It is estimated that nearly half of all private-sector workers have no paid sick days. Low-wage workers are even worse off—more than three-quarters have no paid sick days. Of those workers who do have paid sick leave, fewer than half of them can use it to take care of sick children.

For the first time, Congress is considering legislation that would require many employers to provide sick leave to their workers. The Healthy Families Act, sponsored by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro (D-Conn.), would require employers with 15 or more employees to provide seven paid days of sick leave that workers could use when they are sick or if they must miss work to care for a sick relative.

The Healthy Families Act has "a wildfire of support across the country," Senator Kennedy told The New York Times recently. "When you talk to workers, this is, besides an increase in the minimum wage, the most important issue for these families. This is a families issue. This is a values issue."

Some in Congress are also pushing to expand the reach of the Family and Medical Leave Act, which was passed in 1993 and allows workers at larger employers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for personal health problems. Advocates now want to extend the law's coverage to workers at smaller employers and to allow parents to use their allotted leave to attend important school events such as teacher conferences.

Several local and state governments are also moving to mandate paid leave for workers. Voters in San Francisco approved a measure last November that requires all businesses with more than 10 employees to provide workers with up to 72 hours of paid sick leave annually and smaller employers to provide up to 40 hours. The measure, which was approved with more than 60 percent support, allows workers to take the paid leave to care for certain relatives or domestic partners.

At least seven states have enacted laws that require employers who provide paid sick leave to allow workers to use it to provide care to sick dependents. In Illinois, lawmakers were considering a bill to provide paid leave to workers to compensate them when they are sick or when they need to care for an ailing relative or after the birth of a baby. Maryland this year is considering a bill to require larger employers to provide up to 56 hours of paid leave.

Ellen Bravo, former director of 9to5, National Association of Working Women, and now the coordinator of a network of state groups working on work-family issues, says such issues are receiving new and deserved attention—from the media and from elected officials. "Finally some political candidates are coming to us to say, 'How do I talk about this?'" she says. "That's progress, but there's still a lot of work to do."