Why Seattle is pushing 'secure schedules' for hourly workers

Seattle, the city that championed the $15 per hour minimum wage, now wants new rules requiring employers to give hourly workers their scheduled shifts two weeks in advance.

(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Starbucks barista Oliver Savage poses for a photo in front of a Starbucks store near where he works Aug. 29, 2016, in Seattle. Savage is joining other workers and city leaders in pushing for new "secure scheduling" rules for retail and food-service businesses with hourly employees, including requiring them to schedule shifts two weeks in advance, and offer hours to existing employees before hiring new staff.

Seattle leaders have proposed new rules for retail and food-service businesses with hourly employees, including requiring them to schedule shifts two weeks in advance and compensate workers for some last-minute changes — the latest push by a city that has led the nation in mandating worker benefits.

Seattle was among the first to phase in a $15 hourly minimum wage, mandate sick leave for many companies and offer paid parental leave for city workers.

Now, the mayor, city officials and labor-backed groups are targeting erratic schedules and fluctuating hours they say make it difficult for people to juggle child care, school or other jobs, to count on stable income or to plan for the future.

Seattle's "secure scheduling" proposal also would require retail and fast-food companies with 500 employees globally to compensate workers with "predictability pay" when they're scheduled but don't get called into work or are sent home early; provide a minimum 10 hours rest between open and closing shifts; and offer hours to existing employees before hiring new staff.

"Creating equity in Seattle means providing workers with access to a reliable schedule that meets their life and financial needs, while balancing the daily realities facing large employers," Mayor Ed Murray said earlier this month.

In 2014, San Francisco became the first major U.S. city to pass similar legislation. A District of Columbia bill requiring 14-day scheduling notice advanced out of a council committee in June but has yet to be taken up by the full council. A November ballot measure before San Jose, California, voters would require businesses to offer additional hours to existing part-time employees before hiring new staff.

The Washington Retail Association and other businesses have criticized the Seattle proposal, saying many employers already provide advance scheduling notice. They say the measure is too restrictive and will create more problems for workers.

"It will wipe out the scheduling flexibility that benefits both employees and employers," said Jan Teague, association president. If store managers can't add to labor costs to cover the predictability pay, they'll operate with fewer employees or fewer hours when someone can't make it into work, she said.

Others say they want to see changes to some provisions, such as ensuring employers aren't penalized for offering shifts directly to workers who want them.

Across the country, companies have faced increasing pressure to make schedules more predictable. Last month, Wal-Mart launched a new scheduling system to give thousands of hourly employees more certainty about their hours. Other companies have also moved away from "just-in-time" scheduling as a way to retain employees, as The Christian Science Monitor reported.

Last year, Gap, Inc. announced that it will phase out on-call scheduling, which requires hourly workers to call in for shifts they may or may not be paid for (sometimes with as little as 30 minutes advance notice), by the end of September.

The company, which also owns the Banana Republic and Old Navy brands, is just the latest major retailer to end the practice. In April, New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman requested scheduling information from 13 retail companies, under suspicion that the chains’ policies violated New York’s state labor laws. Since then, Abercrombie & Fitch and Victoria’s Secret have announced that they would end on-call scheduling; Starbucks phased out the practice last year. 

The sponsors of Seattle's ordinance say it's as much about closing the city's income gap as giving entry-level workers, many of whom are women and minorities, more control over schedules. Median household income, housing prices and rents have soared in booming Seattle as the city has grown to about 687,000 and added about 50,000 tech and other jobs in five years.

"We want this to be a city where our workforce, the people who are keeping this place running, can afford to live here," said Councilwoman Lisa Herbold, a bill sponsor. "When people have more secure hours, they can do things that make the city more affordable, such as holding down a second job or going to school so they can get a better job."

Crystal Thompson, who works at Domino's Pizza, often scrambles to find child care when she gets her schedule one day before the work week begins. The short notice makes it difficult to plan her life.

"This will be good for a lot of people," she said.

Oliver Savage, 22, a Starbucks barista, said he has asked to work 30 hours but currently gets 20. For a period this summer, a previous store manager scheduled him for only eight hours, reducing his one source of income. He said the store hired a new barista during that time, so he supports the provision requiring current workers be offered hours before additional staff is hired.

Jennifer England, who owns a Subway franchise, said she works with her three employees to accommodate their scheduling needs. She said she won't be able to pay extra for last-minute shift changes if a worker wants time off or calls in sick.

"They're making it harder for us to schedule and if anything comes up, we're going to be penalized and we can't afford that," England said.

The bill exempts companies whose employees are covered by a collective bargaining agreement with similar scheduling provisions.

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