Bad jobs are usually defined as those with low pay, little autonomy, and few benefits. Add to the list irregular hours. As Steven Greenhouse describes in his New York Times article on the part-time labor force, workers today are suffering from erratic scheduling. In the service industry, employers routinely cut their hours or send them home early when customer traffic slows. On the flipside, workers are required to be on call or stay late during especially busy times. Erratic hours not only mean income insecurity, but also result in the inability to do anything else, like search for a second job or take a class.
In my research on the retail industry, workers identified scheduling as the worst aspect of their jobs—worse than pay, autonomy, or benefits. My ethnographic study, Inside Toyland, explores the impact of erratic hours on the lives of low wage retail workers. The unpredictability of scheduling presented a nightmare for many single mothers at the Toy Warehouse, one of the two stores where I worked. Schedules were posted on Friday, for the following week beginning on Sunday. The two-day notice of scheduling made it especially difficult to arrange child care and resulted in some bringing their kids to work with them.
The stakes are high. In two recent incidents, women were arrested for leaving their children unattended while working or interviewing for a job. Low wage employers who demand worker availability at all times contribute to the already impossible plight of poor mothers and their children.
While I was working at the Toy Warehouse, associates were asked to fill in a form indicating our availability to work, from 6am until 10pm. This form, which was attached to our paychecks, warned that “associates with the flexible availability will get more hours than those who are limited.” Anyone who limited their availability was hit hard when schedules came out the following week, causing a great deal of anger and bad feelings. Angela, an experienced associate, was scheduled for only four hours, and she was so mad that no one could even talk to her.
Complaining was not an option; those who did got their hours cut further. Instead of firing them, employers routinely squeeze out workers by starving them for hours or intentionally scheduling them when they are not available. Sociologist Jennifer Parker Talwar observes that in the fast food industry, firing is rarely a direct action. Instead, managers typically reduce hours or schedule workers for undesirable hours (very early or very late). She writes, “such employees are eventually forced to quit on their own, and the employer escapes having to pay unemployment insurance” (2002, 58).
At the Toy Warehouse, this common employer practice was directed mostly at African Americans—thus dodging the eyes of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. One of my coworkers raised this issue, noticing that new hires (none of whom were Black) were getting better hours than the experienced workers (most of whom were Black). Michelle tried to get a petition drive going to complain about the diminishing hours, but no one would sign. People told her “I don’t want to lose my job; I need this job.” When Michelle complained, she was scheduled to work hours that conflicted with her other job (a school janitor). She told me that sometimes she is asked to be at the toy store at noon, but she cannot arrive in time since her janitor job requires her to be there until 1:30. After receiving two demerits for tardiness, Michelle decided to resign.
Erratic scheduling is a mechanism for reproducing gender and race inequality in the workplace. Under the guise of offering “flexibility” to workers, low wage employers are making bad jobs even worse.