Controlling Time: Inequalities in Work and Organizations

by Naomi Gerstel and Dan Clawson

Control over one’s time is a critical resource for having a job and a family. But work hours and schedules, like the ability to control them, are highly unequal. Our book, Unequal Time, examines four occupations in health care—doctors, nurses, emergency medical technicians, and nursing assistants—to show the ways class and gender shape work hours, schedules, and the ability to control hours and schedules. Gender and class inequalities appear in workplace policy and negotiations over overtime and underwork, unpredictable cancelled shifts and added shifts, breaks, vacations, and family leaves.

Scheduling problems don’t just affect individual workers; they reverberate and accumulate through a web of time in which the schedules of one person shape the schedules of others in ways that exemplify and exacerbate differences between men and women, the privileged and disadvantaged. Changes in one person’s schedule (for example, a doctor) affect others tied to that person (such as a nursing assistant or a spouse). In turn, those changes upset schedules for still other people (such as a day-care worker or a sister who is taking care of the nursing assistant’s children and is now late for her own job).

The inequality of time and the difficulty of controlling it are likely growing, both because of changes in the economy and families. Organizations staff so lean that any absence generates difficulties in providing and maintaining advance schedules. Flexibility, which many hoped would result in jobs more responsive to employees’ lives, increasingly means that workers have to re-arrange their lives to meet employers’ last-minute demands. The rise of dual-earner families and the growth of single-parent households mean that one unpredicted schedule change causes a cascade of problems.

These problems make it harder to keep a job, take a second job (which many low wage workers need) or go to college. Just as we heard from medical workers, we hear often from our students that they don’t know how they can stay in school because they can’t predict when they will have to go to work – the work they need to pay for the classes they may have to skip. As one of our students said, “My boss gives me what they call a ‘maybe schedule’—meaning he calls me the night before to tell me whether I am on the next day and even then, I get there and he sometimes sends me home.”

The degree of control that workers hold over their schedules either reinforce or challenge conventionally gendered lives and do so in ways shaped by class and gender. When male doctors work overtime or unpredictable hours, they often rely on their wives and nannies to care for their families. Nurses, mostly women, are likely to handle the bulk of their family responsibilities, and use the control they have over their schedules to dedicate more time to home life. Perhaps surprisingly, members of the working class frequently undermine traditional gender roles. Male EMTs often take significant time off for child care, and female nursing assistants often must add work hours to their official schedule (with little advance notice) to provide enough money for their families.

This inequality is apparent not just in the actions of individuals but in the rules and frameworks of the organizations where they work. Some argue that organizations are structured by rules, forms, and a culture that operate to support the dominance of a masculine worker and breadwinner. Studying unequal time, we find that while this characterizes many workplaces, not all organizations are structured this way. To a degree, professional women — like nurses — feminize some work organizations where they numerically predominate, winning rules that serve their own and their families’ ends. They do so by insisting on and getting a range of schedules and shifts, taking advantage of rights provided by the FMLA, or switching to temp agencies rather than regular employment—that is by creating organizational practices that are responsive to their lives as women, wives, mothers, and daughters. Disadvantaged low wage workers are much less likely to get the organizations where they work to make such adaptations available.

For a long time work hours and schedules were below the radar, but increasingly people are fighting back– informally with co-workers, through unions, law suits, and legislation. Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Rosa DeLauro have proposed the Schedules that Work Act. The legislation would make some modest but much needed changes. Its key provisions include: 1) Requiring employers to tell employees when they are hired the minimum number of hours they can expect to work and posting those schedules at least two weeks in advance; 2) Providing extra hours of pay to the employee whose schedule is changed. 3) Requiring reporting time pay or what is sometimes referred to as “show up pay” so that when workers go to work for their scheduled shift, they don’t leave empty handed. 4) Requiring one hour of extra pay for split shifts—that is, when employees are required to work a shift of nonconsecutive hours with a break of more than an hour when they cannot do anything with that time other than wait for it to be over. 5) Requiring an extra hour of pay for employees assigned to on-call shifts. 6) When an employee requests a schedule change to address their most critical obligations – caregiving, school, health, or a part-time worker’s second job – the legislation creates a presumption that the employer will grant the employee’s request for a schedule change unless there is a “bona fide business reason “ to say no.  Employers gain the right to request changes without fear of retaliation and mechanisms are set up to ensure that is enforced.  Some cities and states have already passed a number of these provisions; many others are considering doing so. The public is likely to be highly supportive, employers to be strongly opposed. None of these changes solve the problem; each is step toward making life better.

Naomi Gerstel is Distinguished University Professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Dan Clawson is Professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

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