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Researchers report that food service workers almost universally experience wide work-hour fluctuations over the course of a sample month, fluctuating on average by what amounts to 68 percent of usual work hours. (Credit: Gregory Williams/Flickr)


Erratic schedules are common for young workers

Half of young workers in the US get less than a week’s notice of their work schedules—instability that can disrupt family life.

“These are the first national data on volatile scheduling practices, and the prevalence of schedule instability is very dramatic,” says Susan J. Lambert, associate professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration (SSA).

“With these new data, we find that schedule unpredictability and fluctuating hours are not conditions of work relegated solely to the bottom of the labor market. While low-level workers are at greatest risk, these practices are widespread.”

The research brief analyzes national data released in 2013 on 3,739 workers, ages 26 to 32, employed in the wage and salaried civilian US workforce. The data come from a nationally representative survey of people born between 1980 and 1984, who are regularly interviewed as part of the National Longitudinal Surveys.

The NORC (National Opinion Research Center) at the University of Chicago conducts the study under the direction of the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. This was the first time the survey included questions about fluctuating and unpredictable work schedules. The SSA Employment Instability, Family Well-being, and Social Policy Network released the research brief online.

Variable paychecks

The findings suggest that in addition to receiving little advance notice of their work hours, many workers contend with fluctuations in their work hours and have little or no input into the timing of work.


The pattern was found for early-career workers across the labor market, but especially among workers of color and those who work part-time or are paid by the hour.

Scheduling fluctuations are particularly common in low-wage occupations where the variability makes it difficult to predict earnings week-to-week, according to the study.

For example, the brief reports that food service workers almost universally experience wide work-hour fluctuations over the course of a sample month, fluctuating on average by what amounts to 68 percent of usual work hours.

Half of retail workers learn about their work schedule with one week’s notice or less, and half of janitors and housekeepers report that their employer completely controls the timing of their work.

“Many of these workers are raising children,” notes coauthor Julia R. Henly, associate professor at the School of Social Service Administration.

Working parents

The report finds that two-fifths of people in the sample have a child under age 12. Large majorities of working parents reported fluctuations in the prior month of 40 percent when compared to their usual hours.

“Parents are also at increased risk of the other forms of instability we studied, including limited advance notice and minimal input into when they work. As a result, work schedules are likely to challenge the ability of even the most motivated parents to fulfill responsibilities at work and at home,” Henly adds.

Perhaps most surprising is how widespread these precarious scheduling practices are, affecting workers in higher status jobs as well as those at the bottom of the labor market.

“Even at the upper end of the labor market, about a third of elite professionals, business staff, and technicians say their employer decides the timing of their work without their input,” says coauthor and sociology doctoral student Peter Fugiel.

The survey found that more than 25 percent of these workers receive their work schedules with one week’s notice or less, and more than 75 percent of early-career workers in these upper tier occupations reported work-hour fluctuations of at least 30 percent during the month.

Lambert recently presented some of these data at a Congressional briefing in Washington, DC, and she has consulted several state and local governments that are developing and implementing new standards on employer scheduling practices. “It is exciting that policymakers are finding our analyses useful,” says Lambert.

Source: University of Chicago

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