64% of service sector workers report having unpredictable schedules—and it impacts more than pay

Chipotle workers strike in New York City in May 2022.
Photo courtesy Rush Perez

Alyssa Roman has been working at Chipotle as a food server for about nine months. The 21-year-old Bronx native first worked at one Manhattan location, then moved to another in March. She says she encountered numerous problems at both, among them issues with scheduling.

Roman has repeatedly asked for 37 hours of work per week. Most recently, she's been getting 16.75 and 11.25, according to documents reviewed by CNBC.

Roman makes $17 per hour, helps to support her mother in the Bronx, and is expecting her first child. The living wage for one adult with no dependents in New York City is $22.71, according to MIT's living wage calculator. That's if that person is working an average of 40 hours per week.

"I knew that there was plenty of hours to give in the store because they were very short staffed," she says. She just wasn't getting them.

Roman was one of numerous Chipotle workers striking in more than 12 locations in New York throughout the week of May 23 with the help of 32BJ, a union of property and services workers in the U.S. Many Chipotle workers allege they've been subject to unfair scheduling practices, like getting their hours cut, among other grievances. Those strikes have since ended. Chipotle did not immediately return CNBC's request for comment

A majority of food service and retail workers in the U.S. experience unpredictable scheduling like Roman's, according to The Shift Project, a Harvard Kennedy School data source for service sector schedules.

What's different in New York City ― as well as a handful of other cities throughout the country ― is that the law should be protecting them.

42% of service workers have no input into schedules

There were more than 15 million people working in retail services in May 2022, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and more than 13 million working in accommodation and food services.

When it comes to precarious schedules, workers in these fields experience an array of offenses. In the fall of 2021, for example, workers reported the following, according to a nationwide 2021 Shift Project survey of 110,000 retail and food service personnel:

  • 64% of workers received less than two weeks' notice of their forthcoming work schedule
  • 57% experienced shift timing changes, including having one day or less notice of these changes
  • 36% were scheduled a closing shift with an opening shift the following day
  • 42% of workers had no input into the timing of their work schedules

"If you don't have stable and predictable hours, everything unravels," says Kristen Harknett, associate professor at the University of California, San Francisco, and principal investigator at The Shift Project.

"It's very hard to make ends meet, to pay your bills on time, and to avoid serious material hardships, like hunger or housing instability," she says. The Shift Project also finds that unpredictable scheduling takes a toll on workers' health, increasing their stress levels and making it harder to sleep. And it affects children, according to the report: Kids of parents with unstable schedules can experience anxiety and feelings of worthlessness. Some may act out as a result.

Employers are "almost addicted" to last-minute scheduling

Seven cities currently have what are called fair workweek laws regulating service workers' schedules: Seattle, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, San Jose and Emeryville, California, as well as the state of Oregon.

Under New York City's law, for example, fast food employers must give workers schedules that stay the same week to week, must give workers their schedules 14 days in advance, and cannot fire or reduce hours by more than 15% "without just cause or legitimate business reason." The law regulates other industries as well.

Regardless, employers at times flout these laws. "These employers are almost addicted to this [last-minute] scheduling model," says Harknett, because it helps cut costs. For them, she adds, "I think it is really hard to break the habit," even in the face of policy inhibiting it.

All laws regarding labor "are not complied with 100%"

"All laws that try to raise the floor on labor standards are not complied with 100%," she says, including laws covering sick leave and minimum wage. "That's just the reality."

Still, she thinks these laws are helpful. "Having a law on the books gives workers an opportunity to push back and allows governments offices of labor standards to hold employers accountable," she says.

New York City is currently in the process of suing Chipotle as a result of its alleged scheduling violations, for example. Ultimately, these laws and such large-scale lawsuits put pressure on all employers to change their ways, even if that takes time.

For her part, Roman is ready to take on whatever activities are necessary to change the parameters of her job.

"This fight is nowhere near over," she says. "It just began."

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