Inflexible and out of balance

Unpredictable, insecure schedules in Seattle's service industry

Lots of people have difficulty planning their lives. It’s a very sneaky problem. It’s not something as loud as a bank account that’s not full enough for you to feed your kids; it’s more quiet. It’s realizing that you never had time to go back to school. It’s missing that family dinner, it’s not being there for the people that really need you. It’s something you don’t see the effects of until weeks and months and they add up; you don’t have time to yourself.
— Darrion Sjoquist, Starbucks barista

Big corporations like Starbucks and McDonald's are driving our working lives out of balance. Instead of offering predictable schedules and access to hours, more and more companies are demanding total flexibility and open availability from their employees. But it only goes in one direction: workers get little if any stability and flexibility in return.

Contrary to the apparent expectations of the major corporate players in these industries, you can’t live your life on a few day’s notice. You can’t make a budget if you can’t predict your paycheck because your hours change dramatically from one week to the next. And you can’t build a better future when you don’t have the flexibility to go back to school, get a second job, or start your own business. 

Starbucks has been at the center of this issue ever since a 2014 expose in the New York Times drew sharp attention to their scheduling practices. Despite commitments by the company to change, the data shows that issues persist for baristas in Seattle and across the country.

Over the past few months, Working Washington staff and members have interviewed more than three hundred local workers in coffee, food service, and other fields about their experiences with access to hours, unpredictable and unreliable schedules, rest between shifts, and other secure scheduling issues. The results are clear: large numbers of workers in food service, retail, and other service jobs feel their lives become a constant scramble because they don't have the flexibility they need to care for their families, contribute to their communities, and live their lives. 

Key findings include:

  • Half of workers receive their schedules one week or less in advance:  29% got their schedules only a week ahead, and 21% received even less than 1 week's notice.
  • The average typical work week for part-time workers was just 25 hours, with a week-to-week variability of 14.9 hours.
  • Women are almost twice as likely as men to get less than 1 week's notice of their schedules, and people of color are significantly less likely to get 2 week's notice of their schedules than are white workers.
  • Three in four respondents saw their weekly schedules vary by 8 hours or more — a week-to-week difference of a full-time work day.
  • Many part-time workers would prefer to work more hours than they currently get, including 37% of white workers, 45% of workers of color, and 77% of all workers getting 20 hours or less per week.
  • Clopenings remain a standard part of work life in the service industry: 55% of respondents reported having to work clopening shifts where they had to close up one night, then come back to work to open the next morning.
  • Insecure schedules affect workers' health, opportunities, and families: 39% reported their schedules had a negative impact on their health, 31% reported difficulty getting a second job, and 13% reported direct impacts on family responsibilities.
  • The impacts of insecure schedules compound on each other: people of color are more likely to report wanting more hours than they're scheduled for, and also more likely to say their work schedule interferes with their ability to find a second job.


It’s really tough, our work week begins Mondays and we usually don’t see our schedules until Sunday night. It’s really hard to be able to plan — to try and find childcare and things like that especially because our shifts get juggled around — you may be working different shifts each week.
— Crystal Thompson, Domino's worker

At its core, secure scheduling is an incredibly simple issue: everyone should have the right to know when they’re going to work and how many hours they’re going to get. Everyone should have the right to rest between shifts. And people who want to work full-time hours should get that opportunity if the hours are there. 

A recent poll found that a remarkable 74% of Seattle voters support secure scheduling policy at the city level, including 49% of self-identified Republicans.

Faced with the broad consensus that unstable, unpredictable scheduling practices are unacceptable, business groups opposing secure scheduling policies have taken the path of denial. Instead of taking on the impossible task of defending the merits of zero-day advance notice or wildly variable schedules, the business lobby groups have chosen to simply act like these problems simply do not exist.

For example, the Washington Restaurant Association released a statement to the Seattle Channel claiming that scheduling was not an issue because "managers work to line up shifts in the best manner possible to an employee’s requests for night hours, weekends, or whatever works best for employees.”

Bob Donovan, an attorney for chain restaurant and other employers, told City Council that scheduling was "not an emergency," and suggested that employees may very well be happy about having extremely limited notice of their schedules and little flexibility to live their lives.

The CEO of Tom Douglas Restaurants and the owner of several Subway franchises told City Council that their employees did not have any problems with insecure schedules or access to hours. They even expressed doubts that it was a problem at all for anyone in Seattle. And the head of the Washington Retail Association even went so far as to call the issue "very oppressive" and suggest moving forward on the issue could increase support for the Tea Party.

I’ve worked at McDonalds since 2010 and still only get 25 hours a week. My schedule comes out weekly. I have a second job at an assisted living facility. I take two busses to get there. If I could work full-time, instead of 2 jobs my life would have less stress and I could finally spend time with my family.
— Juanita Virlin, McDonald's worker

In short, business representatives have argued that scheduling is not a problem and that therefore there is no need for government to step in. Remarkably they've attempted to make this claim despite widespread reports by workers, and ample evidence from national surveys, including several academic studies released by Susan Lambert of the University of Chicago; additional research by Anna Haley-Lock of the University of Wisconsin-Madison on unfair scheduling, its impact on low-income populations, and the impacts and benefits of secure scheduling laws; and even a paper in the Harvard Business Review on how scheduling practices affect productivity and profits.

In contrast to the head-in-sand response of some self-appointed leaders of the business community, our survey results clearly indicate that the problem is widespread, serious, and has a deep impact on the lives of many service-industry workers in Seattle.

I feel like my whole life is an emergency just waiting to happen, you know? I can’t count on any of them. I’m thinking I got to get another job, but that’s just more of the same you know? ... If I could get 40 hours a week, that’d change everything for me! I could get a car. I could get my kid a better birthday present ... But I’m here living today, y’know?
— Miguel Estrada, Burger King worker

A note on methodology

Data in this report comes from two sources. First, we gathered data from 98 workers through a detailed one-on-one field survey instrument asking about a range of secure scheduling issues. Some of these surveys were performed by Working Washington staff, while others were performed by trained member leaders on a worker-to-worker basis. In addition, we also surveyed an additional 229 workers through an online tool. Responses have been combined as appropriate.

As this is one of the first citywide surveys of secure scheduling issues, it is worth noting that our numbers line up with many of the results of the national study conducted by Susan Lambert study (Schedule Unpredictability among Early Career Workers in the US Labor Market: A National Snapshot) including in the core measurement of schedule variability. In our sample we measured schedule variability in Seattle at 77%, while Lambert's study found a national figure of 72%. (More on that calculation below under "Schedule Variability".) This suggests that other national findings are likely to hold in Seattle as well.

Access to hours:
opportunities for full-time work for those who want it

I went from pretty consistently working about 40 hours, and then I was working 8 hours some weeks and some weeks I would be working 40. There was no way of predicting what it would be. It was hard because I came to realize that no matter how hard I worked and no matter how much pride I took in my work — and I took a lot of pride in the work I do — that didn’t impact it. It was going to still be inconsistent.
— Grant Medsker, former Starbucks barista

Everyone benefits when people who want to work full-time get the opportunity to work full-time.

But instead of offering employee access to additional hours, some employers instead hire vast numbers of extremely part-time employees and expect them to maintain open availability. From the employer's perspective, this is an attempt to maximize their flexibility while minimizing their benefit costs. From a worker's perspective, it requires a 24/7 commitment for a part-time job, and prevents them from having the flexibility they need to get additional work, get an education, or participate in their community.

Among our respondents working part-time in core service industry jobs:

  • 61% of part-time workers were expected to have open availability, including 55% of part-time workers who work 20 hours or less.
  • The average typical work week for part-time workers was just 25 hours, with a week-to-week variability of 14.9 hours.
  • 41% of workers who were asked reported they'd prefer to work more hours than they currently work, including 45% of workers of color and 77% of those working 20 hours or more per week.

In order to mitigate those trends and give every worker a pathway to a reliable income, part-time employees should have the opportunity to take on new hours when they become available. 

Schedule Variability:
Inadequate notice of when you're supposed to work

My employer regularly disregards my availability, and I am unable to participate in activities outside of work — never having a regular schedule prevents me from participating. The worst thing is during two years here, I haven’t had access to a normal sleep schedule or regular meal times. My long-term health is at risk, as my body has no regular hours to adjust to.
— Lee, grocery store worker

Everyone should have the right to know when they’re going to work and how many hours they’re going to get, but regular, full-time jobs are becoming a thing of the past in the service industry. Instead, workers report that either they don’t get enough hours to pay the bills, or they get stuck with a workload that never ends — and they might not know which one it’s going to be until the workweek has already gotten started. While respondents strongly preferred 2-weeks notice of their work schedules, their actual experience fell well short of that. In addition, there were striking differences across race and gender:

  • Half of workers receive their schedules one week or less in advance: 29% got their schedules only a week ahead, and 21% received even less than 1 week's notice.
  • Women are far more likely than men to receive shorter notice of their schedules: women are almost twice as likely as men to get less than 1 week's notice of their schedules, while men are more than twice as likely to get their schedules more than 2 weeks in advance.  
  • People of color are significantly less likely to get adequate notice of their schedules: 59% of people of color reported no more than 1 week notice of when they were working, as compared to 49% of white workers.

Short notice scheduling is not just an inconvenience — it has deeply disruptive effects on workers' lives, their finances, and their families. Just consider the impact of receiving a text message at 5:12am informing you that the schedule your next shift is set to begin at 6:30 that morning, as one working father at a downtown Starbucks recently documented. 

Secure schedules are a critical part of giving people the stability and flexibility they need to care for their families and build a better future.

    schedule variability:
    shifts that vary wildly from one week to the next

    My schedule is a crapshoot. I just work a part time opening shift so when business is slow I’m the first one getting my hours cut. When you count on these few hours even one or two less per week make a difference. It’s hard to pay the bills when you’re not sure how many hours you’re going to actually work.
    — Tracy, Starbucks barista

    Big chain restaurants and retailers have access to more finely-grained information about sales trends and labor costs than ever before. Even a simple Google search now offers hour-by-hour data on the busy times at various businesses. And getting sales data and labor utilization percentages by the minute has become a common feature of the point-of-sale systems used by all large chains.

    But instead of using the information to build predictability and stability, companies are increasingly using it to craft on-demand schedules which vary wildly from week to week. 

    One standard measure of this schedule variability is calculated by finding the difference between the highest and lowest number of hours a respondent worked in a week, and taking that as a percentage of the typical weekly hours for that worker.

    Our survey of part-time Seattle workers found an average 77% schedule variability for workers in coffee, fast food, retail, and sit-down restaurants. In addition:

    Scheduling at Starbucks is out of control. No one cares about our health and our lives. One manager only scheduled two weeks out in the very first month, and then she barely got one week in advance, up to when I left I had to get my schedule for Monday on Sunday night.
    — Jasmine, Starbucks barista
    • Schedules vary wildly from one week to the next: 75% of respondents saw their weekly schedules vary by 8 hours or more — one full-time work day. 
    • 69% of respondents saw their weekly schedules vary by 10 hours or more.
    • 57% experienced schedule variability of 50% or more.
    • 21% experienced schedule variability of 100% or more — meaning that their weekly hours varied by more than the typical number of hours they worked each week.

    This is not the necessary outcome of scheduling technology. In fact, a recent national study of scheduling practices at retail employers found that despite the wild variation in individual workers' schedules, the total hours worked at individual stores varied far less. The leaders of the study were able to launch a pilot project which modified scheduling practices in ways that maintained flexibility and efficiency for the stores, while limiting unnecessary turbulence in workers' schedules and providing them flexibility as well. This research suggests that providing sufficient notice of schedules, access to hours, and compensation for schedule changes can help mitigate unnecessary schedule variability that wreaks havoc on workers' lives, families, and paychecks.

    Right to rest:
    schedules which respect that people need to sleep

    As a former partner I ‘clopened’ 3 days a week and on those days never got more than 4 hours of sleep. This lead to me being less productive than nights I was able to rest. It’s simply bad policy.
    — Sydni, Starbucks barista

    It’s unhealthy and unsafe to have to close down a shop late at night and then turn around and have to open it back up early the next morning.

    But despite commitments by Starbucks and other major chains to eliminate this practice — known as "clopening" — many workers report they are still sometimes scheduled with less than 11 hours of rest between shifts.

    • Despite commitments, clopening shifts persist: 55% of respondents reported that they had work clopening shifts, including 57% of Starbucks workers.
    • For some, clopenings are a standard part of work life: 30% of those who were asked about it reported that they worked clopening shifts more than once a month.

    The right to rest is a matter of workplace safety, and also one of basic human dignity. Clopenings should be abolished.

    Impacts of insecure schedules:
    lack of flexibility for family, education, community, and life

    My children always complained to me because I don’t have that much time to spend with them before I leave from Lakewood and take the bus to go to work to Westlake Center in Seattle. I only see my children a few minutes in the morning time and about 1 hour at night time if I got home before 10:00pm most of the time they might be asleep at the time that I get home.
    — William Vasquez, retail worker

    Lack of hours and unreliable schedules have an obvious economic impact on workers' lives, particularly when you consider that 59% of respondents reported they work to support children or other family members.

    Unstable schedules also mean constant insecurity, wasted time, and unnecessary stress. If you don't get your schedule until right before the workweek starts, your life becomes a constant scramble and it's almost impossible to make time to help your kids with their homework, participate in your community, or even just make an appointment. 

    Those impacts take a toll. Many workers report that insecure, unstable schedules affect their health, finances, school, family responsibilities, and ability to get a second job:

    • 39% reported their schedules had a negative impact on their health
    • 35% of respondents reported financial difficulties due to insecure schedules, including 59% of those workers whose schedules varied by 8 or more hours from week to week
    • 31% reported difficulty getting a second job
    • 18% reported difficulty going to school
    • 13% reported an issue with childcare or parenting
    My schedule is erratic. There’s no regularity — which means my life revolves around this job.
    — Michael, Target worker

    The impacts of insecure schedules also compound on each other. This is especially evident for people of color, who are more likely to report wanting more hours than they're scheduled for, and also more likely to say their work schedule interferes with their ability to find a second job.

    Workers also report they would purse financial, educational, and personal interests if they had more balance and flexibility in their work schedules:

    • 53% of those asked would spend more time with family
    • 25% would get a second job    
    • 31% would go back to school
    • 30% would volunteer in their community 


    One week I was scheduled for 8 hours, and the week after 38. No explanation, just ‘here’s your schedule’. It’s impossible to schedule your life or plan you finances with variation like that, no matter what your hourly wage is.
    — Ilana Greenberg, Starbucks barista

    Unpredictable, insecure schedules are an emergency for thousands of Seattle workers who are denied the flexibility they need to plan time with their families, live balanced lives, and participate in their communities.  

    Further, while the issue has only come to widespread public attention in the past few years, our survey data shows it has become standard practice, particularly in coffee, retail, and food service industry.

    It doesn't have to be this way. Modern scheduling software lets big chains predict consumer demand better than ever, and farther in advance than ever before. Instead of abusing this technology and playing games with workers' time, big chains can use it to provide secure schedules.

    Corporations like Starbucks should meet with workers to discuss how to improve their scheduling practices. But as our findings show, this problem is not isolated to a handful of "bad apple" employers. In fact, the data shows that enormous numbers of workers across the service industry report major struggles with insecure schedules and access to hours. And the industry trends all seem to be moving in the wrong direction for workers, their families, and our economy.

    Just as the entire economy benefits from breaking the trend towards poverty wages and ensuring more workers have more money to spend, we will all benefit from breaking the trend towards insecure schedules and ensuring more workers have time to spend with their children, more time to go back to school, and more time to get involved in their communities. 

    Two years after passing the nation's first $15 minimum wage, the home city of Starbucks can once again make history by ensuring workers have secure schedules they need to support their families, live balanced lives, and participate in their communities. 

    Ensuring that part time workers have promotional and benefit opportunities and requiring big employers to provide advance notice of shifts, a right to rest, access to hours, and will help bring our worklives into balance.

    Because our time counts, too.