Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg

Worker Hours Are More Unpredictable Than Ever

After the recession, hourly workers have a harder time.

What a job looks like has changed for many people since the recession. In general, things are looking up: Both unemployment and jobless claims are falling. But a good chunk of job creation has come at the highest and lowest ends of the spectrum, a trend that has only recently started to change with gains for middle-wage earners. Many people who lost well-paying jobs have found work, but for less money, doing hourly retail and food services jobs.

These new hourly workers not only make less money, but they have much less predictable schedules than hourly workers had before the recession, according to a new study from the University of California, Davis. "The jobs replacing the ones that were lost after the recession ended were a lot of low-wage hourly jobs with really variable schedules," said Ryan Finnigan, an assistant professor at U.C. Davis and one of the researchers who worked on the study. 

Workers in these new economy jobs might work 38 hours one week and 15 the next. "Even though unemployment has sunk down, the quality of the jobs that replaced the ones that were lost were not quite the same," Finnigan added. 

Finnigan looked at "work variability" for hourly workers from 2001 through 2013, using Survey of Income and Program Participation data from the Census Bureau of more than 30,000 civilian workers between the ages of 25 and 55. Using three separate measures, he found that workers reported less stability in their schedules in the years following 2009. Around 13 percent of hourly workers in 2001 and 2004 reported an "irregular schedule," for example. After 2009, that number increased to more than 15 percent. The proportion of workers who reported "varying hours" jumped to 29 percent after the recession, from 21 percent before. 

Labor activists have historically pushed for both more hours and more consistent hours. Hourly workers often have a hard enough time cobbling together a full-time schedule. Unpredictable schedules can make it even more difficult for workers to plan their lives (and livelihoods). "Being able to schedule around obligations has a huge impact on well being," said Finnigan. 

Not surprisingly, Finnigan's research also found that union participation helps workers get the schedules they want. Union members are less likely to report variability in the hours they get from week to week, but only in states with a high degree of unionization. In such places as New York and California, which have more powerful union presences, unionized workers are 3.5 percent less likely to report that hours vary, compared with nonunion members. 

Organization seems to be the best hope for workers with unpredictable schedules. "I'm hoping we can think about the ways to facilitate unions securing these kinds of benefits for workers," said Finnigan. He suggests that workplaces set a standard minimum number of hours a given employee can work in a week or, at the very least, post schedules far enough in advance so people can plan their lives. After all, it's bad enough to work a job that pays less than you were making five years ago, without stressing out about getting enough hours week to week. 

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