Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

Labor Activists Applaud First Statewide ‘Fair Scheduling’ Law

  • Oregon law requires workers to get schedule with ample notice
  • Local strategy takes cue from minimum wage-hike campaigns

Starting next summer, companies in Oregon will have to give workers at least seven days’ notice about when they’ll have to work, according to legislation signed Tuesday by Governor Kate Brown. A handful of major cities have passed “fair scheduling” laws, but Oregon is the first state to do so and the biggest victory on the issue so far for labor activists.

For organizers, giving employees advance notice of their schedules is part of a broader effort to improve the quality of shift work and low-wage jobs, along with campaigns to raise the minimum wage or to grant workers to paid sick days. Oregon’s law also guarantees workers extra pay if their schedules get changed on short notice or if they’re scheduled to work two shifts with less than 10 hours in between.

The new laws are partly a response to the growth in service sector shift-work and to an increasing effort by managers (and corporate parents or franchisers) to pay workers only for the minutes they’re most needed. New software makes it easier for employers to fiddle with scheduling and payroll, giving them the ability to decide at the last minute whether a waitress is needed the next day or to send her home early as soon as there’s a lull in business.

Workers’ rights advocates say that kind of unpredictability creates financial instability for workers and wreaks havoc on their ability to arrange childcare, school or a second job. They cite studies suggesting erratic scheduling creates more psychological distress and has an adverse effect on the amount of time parents spend with their kids.

“You’re always kind of in this state of limbo, and that can be really frustrating when you’re trying to plan your social life or your finances,” said Hali Anderson, a 24-year-old restaurant server who lobbied in support of Oregon’s new bill. “There were months where I was eating food out of the garbage because my hours were getting cut.”

Business groups, on the other hand, say regulating schedules creates more problems than it solves. “We’re getting further and further down a path where people who aren’t familiar with what it takes to run a restaurant are trying to insert themselves in a conversation and dictating business terms,” said Kevin Dugan, who directs government affairs for the New York State Restaurant Association. “That gets very dangerous.”

The bill passed Oregon’s Democratic-controlled House and Senate with substantial Republican support, thanks to concessions like a provision banning Oregon’s municipalities from passing their own more stringent schedule rules. Jeff Anderson, secretary-treasurer of Oregon’s United Food & Commercial Workers local, said lawmakers were effectively spooked by the prospect of more aggressive ballot initiatives or by city-level legislation. “They knew we were serious,” he said.

Oregon’s new law takes effect next summer. Large retail, hospitality, and food service companies will be required to inform workers in the state of their shifts at least 7 days beforehand; starting in 2020, 14 days notice will be required.

Supporters hope the policy will spread quickly to other states and cities, an approach that’s not as efficient as one federal law but, in an era of Republican control, more likely to be successful. “You end up as close as you can get to a quasi-national standard without congress acting,” said Brian Kettenring, the co-executive director of the progressive non-profit Center for Popular Democracy.

There are similar mandates up for debate in Connecticut, California, Maryland, Ohio and North Carolina, as well as in Chicago. But the local measures are also limited by Republican control at the state level, where in many states, legislators have blocked statewide pro-labor measures and banned cities from passing their own.

Moderate and conservative parts of the country will stay skeptical about curbing companies’ discretion to adjust schedules based on business needs, said attorney Paul DeCamp, who represents employers. Besides, said DeCamp, who ran the Wage and Hour Division of the federal Department of Labor under George W. Bush, “It is something of a good thing for there to be an incentive for employees to move up from and out of those entry-level jobs where you are at the whim of your employer with regard to scheduling.” 

Labor leaders who’ve helped pass legislative mandates like “fair scheduling” say they’re no substitute for unionization, which remains in decades-long decline. The new laws are welcome, but collective action will be needed to get companies to actually comply with them, said Larry Engelstein, executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union’s East Coast property services local. “Workplace laws of all kinds,” he said, “are under-enforced.”

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