It’s high time to address fluctuating work schedules for low-wage jobs

Many jobs in many sectors have periodically irregular and/or unpredictable work schedules. This may be, just in part, because of the nature of demand. Some workers’ compensation reflects the inconvenience this imposes, but for most, particularly those paid by the hour, especially at low-pay levels, are actually coupled with the most irregular or unpredictable schedules.

Virtually all workers would like at least some regularity to their work schedule, and, indeed, many are prepared to sacrifice pay to avoid the irregular scheduling of their work, particularly into evenings and weekend times. There is common confusion between the flexibility that serves employees and that which serves the interest of employers.

Indeed, workers who have much flexibility in their work schedules appear to be happier than those who do not. In reality, however, it is only by unlikely coincidence that employees whose hours and schedules are controlled by their employers prefer that exact variability over the day or week. This mismatch takes its toll on employees, in ways that could come back to haunt employees’ ability to perform well at work and thus, against the long term interest of employers as well.


A quick scan across the developed world reveals that the U.S. is the only country where there are proposed policy solutions to address this imposition on employees. However, this is not so much because we are leading a policy innovation effort, rather, because we tolerate this as a condition of work.

How common are irregular and on-call type of work schedules? What is the price for having no legal minimum standard regarding fluctuating, short-notice work schedules? Can we actually do something about irregular or unpredictable work scheduling, without doing unintended harms?

Estimates are that 10 percent of workers work “irregular or on-call” shifts as their “usual” work schedule. Adding in split shifts and rotating shifts, this climbs to 17 percent. This is an underestimate,…

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