Abington professor challenges value of irregular work schedules

ABINGTON, Pa. -- A new study written by Penn State Abington economics professor Lonnie Golden criticizes a business practice that commonly affects millions of American workers who earn the least. His report details the negative economic and work-family impact of irregular scheduling, a topic gaining momentum among those tasked with protecting workers' rights.

Golden's research, published by the Economic Policy Institute, found that at least 17 percent of employees have irregular, on-call, rotating or split shifts, and irregular daily schedules, all of which are associated with increased work-life conflict and work stress, particularly for hourly employees.

Some analysts maintain that irregular scheduling optimizes payroll efficiency by minimizing labor costs. But Golden writes of the opportunity cost: While both salaried workers and hourly workers experience work-family conflict from required extra hours, hourly workers experience additional stress. He said salaried workers often have better supports to help mitigate family and other obligations.

Golden also points out that unstable schedules are disruptive, leaving workers unable to predict and budget their income or plan for child care, as well as spending time and money traveling to work only to be sent home.

"This both constrains consumer spending and complicates the daily lives of such workers, particularly those with nonwork responsibilities such as caregiving," Golden wrote. "This variability of work hours contributes to income instability and thus, adversely affects not only household consumption but general macroeconomic performance."

Furthermore, Golden found:

  • The nation's more than 6 million part-time workers are more than twice as likely to have unpredictable hours as are full-time workers.
  • As many as 26 percent of irregular/on-call shift employees, and 19 percent of rotating/split shift workers report often experiencing work-family conflict, in contrast with less than 11 percent of those on regular schedules.
  • Unstable work weeks are more common in occupations such as sales than in professional, managerial, and administrative support. Union members, married workers, government employees, whites, men, and those with higher levels of education work more predictable schedules.
  • Many workers receive one week or less notice about their upcoming hours. Such hap-hazard scheduling has been linked to reduction in job satisfaction and greater levels of work-family conflict.

"Irregular scheduling constrains consumer spending and complicates the daily lives of  workers, particularly those with nonwork responsibilities such as caregiving."

 -- Lonnie Golden, professor of economics at Penn State Abington

Golden concluded that documented associations with work-family conflict and work stress underscore the need to adopt preventative public policy measures, which are becoming a reality in some parts of the country.

Vermont and two California cities have implemented a legally protected “right to request” changes in work hours, schedules or location, with protection from retaliation -- modeled on laws in Europe and Australia -- for employees who double as caregivers.

San Francisco has enacted new protections for hourly workers in retail chain stores that require employers to provide advance notice in setting and changing work schedules. The city also requires paying workers who have not received sufficient advance notice of last-minute schedule changes for a portion of their hours lost, for “on-call” hours, for being scheduled on split shifts, and when they are sent home before completing their assigned shifts. Some employers have adopted voluntary arrangements that might constitute model practices or minimum standards, Golden said.

Golden's research focuses on work hours, flexible scheduling, contingent employment, labor demand, and labor supply. Learn more about his teaching and research interests: http://www.abington.psu.edu/academics/faculty/dr-lonnie-golden

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Last Updated April 27, 2015