Volatile Schedules and No Safety Net

Denial of unemployment benefits is an all-too-common indignity for workers with irregular schedules.

A growing number of Americans work in jobs with highly volatile schedules. A recent report by the Economic Policy Institute finds that as many as 17 percent of workers experience unstable work schedules, including irregular, on-call, split and rotating shifts. Another recent study of young hourly workers ages 26 to 32 finds that more than 40 percent receive one week or less advance notice of their job schedules for the upcoming week. Half of these workers have no input into their schedules, and three-quarters experience extreme fluctuations in the number of hours they work.

The plight of workers such as these – whose lives have been turned upside down by erratic schedules that up-end their families and leave them on the brink of poverty – has prompted numerous major policy advances in recent months. Thanks to strong worker organizing and advocacy efforts, San Francisco recently passed a “Retail Workers Bill of Rights,” and legislative action is now ongoing in more than 10 states. And in Congress, members introduced the Schedules that Work Act this summer.

These laws, when passed, will dramatically improve the lives of workers with volatile schedules. But one key component of the safety net may continue to come up short: unemployment insurance (UI).

As my colleagues and I describe in a new report, jointly released by the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) and the National Employment Law Project (NELP), the current UI system utterly fails to serve workers who are forced to leave their jobs because of their erratic hours.

We found that in many cases, the fact that volatile job schedules are commonplace in certain occupations makes it harder, rather than easier, for workers in those jobs to receive benefits. Legal analyses and interviews conducted for our report found that in many states, unfair working conditions that would usually count as good cause for leaving or being discharged from a job actually disqualify workers for benefits if such conditions are “customary” or known to the worker at the time of hire. Essentially, if you leave a bad job that becomes intolerable, you may find yourself doubly punished.

Another roadblock is that many state agencies will deny UI benefits unless a worker exhausts all alternatives before quitting. On its face, this may seem reasonable, but when implemented too rigidly, the requirement puts workers in an already difficult situation into a further bind. In some cases, state agencies expect workers to negotiate with their employers when they know that such negotiations will be futile or to make attempts to request improvements to their schedules when they justifiably fear retaliation.

A third failure of the current system is the lack of access to partial UI benefits for workers whose hours are reduced. Many workers who experience volatile scheduling may not leave their jobs but may find themselves scheduled for very few hours during some weeks. Partial benefits would help soften the shock of income losses during those times.

Unfortunately, workers who have their hours cut often aren’t aware of their eligibility for partial UI benefits. But it’s not just lack of awareness that makes this part of the UI safety net inaccessible to many. Partial UI rules in most states are out of date, and in many cases, benefits are only available to workers with extremely low weekly earnings.

It’s no surprise that workers with volatile schedules can’t sustain their constant juggling act. For a single mom whose child care provider finally says “enough” because her needs are constantly changing, or a worker trying, after years of effort, to fit in the last class he needs to graduate, sometimes the only option is to quit a job that doesn’t offer stability or predictability. In such situations, the UI system ought to help workers and their families make ends meet until they can find new jobs.

Workers who can’t bear the brunt of their employers’ version of workplace flexibility – flexibility that comes at workers’ expense – deserve a strong safety net. But for the UI system to be the key component of the safety net that it should be, states must update their rules and agency practices to reflect the realities of today’s labor market.

Liz Ben-Ishai is a senior policy analyst at CLASP, where her work focuses on job quality issues, including access to paid leave and fair scheduling.