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Dilemmas Faced by Hourly Workers

An expert writes about some of the difficulties faced by employees because of rigid and erratic work schedules, and suggests employers can improve their bottom lines by offering flexible scheduling to hourly workers.

This article accompanies Balancing Work/Life by the Hour.

Monday, July 11, 2011
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Is it impractical to offer workplace flexibility for hourly workers? No, it isn't. What's impractical is to offer hourly workers the same kind of flexibility companies make available to managers and professionals.

The entire field of workplace flex has been framed around the experience of professionals, whose work-family conflicts typically stem from very long hours and rigid career paths. Improving work/life fit in hourly jobs requires attention to quite different issues: the rigid jobs with erratic schedules often encountered by hourly employees.

"Scheduling ... is having a huge effect on the bottom line," says workforce management expert Lisa Disselkamp. Increasing scheduling effectiveness offers a competitive edge that can make HR a budget hero. 

Rigid Schedules

The first step is to understand the problem, and the first aspect of the problem is rigid schedules. Most hourly employees punch in and punch out and trigger no-fault absenteeism policies if they are late or absent. These progressive discipline policies give employees points for missing work, regardless of the reason why.

This type of scheduling made sense when the workforce for hourly jobs consisted chiefly of blue-collar guys married to homemakers and unmarried women. Those days are long gone.

Today two-thirds of low-income families are headed by single parents. Often, married parents handle child care through tag teaming, where mom works one shift, dad works a different shift, and each cares for the kids while the other is at work.

"We handed off the baby in the parking lot," an auto worker told a researcher.

Rigid schedules that worked well for a workforce of breadwinners and homemakers no longer work well today.

Take the situation where a single mother received a phone call telling her that her four-year-old child was in an emergency room with a head injury; she was fired when she left to join her daughter because that absence was her final "point" in a no-fault absenteeism system.

Or, take the grandfather who was fired when he refused to work overtime because he tag-teamed with his son to care for his grandson, and needed to get home so his son could go to work.

These and other examples are drawn from the database of union arbitrations at the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law.

The message is that work-family conflict does not only affect parents. Often, hourly workers rely on child-care help from relatives who have scheduling constraints similar to their own -- which means that employers may be affected not only by the rigid and unstable schedule of their employees' spouses but also by the rigid and unstable schedules of their employees' relatives.

Moreover, child care is not the only family responsibility these employees have. Nearly one-third of hourly employees have elder-care responsibilities; 57 percent need time off work as a result. Almost one-third of welfare-to-work mothers have children with chronic health problems, according to one study. 

Another study found that 30 percent of hourly workers took time off work due to family-care responsibilities during a single week.

Erratic Schedules

The schedules of hourly workers often are erratic in addition to being rigid. "Just in time" schedules typically change from day to day and week to week, with less than a week's notice of the schedule for the coming week. Schedules in retail typically are posted on Tuesday for the week to begin the following Sunday.

This makes arranging child and elder care virtually impossible.

Just-in-time schedules try to control labor costs by maintaining a tight fit between labor supply and labor demand, so that nurses' aides are sent home if the patient census is lower than anticipated, store clerks are sent home if fewer customers appear, and hotel housekeepers are kept late during periods when the hotel is fuller than usual.

Erratic schedules just don't work for single moms, tag-team families and employees who rely on relatives for help with family care. That means they don't work for the bulk of hourly workers.

Matching Today's Workplace to Today's Workforce

Scheduling habits that don't fit today's workforce hurt the bottom line.

In one department store, 80 percent of the sales staff was on probation due to absenteeism, one study found. Another discovered turnover rates over 80 percent in half of the jobs studied -- and that turnover reached 500 percent in some jobs. 

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Turnover and absenteeism rates this high do not make business sense. It costs 30 percent to 75 percent of an hourly worker's annual salary to replace her when she leaves.

If a company has to replace 300 employees earning $20,000 a year, that's $1.8 million down the tubes, says Disselkamp: "That is a lot of money, for which the employer gets absolutely nothing but headaches."

Most employers aren't looking to control these costs because they consider high turnover among hourly employees unavoidable, because so many of the workers live disordered lives and lack basic job skills like showing up on time.

In fact, the disorder in these employees' lives may well stem from the schedules employers hand them -- not from employees' irresponsibility but from their family responsibilities.

Any responsible adult will arrive late at work if the only alternative is to leave a toddler or seriously ill adult home alone when a caregiver arrives late. A key challenge for HR is to eliminate scheduling that places workers in that position.

Scheduling Effectiveness as a Competitive Edge

American businesses face serious global competition. Just-in-time schedules are the conventional -- very flawed -- solution.

The approach is that just-in-time scheduling typically focuses almost exclusively on front-end labor costs -- on keeping a tight fit between labor supply and labor demand. This approach overlooks back-end labor costs (turnover, absenteeism) that can be just as significant.

The key to schedule effectiveness is schedule equilibrium: driving down front-end labor costs to the maximum extent possible without driving up back-end labor costs. The Center for WorkLife Law has developed a tool to help employers determine scheduling equilibrium.

Through a five-step process, this tool gives employers a methodology by which it can identify the scheduling practices that can create a optimum match between its workforce and its business process demands.

If you want to be one of the few visionary employers willing to pilot and help refine the tool, please contact the Center. 

Here's the bottom line: Increasing scheduling effectiveness can make you an HR hero ... Whoops! An HR executive.

Distinguished Professor Joan C. Williams is founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law.

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