A Matter of Legislation?

This article accompanies The Perils of Part-Time.

Thursday, November 6, 2014
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While debate rages about the necessity of somewhat unpredictable part-time schedules, a movement has emerged to empower part-time employees with greater scheduling flexibility and certainty. The Fair Workweek Initiative, spearheaded by the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Center for Popular Democracy, is pushing for legislation that would effectively force employers to adopt more considerate scheduling practices.

Both Vermont and the City and County of San Francisco have already passed so-called "right to request" laws, requiring employers to consider employees' requests for more flexible or predictable working arrangements. While such laws don't require employers to approve such requests, they do force them to justify any denials on the basis of business obligations.

This summer, such legislative efforts went national when U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., introduced the Schedules that Work Act in the House of Representatives. Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., sponsored the Senate's companion legislation.

In addition to establishing a national "right to request" requirement, the Act seeks to require employers to post work schedules at least two weeks in advance and to compensate workers for a minimum number of hours if they are sent home early. Employees would also be protected from retaliation for requesting a more flexible, predictable or stable schedule.

According to FWI Director Carrie Gleason, such legislation is necessary because too many employers are engaging in what she brands "abusive and unfair" scheduling practices with regard to their part-time workers. "We've seen far too many employers push the boundaries of what working families can endure," she says. "We're trying to ensure there are some baseline [safeguards] so when employers are not voluntarily making the choice to engage in reasonable scheduling practices, at least there are some protections there."

A number of industry groups have already expressed their opposition. 

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"It sounds good on the surface, but the solution creates more problems than it solves," says David French, senior vice president of the Washington-based National Retail Federation. "This will only lead to more lawsuits, more restrictive employment practices, and generally less flexibility between employer and employee."

Accusations are also flying that such initiatives are merely pro-union efforts. In July, Mitt Romney's former deputy national press secretary, Ryan Williams, wrote an opinion piece for the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, in which he branded the Fair Workweek Initiative and its related legislative proposals "a beachhead to unionization."

While Gleason neither admits nor denies that more widespread unionization lies at the heart of her group's efforts, French blatantly accuses FWI of trying to sow conflict with that ultimate goal in mind: "If unionization is the goal, workplace conflict is the fertilizer."


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