The week of midterm exams is stressful for any college student. For San Francisco State student Michelle Flores, it was another stress-filled example of the unfair conditions she and millions of other retail workers face on a regular basis.
Flores, a 20-year-old labor studies and public policy undergrad, is a cashier at a national grocery store chain and usually works a 24-hour week, though she’d like to work more. Just before midterms, she found out her supervisor expected her to work 30 hours the same week as her exams — and he gave her just two days notice.
“I said I’d work them,” she said. “I’m poor and I need the hours.”
But the late notice left Flores scrambling to rearrange her schedule to leave her enough time to study. She got it done, but had to skip a few nights of sleep. Some mornings she’d wake up at 5 to squeeze in a few more hours of study before her 9 a.m. shift began. Flores is going to school on scholarships, but pays for all of her living expenses — rent, food, utilities — on her own. The income is critical to her being able to finish her education.
“I need to pay my rent, I need to eat and jobs don’t fall out of trees,” Flores told me. “It was really hard for me to get hired as a 20-year-old kid with no experience.”
Getting such short notice of work hours isn’t out of the ordinary, either. While her union contract at the grocery store guarantees her at least 24 hours a week, Flores’ schedule still fluctuates from one week to the next and she rarely gets more than a couple days notice. It’s a scheduling practice that leaves Flores little leeway to budget both her time and income.
Fortunately, that’s all about to change. On Dec. 5, a Retail Workers Bill of Rights officially became law following two unanimous votes of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. The law, which will go into effect Jan. 5 and is expected to impact 40,000 hourly employees, is a first of its kinds and could help set precedent for struggling workers throughout the country. It applies to businesses with 20 or more locations worldwide and 20 or more employees in San Francisco. The Retail Workers Bill of Rights consists of two pieces of legislation — one that addresses hours and retention protection and another that addresses fair scheduling.
The law’s five major provisions will require corporate retailers to offer more hours to part-time employees before hiring additional part-time workers; curb erratic scheduling practices by requiring employers to post schedules at least two weeks in advance; require employers provide two to four hours of pay at a worker’s regular rate if the worker is required to be on-call, but the employer cancels the shift with less than a day’s notice; requires equal treatment of part-time workers with respect to starting pay and access to unpaid time off and promotion opportunities; and lets workers keep their jobs for at least a 90-day pay period after a company is bought or sold. The bill of rights also protects contracted employees who work at the covered businesses, such as janitors and security guards. (At the federal level, the proposed Schedules That Work Act, H.R. 5159, would also address the erratic scheduling practices facing hourly workers.)
“All families need strong wages, stable hours and sane schedules to build a good life,” said Gordon Mar, executive director of Jobs With Justice San Francisco. “But too many of our neighbors who serve our food, stock our shelves and sweep our floors have jobs that grant too few hours on too short notice and require them to be at the beck and call of their employers.”
Jobs With Justice San Francisco was a leader in a large coalition of community activists, labor groups and unions that organized in support of the bill. According to Michelle Lim, a strategic campaign organizer with Jobs With Justice San Francisco, passage of the landmark bill is about a year in the making. She noted that the number of involuntary part-time workers (those who want to work more hours) in California has tripled since 2006 and now stands at 1.1 million. Nationwide, the number of involuntary part-time workers is 7 million, up from 4.5 million in 2008.
The movement to improve retail work conditions isn’t just about more hours, Lim said, it’s also about eliminating unpredictable scheduling practices that often leave workers scrambling to meet needs outside of work. These days, retailers are increasingly using technology that uses real-time revenue data to develop and manipulate scheduling to maximize profits, leaving workers at the whim of a program that doesn’t account for their personal needs and lives. In fact, a recent study from researchers at the University of Chicago found that 48 percent of part-time workers received their schedules a week or less in advance.
“It wreaks havoc on mothers, fathers, students and workers in general,” Lim told me. “Predictable scheduling means being able to take care of yourself and your family, being able to plan in advance, having regularly scheduled doctor’s appointments, getting enough sleep — and at the end of the day, all of that affects your health. When we choose more predictable scheduling, we’re choosing a healthier life.”
San Francisco may have been the perfect place to first pass a Retail Workers Bill of Rights. The city is already home to an active movement organizing in support of low-wage workers, and Lim noted that the coalition benefited from the momentum of other recent successes, such as the minimum wage increase that voters approved in November.
“We know that San Francisco is a worker-conscious city,” she said. “But this bill wouldn’t have been possible without the workers. They’re the ones who have to deal with what’s going on. Workers are absolutely crucial in developing these policies so we know exactly what the issues are.”
Of course, not everyone happily embraced the Retail Workers Bill of Rights. The business community organized considerable opposition and is “pushing back even now,” Lim told me. With the business community actively lobbying against the new law, Lim said Jobs With Justice and its coalition partners are developing a two-year plan to monitor enforcement. The San Francisco Office of Labor Standards Enforcement will also be charged with enforcement and of investigating worker complaints. Lim noted that Jobs With Justice and its partners also hope enforcement and monitoring activities will build an “on-ramp” for ongoing organizing and help create long-term change within the retail industry.
“It’s a huge victory,” Lim said about the bill’s passage. “Everyone is so excited because they know how much it will impact their lives. Workers are excited, their children are excited, their families are excited. It affects the whole community.”
Flores is excited, too. She predicts the Retail Workers Bill of Rights will completely change the dynamic at her workplace and she’ll be able to consistently plan ahead so that her studies won’t suffer.
“We should not all be living at the grace of corporate greed,” she said.
To learn more about San Francisco’s Retail Workers Bill of Rights, visit http://retailworkerrights.com. For more in-depth coverage of retail scheduling practices, check out this New York Times article.
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.