September 4 , 2019

Fair Workweeks Remain Elusive Despite New York’s Reform Laws

By Harold Stolper and Nancy Rankin

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Nearly two years ago, New York City’s Fair Workweek laws went into effect. The goal: Giving workers in large retail stores and fast food chain restaurants the right to predictable week-to-week work schedules. The laws set limits on a range of problematic employer practices that are all too common in these industries. Those practices include last-minute shift changes and “clopenings” that oblige workers to report for both the last, late shift of one workday and the first, early shift the following morning. 

Nevertheless, research described in our recent report for the Community Service Society (CSS), drawn from CSS’s annual “Unheard Third” survey of low-income New Yorkers, finds that unpredictable work schedules were actually more, not less, common even well after the Fair Workweek laws took effect.  In 2018, workers across all sectors were less likely to have at least two weeks’ notice for their upcoming work schedules than they did in 2016. The good news is that retail workers covered by the Fair Workweek laws are now more likely to find out their schedules further in advance. Yet while it is still early to see the full effect of the new laws, unpredictable work schedules appear to remain standard operating procedure for many workers in the retail and restaurant sectors. 

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Such employees often work for extremely low wages. More than 40 percent of workers at restaurant/food service establishments and 30 percent of workers at retail establishments in New York City have incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. And workers living below the federal poverty level were three times as likely as high-income workers to report having fluctuating hours, and nearly four times as likely to have hours that change a great deal from week to week.

Such unpredictable workweeks put particularly heavy burdens on low-wage workers. Because they tend to have very little personal savings, suddenly finding that they aren’t scheduled to work enough hours can sabotage household budgets and lead to unpaid bills. Getting insufficient notice about work schedules can also set off a frantic scramble to arrange for child care or manage other essential personal responsibilities. Such problems are compounded by the fact that all too often low-wage workers are not paid on time, and frequently lack basic benefits enjoyed by other workers, such as employment-based health insurance. And while State law has recently made most of such workers eligible for paid family leave, and City law has given most paid sick leave, many are as yet unaware that they enjoy these rights.

A lack of information about workplace rights has also muted the impact of the City’s Fair Workweek laws. Among fast food and retail workers surveyed who said they were aware of the City’s scheduling laws, over half said the new laws were having a positive impact on them personally. However, the majority of fast food and retail workers responding (58 percent) had heard little or nothing about Fair Workweek laws a full eight months after they had gone into effect. 

Unpredictable scheduling remains a problem for many workers in the five boroughs, and not just the fast food and retail workers targeted for protection by the City’s Fair Workweek laws. All low-wage workers need stronger legal protections to ensure more predictable schedules and economic stability. Indeed, State Labor Department officials first proposed such broader scheduling regulations, but then pulled them back after concerns were raised about the details of how they would operate.

New York City and State should coordinate efforts to establish and enforce measures that protect a broader range of workers – requiring, for example, that employers compensate workers for sudden, unplanned schedule changes. Such coordinated City-State regulation is critical for two reasons. First, one set of regulations shouldn’t preempt others that provide stronger worker protections. And second, coordination is necessary to maintain a simple and transparent set of laws and regulations that allows employers who follow the law to thrive.

Also crucial is improved outreach to workers already covered by Fair Workweek measures. Because as with laws designed to prevent wage theft and other employer abuses, when worker protections are passed without adequate outreach it blunts their intended impact. Enforcement actions of such protections are triggered by worker complaints, but workers can’t complain that their rights have been violated if they aren’t even aware of those rights in the first place. Just as important, government regulators need to step up efforts to let workers know that Fair Workweek regulations also protect them against employer reprisals or harassment when they seek to have their rights enforced.

This is the first in a two-part Urban Matters series on the effects of recent labor law reforms on low-wage workers in New York City and State. Next week: What has New York's rising minimum wage meant for restaurants and restaurant workers?

Harold Stolper is the senior economist at the Community Service Society (CSS). Nancy Rankin is vice president for policy research and advocacy at CSS.

Photo By: Daniel lee