Research finds unstable schedules may be worse than low wages

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A study involving a UC Berkeley researcher, released in the “American Sociological Review” on Feb. 1, reveals that unpredictable work schedules may hurt workers more than low wages.

The study uses data from the Shift Project, an “innovative method of data collection” that has been surveying food service and retail workers at large chains since 2016, according to the Shift Project website.

According to study co-author and campus assistant sociology professor Daniel Schneider, the study looked at data of workers from “big box companies” like Walmart, Target, Starbucks and McDonalds, revealing about two-thirds of workers on average have less than two weeks notice for a shift change and about one-third have less than one week’s notice.

According to the Shift Project website, categories of unpredictable schedules studied include: “on-call,” reported by 26 percent of workers in the study, “cancelled,” experienced by 14 percent of the workers and “clopening,” work schedules that involve working late into the night and being at work early the next day, which was experienced by 50 percent of workers.

“We find that workers in retail and food service are exposed to high levels of schedule instability and unpredictability, with schedules that vary day-to-day and week-to-week, often with little advance notice,” Schneider said in an email.

The study’s main findings were that the more unstable a worker’s schedule was, the worse their mental health became – workers had more restless sleep and were not as happy. According to Schneider, scheduling provides a “more important explanation” in the question of a workers’ well-being than a lack of money.

“A few dollars per hour more (is) not worth the unpredictability for sleeping better, happiness and depression,” Schneider said in an email.

While there is a lot of research on wages, previous studies on the effects of unpredictable scheduling only look at one company or are only focused on similar instances of scheduling such as night shifts, according to Schneider.

According to former UC Berkeley student and McDonald’s employee Alper Vural, the total number of hours he worked per week was similar, but the time of day he worked could change drastically, which made scheduling difficult.

“It made it hard for me to get my social life into rhythm,” said Vural.

He added that he was often given updates on shift hours two days in advance. Fortunately, he never had to stay late, but he did have a shift cancelled last minute while he worked at McDonalds.

“This instability and unpredictability takes a toll on workers’ well being,” Schneider said in an email. “For instance, those who work on-call or have shifts cancelled at the last minute sleep less well, are more depressed and less happy.”

Yao Huang is the lead research and ideas reporter. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @Yhoneplus.