By Sejal Parikh
Special to Northwest Asian Weekly
Imagine getting a text at 5:11 a.m. instructing you that you had just been added to the work schedule and were expected to be on the job at 6:30 a.m. Imagine trying to raise a child when both you and your spouse don’t find out until Thursday what your work schedule is going to be for the next week. Imagine how that kind of instability affects your life, your family, and your community.
This is the stuff of everyday life for many workers in retail and food service. In fact, both of these stories happened in just the past few months at Starbucks and Safeway stores in Seattle. It’s all part of an unfortunate trend where larger businesses are increasingly demanding that workers offer up 24/7 availability, even for part-time jobs — but they don’t offer any flexibility in return.
Schedules can be posted with just a few days notice, and then changed. Shifts can vary wildly from week to week. You can show up for a day of work after a 90-minute bus commute, and then get sent home just a couple hours later.
Unstable, unpredictable schedules are wreaking havoc on the lives of workers, disrupting their families, and unsettling our communities. If you don’t get your schedule until right before the workweek starts, your life becomes a constant scramble and it’s almost impossible to make time to help your kids with their homework, participate in your community, or even make an appointment. You can’t make a budget if you can’t predict your paycheck because your hours change dramatically from one week to the next. And you can’t build a better future when your boss won’t give you the flexibility to go back to school, get a second job, or start your own business.
Starbucks barista Darrion Sjoquist explains it this way, “It’s a sneaky problem. It’s not something as loud as a bank account that’s not full enough to feed your kids, it’s more quiet. It’s realizing that you never had time to go back to school. It’s missing that family dinner. It’s not being there for the people that really need you. It’s something you don’t see the effects of until weeks and months and they add up.”
After hearing from workers with stories like these, the Seattle City Council is moving to craft legislation to address the crisis of unpredictable, unstable schedules. Unfortunately, groups like the Retail Association that lobby for the interests of larger businesses have been trying to confuse the issue and stir up discontent by making misleading claims about what’s under consideration (including in comments to this newspaper).
Insecure schedules are an issue for workers at all kinds of businesses, but our conversations with workers across the city indicate that the issue is most urgent in chain retail and food service. These businesses also clearly have the technical and financial resources to do better. That’s why we are pushing for Seattle to pass a secure scheduling ordinance that would only apply to larger companies.
As executive director of Working Washington, I support this approach, because our mission is to build a movement that advances workers rights, boosts the economy, and grows stronger communities.
And I also understand it from a more personal perspective.
My parents came to this country as immigrants from India, and like many immigrant families, my relatives have started businesses, from community groceries to donut shops to motels.
All of them have worked hard for many years, often over long hours, to make a living and get ahead. Often, they are close to the people who work for them, even considering them members of the family.
When I talk to my aunts and uncles about issues like minimum wage or secure scheduling, they sometimes have concerns. They resist the idea that the government should come between them and their employees. They raise questions about how a policy like this would affect their business.
I’m close to my family, so we have open and honest conversations. By taking each other at our word and starting from a place of trust, we’re able to have productive conversations about how to achieve balance in the workplace — a system where business can prosper and employees can thrive.
Before we move forward on scheduling legislation that would affect the owners of smaller community businesses, we need to have that same kind of conversation. We need to hear more about what kinds of scheduling issues affect our smaller businesses — and the people who work for them.
We know that when more people have secure schedules, it means more parents can plan time with their kids, eat dinner together, go to the park, or help with homework. It means more workers with the time to get a second job, go back to school, or start a business. It means more time to volunteer, live balanced lives, and participate in our communities.
So let’s not get distracted when the big lobby groups for larger restaurants and retailers try to raise a ruckus by misleading people about what City Council is considering right now.
Instead, let’s move forward quickly to bring security to workers at the big companies that are causing the biggest issues right now. And then let’s come together in good faith and have a real conversation to hash out the best way to bring more balance and flexibility to the lives of people who work at smaller businesses.
That’s the path to achieve the thriving communities we all desire.
Sejal Parikh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.