New research shows that unstable work hours do not offer US workers greater flexibility

A growing body of research documents the cost of schedule instability to workers in the United States. Inconsistent shifts make it difficult for workers to maintain routines or plan their lives outside of work. For workers who are paid by the hour, unstable hours can mean unreliable earnings and financial difficulties. The work-life conflict and economic insecurity associated with unstable working hours are taking their toll on the health and well-being of workers and their children.

Unstable work schedules are often portrayed as a problem for certain groups of workers who are more vulnerable to employer exploitation, whether due to a greater need for time adjustments, a lack of better employment opportunities, or a number of other possible factors. But this framework misses the broader scope and economic importance of the problem.

In previous research with Susan Lambert of the University of Chicago, I showed that unpredictable and unstable work hours are common in the United States, affecting between 10 and 30 percent of civilian employees. While schedule instability affects part-time, black, and workers under the age of 35 more often, it still affects a significant proportion of full-time, white, and middle-aged workers. Unpredictable schedules are common not only in low-wage service industries like hospitality and retail, but also in higher-paying construction, manufacturing, and transportation jobs.

Why do so many US workers put up with unstable hours? In a recent working paper, I shed light on this issue by answering a related question: What, if anything, do workers get out of these agreements? I define schedule instability as a risk-reward allocation problem in the employment relationship. In a fair, well-functioning market, those who take greater risk can expect greater rewards. So, I ask, does planning risk come with higher pay, flexibility, or other rewards for workers?

To answer these questions, I test three possible explanations for why workers accept unstable working hours. First, I examine the claim that workers are compensated for planning risk with higher wages or advancement opportunities. Second, I test the claim that workers with unstable working hours benefit from better work-life balance or flexibility. Third, I test the claim that workers face uncompensated scheduling risk because they have limited access to stable rosters.

The best available data on work schedules and pay comes from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, 1997 Cohort, or NLSY97 for short. This survey, sponsored by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, collects exceptionally detailed information on work hours, pay, and benefits for a nationally representative sample of workers born in the early 1980s. These workers were between 20 and 30 years old during my study period from 2011 to 2018.

For this period, NLSY97 is the only national survey to include questions on the range of weekly working hours, the length of notice, and the degree of employee or employer control over scheduling. The NLSY97 collects data every two years and provides repeated observations of workers as they move through different jobs and working time arrangements. This data allows me to identify multiple types of scheduling risk—defined by various combinations of volatile work schedules, short-termism, and little or no worker oversight—and to analyze the marginal impact of scheduling risk on compensation.

My analysis provides clear evidence that workers with planning risks are worse off. I find that jobs with unstable schedules do not offer workers higher pay and much less flexibility than otherwise comparable jobs with stable schedules. For a typical worker with a stable and predictable schedule, the likelihood of having a flexible work schedule as a benefit of their job is 56 percent. That probability drops to 43 percent for workers with an unstable schedule and 39 percent for those with an unpredictable schedule. (See Figure 1.)

illustration 1

Probability of having a flexible work schedule, by observed work time type, among US workers born between 1980 and 1984, 2011-2018

I also find that scheduling risk lowers job satisfaction and reduces the likelihood of a worker staying with the same employer by 10 percentage points over a 2-year period. This negative effect on customer retention is consistent with previous research showing that schedule instability increases sales at large retail and hospitality companies. These findings complement other recent studies that question whether unstable scheduling is as valuable as many employers believe. If unstable scheduling is making employees more dissatisfied, more likely to quit, and less productive at work, then this may not be the most efficient way to manage business risk.

Another set of findings from my working paper challenges the claim that uncompensated planning risk reflects the relative power of employers in the US labor market. I find that compensation penalties for unstable working hours related to higher unemployment are not higher where employers have more power to set compensation. Furthermore, when I compare unionized workers and non-union workers in the NLSY97 cohort, I find similar rates of unpredictable work hours. At least for US workers in their 20s and 30s, low unemployment and a collective bargaining agreement are not enough to ensure fair compensation for planning risk.

Fair workweek laws offer a more direct solution to the problem of schedule instability. While specifics vary by jurisdiction—currently seven cities and one state have Fair Workweek laws—these laws generally require employers to give 2 weeks notice or additional payments for schedule changes. For example, research into Seattle’s work time regulations has found that it reduces instability and improves the health and economic security of insured employees.

My study strengthens the case for passing Fair Workweek legislation. I show that, on average, workers are penalized rather than rewarded for planning risks. Contrary to what opponents of working time regulations claim, unpredictable and unstable schedules reduce worker job satisfaction and flexibility.

My recent research also provides a rationale for expanding work-time regulations beyond the narrow segment of retail and restaurant chains targeted by early Fair Workweek legislation. Transport and construction workers, for example, have been largely absent from the public debate on the issue, yet they face some of the highest rates of planning risk.

By introducing working time regulations that cover a wider range of jobs across the country, policymakers can improve job quality for millions of workers. With more predictability or extra payments for roster changes, workers will be better able to care for and care for themselves and their families.

What is at stake is a precious resource – time – that should not be wasted on haphazard planning practices. If employers really value the flexibility of time, it’s only fair that they reward the workers who provide it.

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