Workers in San Diego County are facing enormous challenges due to employer scheduling practices, which interfere with employees’ health, family life, financial stability and academic pursuits.
Scheduling practices such as short advance notice, same day changes, and on-call shifts may be convenient for employers, but come at a tremendous cost to workers. Workers find themselves at the beck and call of their employer, unable to plan family activities, social engagements, medical appointments, shifts at second jobs, class attendance, and other important life obligations. Moreover, workers are generally not paid for on-call time they leave open for their employer. Employers are effectively stealing workers’ time.
Our survey of nearly 2,800 hourly workers in San Diego County found that among our participants:
Policies have been proposed and adopted across the country to address these issues. We need local Fair Workweek policies to provide San Diego workers with more socially and financially stable lives, and to create more equitable, sustainable, and positive employer-employee relationships.
The information on San Diego County workers in this report is based on a survey of 2,770 hourly workers conducted during 2019. The food service and retail sectors are heavily represented, and 73% of the workers are also students. The quotes are taken from almost 300 open-ended comments on the survey and 74 testimonials written by SDSU and City College students about their experiences with their own work schedules.
We found that in San Diego County, as in other parts of the country, unpredictable schedules have harmful consequences for workers and their families. For the vast majority of survey participants, their work schedules have negative impacts on their work/life balance, basic survival, and health. For students, their work schedules are also detrimental to their academic performance and ability to graduate in a timely manner.
The most ubiquitous impact that scheduling practices have on the workers we surveyed was the resulting inability to plan social time. Three of every four participants reported the inability to schedule time with friends and family. Not only is such time important for family stability, it also contributes to the mental and physical health of workers and their families.
A worker at a coffee shop explained,
Unstable schedules make it impossible to manage basic finances. Sixty-one percent of our participants reported that their work schedule affects their ability to cover basic needs in terms of paying for housing or food, or scheduling work at a second job.
One survey participant explained,
Of those who say that they use their income to pay rent and housing expenses, 60% reported that their work schedule impacts their ability to meet these payments.
As a worker at the San Diego Zoo explained,
Unstable schedules can lead to food insecurity as well. Of those who use their income for food, 43% reported that their work schedule impacts their ability to purchase enough food.
An employee of a well-known retail brand wrote,
Many low wage workers rely on a second job to make ends meet. For those who said the question applied to them, more than half (53%) reported that the work schedule at their primary job affects their ability to schedule work at another job. The irony is that unpredictable schedules drive workers to pick up extra jobs and then make it difficult to schedule hours at those jobs.
Our survey included three measures of how work schedules affect employees’ health: self-reported health (like stress and sleep), ability to schedule medical appointments, and ability to pay for health care.
Work schedules have widespread impacts on workers’ health, including stress levels and sleep. Seven of every ten survey participants reported that their health is affected by their work schedules.
As a grocery store worker described their schedule:
Moreover, when workers do have medical issues, it is very difficult to seek treatment because of work schedules. Forty-four percent of participants reported that their schedule affects their ability to make medical appointments.
As another grocery store worker described, workers feel unable to assert their need to make and keep appointments:
Another barrier to seeking medical care is the ability to pay for it. We asked survey participants if their schedule affects their ability to pay for medical care. One in three reported that it does, among those who said it was applicable.1
We found that the great majority of students in our survey reported that their work schedule interferes with their academic performance. Two of every three students who worked and went to school simultaneously reported that their work schedule caused them to do worse in school, miss classes, miss exams, and/or delayed their time to graduation.
Ninety-five percent of students who work do so during the school year. Sixty-three percent of these students reported that their work schedule affected their academic performance.
In their testimonials, students described how their work hours interfered with both studying and sleeping, essential elements of the learning process. Moreover, the volatility of their work schedules made time management – a crucial tool for academic success — almost impossible.
A retail worker who goes to City College explained how hard a variable schedule can be, especially at crucial times during the semester, like fall finals that are given just as holiday consumer traffic is at its peak:
A skilled nursing assistant, studying at SDSU, expressed how supervisors disregard the need to attend professor’s office hours or study groups:
Moreover, one in three students reported that their work schedule causes them to miss classes, and almost one in ten reported having to miss exams or presentations, which can result in failing the class.
A City College student working in healthcare explained,
In their testimonials students also described shifts that unexpectedly lasted until the wee hours of the morning, causing them to sleep through their morning classes.
The conflict between work schedules and school can also cause students to extend their time to graduation, costing students both time and money and putting more strain on public higher education budgets. When asked if it will take them longer to graduate due to their work schedule, one in four answered yes.
Working off campus was particularly detrimental to timely graduation. Almost 80% of students reported that their main job was off campus. For these students, 30% reported it would take longer to graduate vs 9% for students whose main job was on campus. In fact, working off campus raised all barriers to academic success. Off campus workers were 50% more likely to miss classes due to their work schedule (37% vs 25%) and were two-and-a-half times as likely to miss exams and presentations (10% vs 4%).
The financial instability caused by inconsistent schedules can also impact students’ ability to pay for school. Thirty-eight percent reported that their schedule impacts their ability to pay for tuition and books.
An SDSU student working at SeaWorld wrote,
Furthermore, it should be noted that students often have a difficult time even finding jobs that will accommodate their commitment to school, limiting their employment options. As discussed, employers often prefer to hire candidates with open availability, rather than students with fixed class schedules.
As one City College student, working in food services, lamented:
Of the non-students in the survey, we asked if their work schedule had prevented them from going to school because of time conflicts and if their schedule had made it difficult for them to afford school. More than one in four (28%) answered yes to one or both of these questions.
A 66-year-old SDSU student explained how employers’ expectations that workers maintain open availability had previously barred them from attending university:
How much knowledge were survey participants given about their work schedule? Are workers told at the time of hire what their hours, days and shifts will be? Does their schedule conform to these agreements? Are workers given a set schedule? If not, how far in advance are they notified of their weekly schedule?
Hiring agreements often fail to include information about the number of hours, the specific days, and the particular shifts workers are being hired for. If there is no agreed upon schedule, employers often expect workers to have open availability. While the concept of open availability is attractive to employers, it strips workers of any control over their own time and impinges on their ability to make other commitments – to family, school, second jobs, civic duties, and more. In addition, most hourly workers do not have a set schedule, nor are they given advance notice of their schedule.
A Sea World worker explained,
There is often no formal agreement at the time of hire about workers’ schedules, and when there is, it is not guaranteed. Almost two-thirds (64%) of workers reported that they were not told what days and shifts they would be working at the time of hire or they were told but were scheduled for different days and shifts.
Forty-two percent of participants were not given any schedule at time of hire. Only 37% of participants were given their days and shifts in writing at the time of hire, with another 21% given only verbal confirmation of this information. Of those who were given a schedule at time of hire, 38% were assigned different shifts, with 10% regularly assigned different shifts.
A City College student working as a sales representative explained that workers are often expected to take whatever hours they are assigned despite the hours agreed upon at the time of hire:
Similarly a City College student who works at Denny’s wrote,
In terms of the number of hours, one in four workers were not given any estimation of how many hours they would be working when hired.
Of the 56% that were given a specific number of hours at time of hire, nearly one in four (23%) were regularly scheduled for a different number of hours, about half for more hours and half for fewer hours. About a quarter were given a minimum guarantee of hours, and of these, 7% were regularly scheduled for fewer hours.
A UCSD student working retail explained,
An SDSU student working at a mobile communications company described how they are overscheduled, but always just below the benefits threshold,
The ability to plan family, school, and social activities is entirely dependent on whether workers know their work schedule in advance. Only one in four of our participants had a set schedule at work. Over half (56%) of survey participants received their schedule with less than two weeks’ notice, with 31% having less than a week’s notice and 14% having two days’ notice or less.
An SDSU student working in retail stated,
A food service worker explained how as a worker they had to offer complete flexibility, while their employer did not reciprocate:
Does the posted schedule reflect the hours workers end up being asked to cover? Are workers assigned on-call shifts? Are schedules changed after posting or at the last minute?
While workers’ ability to plan their lives is limited by how much advance knowledge they have of their schedule, their ability to actually carry through with those plans – to attend classes, appointments, meetings, family gatherings – is undermined by such practices as on-call shifts and schedule changes.
As a sales associate, and student at SDSU, explained,
Another systematic practice that makes it impossible for workers to have prior knowledge of their schedule is on-call work. One of every five participants said they were scheduled for on-call shifts.
An SDSU student explained,
A City College student described their schedule at Subway,
Three of every four people who worked on-call shifts reported being pressured into doing so. Fifty-eight percent reported that they were required to take such shifts, and another 17% reported that they were encouraged with the possibility of retaliation (e.g. fewer hours or worse shifts) if they did not accept.
It should be noted that another common way employers get workers to “voluntarily” accept on-call work is assigning too few regular hours. An SDSU student who works at a pizza restaurant described how
Of those assigned on-call shifts, 69% said they were paid nothing for the time they spent waiting to see if they were called in. On the other hand, 22% said they were paid their regular wages, with 7% reporting they were paid some lesser compensation. It is clear that companies can and sometimes do offer compensation for the time they demand that workers keep open.
Compounding the late notice workers get of their schedules is the common employer practice of altering schedules that have already been distributed to workers. Almost two-thirds (64%) of participants reported that their schedules are sometimes changed after posting, with 10% saying they are regularly changed.
Last minute schedule changes can mean unexpected loss of income when they involve cancelled shifts. A department store worker, who goes to City College, described the lack of control they had over changes to their schedule,
An SDSU student explained how keeping up with schedule changes become the workers’ responsibility as the employer put
Another participant complained that their employer put all changes on a physical schedule at the worksite that workers had to constantly check.
Sometimes the schedule is so volatile that workers’ shifts are cancelled, added or modified on the very day they are supposed to work. Half of our participants (51%) reported dealing with same day schedule changes.
An SDSU student who works in a restaurant explained,
A New York & Company employee explained how minimal staffing adds to the unpredictability in her schedule,
Some of the same day changes are built into a schedule that relies on open ended shifts. As a movie theater employee wrote,
When taken together these practices – employers giving no or inaccurate schedule information at the time of hire, providing less than two weeks’ notice of the schedule, assigning on-call shifts, and making late schedule changes – leave employees with little predictability of their work hours and thus little control over their supposed personal time. We found that 86% of all workers in the survey reported being subjected to at least one of these unpredictability practices. In the food services, grocery and retail industries the percentage subject to these practices jumps to 96%.
Below we cover other unfair scheduling practices, such as a variation in weekly hours, clopening, and retaliation. For each of these, the food service, grocery and retail industries have considerably higher rates of unfair practices than other industries.
All of the practices described in this report result in fluctuations of workers’ hours from week to week, which leads to unstable income and insecurity about how workers will pay their bills. Nearly 60% of all participants reported that their hours vary from week to week.
A department store worker described how companies’ scheduling only considers corporate needs, not employee survival:
Significantly fewer workers with set schedules report variations in hours from week to week, 28% vs 75% of those with less than two weeks’ notice. As advance notice of work schedule diminishes, the likelihood of variability rises, as does the likelihood of management changing workers’ schedules. 2
Another problematic scheduling practice is assigning workers a night shift and then a morning shift with fewer than 10 hours rest in between. This practice, known as “clopening,” denies workers sufficient rest, given the need to commute back and forth to their home, eat, shower, change and sleep. Four of every ten participants reported that they clopen at their jobs, with the percent rising to over half in the restaurant (52%) and grocery industries (54%).
An SDSU student working at the YMCA described how their supervisor
A City College student working as a fast food cashier wrote,
For some workers the intensity of these practices is exacerbated by the fact that they experience retaliation if they make scheduling requests. Twenty-eight percent of survey participants reported that their employers have retaliated against them (e.g. giving fewer or worse shifts) in response to special scheduling requests. This number rose to 37% of those working in the restaurant industry and 39% of those working in retail. Such punishment has a broader impact, as retaliation against one employee has a chilling effect on other workers who then do not make requests for fear of reprisals.
A food service worker, who goes to SDSU, explained,
As a grocery store worker described
There is widespread support for fairer scheduling practices. A 2016 nationally representative poll found that three out of every four Americans supported the concept of fair work week legislation. A majority supported specific policies guaranteeing predictability pay, advance notice of schedules, and requiring compensation for on-call work. 3
Cities and states across the country are taking action. The state of Oregon and several cities across the country including San Francisco, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Seattle have adopted Fair Workweek policies and many more cities and states are considering such regulations. The policies vary in terms of which employees are covered and what provisions are included, but all guarantee workers some stability in scheduling practices. New Hampshire, Vermont and San Francisco have also passed right-to-request laws that prohibit employer retaliation against workers who make scheduling requests. Together these laws are improving the lives of millions of workers and their families. 4
San Diego workers deserve fairness in employer scheduling practices. It is our hope that San Diego workers, their families, and the businesses they work for can also enjoy the benefits of Fair Workweek policies. Based on this report, we offer the following policy recommendations:
|Unfair Practice||Fair Workweek Policy|
Varying hours; lack of information about schedule
Requirement to provide written schedule at time of hire
Access to hours
Short advance notice
2 weeks advance notice of schedule
Predictability pay: premium pay for changes after posting
Right to rest: minimum of 12 hours between shifts
Right to decline hours; consent for changes; right to request schedule
In 2019, we surveyed over 4,400 adults Of those, 2,770 had been employed as hourly workers in San Diego County within the previous 12 months and were not in charge of scheduling or payroll at their jobs. These workers were asked about their experience over the previous 12 months. The statistics in this report are taken from an analysis of those 2,770 survey responses.
This survey is based on a convenience sample and we do not claim that it is representative of all workers in San Diego County. Most participants, almost 2000, are not only workers but students as well. We found virtually no difference between the percentage of students and non-students experiencing any of the unpredictable and unfair practices. As a result of concentrating our recruitment among students, our sample was also largely made up of younger workers. We also found no significant difference in practices experienced by age group. However, because young workers tend to be concentrated in the food service and retail industries, our sample was also skewed toward these industries. 5 Fifty-four percent of workers surveyed were in the food service and retail (including grocery) industries as compared to the 20% of hourly workers in San Diego County. Our study, like studies in other parts of the country, shows that unfair scheduling practices tend to be higher in these industries.
Although the survey was not representative, the report is indicative of how unfair practices have become normalized, especially for food service and retail workers. This is especially concerning because young workers at the beginning of their work lives may come to see these practices as standard. The survey results also demonstrate which practices are relatively most prevalent. Finally, the results give us a fuller picture of how these practices impact workers, especially in the food services and retail industries.
We gathered the online surveys through various channels. A core of seven student researchers made in-person presentations in more than 80 college classes and administered the survey during the presentations. These presentations took place at 11 different universities and community colleges in the San Diego area, with the majority conducted at San Diego State University. Community organizations including the Employee Rights Center, the United Food and Commercial Workers, and the Center on Policy Initiatives also helped recruit survey participants. Almost 80 student researchers also recruited participants through their own social networks, postings at worksites and on worker-oriented group chats and Facebook groups.
The survey concluded with an open-ended question asking if participants had any additional information they wanted to share about their work schedules. We received 295 comments related to schedules and their impacts through this question, some of which are included as quotes in this report.
To supplement our quantitative research, we also gathered testimonials from six classes, half at SDSU and half at City College. Students were asked to write 2-3 page essays about the scheduling practices at their jobs and the impacts their work schedule had on their lives. These students were required to fill out a consent form where they could choose whether to have their essay included in this study. Professors gave extra credit to students whether or not they authorized the use of their essays. Seventy-four students submitted their essays to the study. Names were then blacked out and we analyzed the essays for the themes found in the survey. Most quotes in this report are taken from these essays.
It has become increasingly common for employers to use “just-in-time” scheduling to calculate the “optimum” number of workers for any given shift. Corporate software and managers create ever-changing workers’ schedules based on predictions of customer demand – a number that fluctuates by the week, day, and hour.6 The result for workers are unstable, unpredictable, and last minute schedules.
In the last two decades, unpredictable scheduling has become common practice in service industries across the US. According to General Social Survey data, just over one in five US workers faces unstable work schedules. 7 Low-wage workers are most affected, 8 particularly in food services and retail sectors, where the percentage of workers struggling with unstable schedules soars to 60%.9
Jobs within these industries tend to be filled by younger workers and a UCLA study found that 96% of these young workers navigated issues of unpredictable scheduling, when practices of on-call shifts and little advanced notice were added to fluctuating hours.10
According to the Shift Project, a large survey conducted by UC Berkeley on retail and food service workers throughout the US, workers of color in these industries are 16% more likely to experience unstable schedules, with some practices such as shift cancellations being 30% more common for workers of color.11 Even when employed in comparable positions by the same employers, workers of color, and particularly women of color, still suffer unpredictable practices more frequently than white workers. 12
Unstable scheduling is detrimental to American families. Employers prefer workers who offer open availability. 13 Employers can thus schedule workers for as few or as many hours as they find convenient, severely impeding workers’ ability to attend to family obligations. Twice as many workers with irregular schedules and on-call shifts report work-family conflict as those with regular schedules. 14 This conflict is particularly problematic as non-standard schedules are more prevalent among single mothers.15 One study reports that over half of fathers and almost 40% of mothers “had to cancel an event or appointment in the past three months that was important to their child because of their schedule at the Gap.”16
Unpredictable schedules are detrimental to the well-being of workers’ children. Parents’ unpredictable work schedules have been shown to have demonstrably negative effects on toddlers’ cognitive development and expressive language and to result in poorer academic engagement and increased levels of behavioral disorders in older children. 17 The developmental delays stem from both parental absence and increased parental stress. 18 Fluctuating work hours also result in low-wage workers and their children facing disruptions in government subsidized childcare. 19
Unpredictable work schedules also have adverse effects on income stability and consumer spending. 20 In a survey conducted by the Federal Reserve Board, almost half of workers who responded that their income varied from month to month reported that it was due to an irregular work schedule. 21UC Berkeley’s Shift Project found that 60% experienced some sort of material hardship, such as food insecurity or housing hardship. Those who experienced irregular scheduling practices were more likely to face material hardship than other workers who made similar wages.22
Irregular work schedules are correlated to negative health outcomes for workers. Studies have found a link between unstable work schedules and self-reported poor health,23 higher levels of stress,24 inadequate sleep,25 and lower levels of happiness.26 According to the Shift Project’s research, these poor health outcomes correspond more to volatile scheduling practices than to low wages, which are typically associated with retail and service sector work.27
Unstable schedules interfere with academic performance for workers who are also students. Given the rising cost of tuition and living expenses, most students work through college. 28A UCLA study found that 43% of students who work sacrificed classroom attendance due to shifting work schedules.29 Faced with too few hours between work and school demands, students often do not get adequate sleep, which is detrimental to learning.30 Conflicts between students’ work and school schedules are cited more often that the cost of tuition as the reason for dropping out of college.31
Stable scheduling would not only improve the lives of workers and their families but has benefits for employers as well. Contrary to many employers’ beliefs, experiments with stable scheduling practices have shown that advance notice and elimination of on-call shifts, along with other complementary measures, results in significant increases in productivity. The findings of a study conducted by the Gap were revelatory: stable scheduling “sharply increased median sales by 7% . . . in an industry in which companies often work hard to achieve increases of 1-2%.”32 Stable scheduling also has the potential to reduce turnover, a big expense for employers.33 Managers cite unstable scheduling and fluctuating hours, along with low wages, as the two main reasons workers leave their jobs.34
While wages have been rising in many cities and states, without also stabilizing hours, incomes will remain unpredictable and workers’ lives disrupted. Cities and states around the country are considering or have adopted legislation to guarantee workers’ more predictable schedules. Given what this report documents about practices in San Diego, it is imperative we consider some of these measures in our city and county.
Principal Investigator and Lead Author: Jill Esbenshade, PhD
Co-Principal Investigator and Lead Data Analyst: Audrey Beck, PhD
Research Team: Melanie Dinh, Kimberly Gan, Zara Ghannadian, Kate Hart, Joshua Hudson, Alex Lalangan, Elizabeth Leathers, Lauren Rabago, and Samuel Ramtin
Printed Report Design by Anoki Casey
Translation by Julio Delgado
We would like to thank Alor Calderon for his assistance in conceptualizing this project. We would like to thank Dr. Derrick Robinson and Ana Laura Martínez for their assistance in thinking through our report findings and recommendations. Thanks to all of the following for assistance with survey recruitment: the staff of the Employee Rights Center, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 135, and the students of Dr. Beck’s Spring and Fall 2019 Sociology 407 classes. We would like to thank professors Paul Lopez, Jessica White, Michael Roberts, and Audrey Beck and their students for collaborating with us on the testimonial portion of the research. Finally, thanks to all the thousands of San Diego workers who took the time to share their experiences with us.
We gratefully acknowledge the San Diego State University Service Learning and Community Engagement Program for funding this research, and the California Endowment, California Wellness Foundation, Irvine Foundation, Marguerite Casey Foundation, and the Satterberg Foundation for funding this research and other CPI programs.