SALT LAKE CITY — Nick Budge, 47, is used to unpredictable hours. He’s a relief driver for a food delivery company in the Northwest, and he knows all about a job schedule that’s sometimes set just hours or days in advance.

Senior relief drivers can take his assignment out from under him and sometimes do. Other times, he works lots of extra hours.

“I go to bed at 7 (p.m.), and get up at 1:30 (a.m.) to start,” he said. “Sometimes I get a message that says don’t come in until 5, so I have hours around the house, super quiet because the family’s sleeping and I don’t want to wake them up.”

Unpredictable work shifts created with short notice — usually less than two weeks in advance but sometimes within days or hours — are called “just-in-time” schedules. While Budge’s schedule provides little personal time but often offers extra money, other workers are apt to find themselves short of hours and pay, on top of the unpredictable disruption to their families lives.

Planning’s hard and often so is paying the bills or getting child care for workers who don’t know what their schedule will be. Either situation brings challenges for millions of Americans that some cities and one state are tackling through policies that try to protect families by making employers assign shifts further in advance or share some of the burden employees have borne.

“‘Just-in-time’ scheduling practices put workers in a vulnerable financial position — both by destabilizing earnings and by disrupting their access to safety net programs — and make it difficult for them to arrange child care, attend school or pick up a second job,” wrote authors Katherine Guyot and Richard V. Reeves in a recent Brookings Institution report.

Touted as “flexible” scheduling that matches labor supply to consumer demand, just-in-time scheduling includes shifts canceled or added on short notice, on-call shifts where a worker may not earn anything and sending workers home on slow shifts. The report says as many as 40% of wage and salaried workers over 15 years old are scheduled less than a month in advance, based on data in the American Time Use Survey.

Some businesses are tackling the challenge themselves, sometimes partnering with their staff to design more workable schedules. Some tested solutions to find what works and discovered their bottom line and worker morale improved.

Asset or cost?

Businesses’ relationships with their employees started changing in the 1970s, according to Susan Lambert, a professor at the University of Chicago and president of the Work and Family Researchers Network, who also directs the Employment Instability, Family Well-being, and Social Policy Network. Before that time, companies competed by providing better service and goods. She said they now compete in part by reducing labor costs.

“Workers are seen as costs, not as assets,” said Lambert, who added managers are pressured to keep costs down and use as little labor as possible — and only if they’re sure customers will show up right then.

Meanwhile, labor law protects workers from too many hours, but not too few. Wage workers can be left with zero hours, but they must be compensated for going over normal full-time work. 

Even too much short-notice work can be challenging, as Karen Condor, 56, of Greenville, South Carolina, knows.

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A few years ago, she moved closer to family and made do by working for a relative part-time and doing temp work. But with money tight, she was thrilled “to land what I thought was a full-time regular weekday job.” Instead, she said her boss regularly begged her to expand her hours, work weekends and fill in at other locations, some a couple of hours away. The requests were often made with less than a day’s notice. A new employee, she felt pressured to oblige.

The result was tremendous upheaval and she became tired, depressed and unable to make plans. Eventually, she quit. She’s relieved to have a stable schedule at BuyAutoInsurance.com.

Employees want their schedules to work with the rest of their lives.

“One of the things that is really striking is the amount of value employees place on having control over certain aspects of their job. To have uncertainty in your schedule is very disturbing to people,” said Denise M. Rousseau, professor of organizational behavior and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, who also directs the Institute for Social Enterprise and Innovation.

‘Cascading precarity’

University of California Berkeley researchers in The Shift Project found a third of the workers they surveyed at the nation’s largest retail and food service companies had less than a week’s notice of schedules, the hours varying on average 32% from week to week.

Half the workers said they had no input, and a third said they were asked, before the employer decided. And 10% said they’d had a shift canceled on short notice in the past month, while one-fourth worked on-call shifts that might not result in pay.

The pandemic has exacerbated the practice, but it was already common, particularly in the hospitality and retail industries where 1 in 5 workers are employed.

The United Kingdom prohibits short-notice scheduling. It’s among countries that say the risks of slow business should not be borne solely by employees.

U.K.-based Martin Seeley, CEO of Mattress Next Day, pays attention to the impacts of a poor working schedule, he told the Deseret News by email. He believes unstable work negatively impacts health, leads to stress and work-related conflict, and lessen financial well-being.

Nonwhite workers are up to 20% more likely to experience unpredictable scheduling, which can include on-call shifts, clopening (closing and opening shifts less than 11 hours apart) and involuntary part-time work. Guyot and Reeves write that just-in-time schedules “appears to be driven by more than differences in occupation.”

Lambert said the practice is prevalent in low-wage industries, but found it in almost every industry. Research shows unpredictable scheduling makes it hard to have the kind of family routines that experts say are good for kids, like monitoring homework, having meals together and attending kids’ events at school, said Lambert.

A short-notice schedule “not only disrupts your home life, but it disrupts you economically,” Rousseau said. “Financial insecurity — you don’t know if you can make enough to cover your bills — really eats at people,” making it hard to concentrate and pay attention, to avoid trouble, and work without making mistakes.

She said a study of truck drivers conducted by the University of Pittsburgh showed drivers worried about money had more accidents than those who were more financially secure.

The Shift Project, co-directed by Kristen Harknett, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California San Francisco, and Daniel Schneider, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, found those with highly variable work hours were at greater risk of not having enough to eat and not having stable housing.

When parents have schedule instability, you can “draw a straight line to instability in the lives of their children,” Harknett said.

One of their studies noted that “quality and stability” matter for child development and well-being. Too much variability in child care can have negative effects on a child’s social development and school readiness and can negatively affect attachment and health. 

With a too-fluid schedule, workers struggle to make appointments or attend school functions. What Rousseau calls the “cascading effects of precarity” can envelop not just the workers directly affected, but those around them, like child care providers or landlords they cannot afford to pay. Informal caregivers like grandparents and siblings may have to cancel their own plans to provide care. In rare cases, children might be left alone by a parent who can’t risk losing even a job with precarious hours.

Sarah Damaske, associate professor of sociology and labor and employment relations at Penn State University, author of the upcoming book, “The Tolls of Uncertainty: How Privilege and the Guilt Gap Shape Unemployment in America,” said just-in-time scheduling often means working parents need several back-up care providers for their kids.

Hours more often than not are shorted, not expanded.

The nation’s safety net programs can butt up against just-in-time schedules, too. The most vulnerable workers may not meet the minimum number of hours required to participate in food stamp and welfare programs, not because they’re unwilling, but because their hours were unexpectedly cut.

“Work requirements are intended to incentivize work among those who are able, but this assumes that individuals in need of assistance can control their own work hours,” Reeves and Guyot wrote. “Employer-controlled, unpredictable hours violates this assumption.”

When workers fall behind financially, an unpredictable schedule sometimes prevents them from taking other jobs to help fill in the financial gaps. “There’s a misperception that if most people would save a little more, they could build up savings over time. In truth, savings go toward the things they owe when the work is not as steady,” Damaske said.

Unpredictable schedules also sometimes get workers fired, because the jobs may require good attendance, yet create situations where employees can’t meet that expectation.

One study found workers would toil for less money to have a predictable schedule they could plan around.

In the book, “The Financial Diaries: How American Families Cope in a World of Uncertainty,” authors Jonathan Morduch and Rachel Schneider found workers cared more about stable incomes than about climbing the financial ladder. 

Budge, who lives across the border in northern Idaho, doesn’t have small children at home, so his unpredictable hours don’t make him juggle child care, but the unpredictability is challenging for making plans. COVID-19 has reduced hours for millions nationwide, but it’s actually increased his hours as other workers have gone home in the pandemic. He said his company has done everything it can to create jobs for workers not needed for food routes, including sanitizing trucks and equipment. 

Regulating change

Fair scheduling laws have been passed in Oregon and in some cities, including Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Seattle. They vary, but include features like requiring employers to give at least two weeks’ scheduling notice and pay workers a bit extra for last-minute changes. Some have employers pay part of on-call shifts that don’t result in work and may require employees be paid for half their shift if they’re sent home because there’s no work. They tend to target specific industries, most commonly retail and hospitality, though construction and manufacturing are beginning to be factored in.

Lambert said some communities put limits on whom the law applies to based on income. In Chicago, for instance, the law doesn’t apply to those making at least $26 an hour and those on salary earning more than $50,000 a year.

Ordinances don’t focus so much on stability as on predictability, said Lambert. “It’s an incentive, a way of risk sharing. If it’s not worth one extra hour of pay, why are you asking them to stay later or come in if they’re not going to work that hour?”

But some states forbid communities from adopting scheduling ordinances, including cities in Georgia, Tennessee and Iowa. Philadelphia has delayed its predictive scheduling law due to COVID-19, according to the Society for Human Resource Management, which tracks the laws.

A bill in Congress proposed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Rep Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., has not gained traction, though it’s been around for several years.

Labor laws tend to move in waves and somewhat slowly, said Lambert. Sometimes Congress watches local laws for years to see what — if anything — works. She said that was the case with the federal employee paid parental leave law.

Worried businesses

With so much unemployment and many businesses struggling because of the economic blow dealt by the pandemic, there’s fear scheduling rules could impede recovery.

Experts say that regulations about how businesses operate tend to be opposed by chambers of commerce, retail organizations and trade associations, which value flexibility for members. Last March, the CalChamber Alert, a newsletter for California Chambers of Commerce, called an ordinance proposal an “anti-flexibility law” and warned employers could be penalized for trying to accommodate last-minute employee scheduling requests.

But the Brookings report suggests ending just-in-time scheduling could offer benefits, too. “Reasonable constraints on just-in-time scheduling practices would improve workers’ well-being,” it said, helping companies long-term by “improving morale and reducing turnover. … Uncertainty is bad for most workers; it may be bad for business, too.”

Rousseau sees benefits to keeping trained workers on the job.

She thinks the first defense for an employer whose margins are thin and who doesn’t have enough work is to let employees help design a solution. She’s seen workers in partnership with managers create schedules that give everyone some certainty and control while reducing costs.

“If you can get people to share decisions around the schedule, they can share decisions on a lot of other things that aren’t so kind of life or death to them. That would be my best advice,” she said.

Some U.S. businesses have decided on their own to schedule further out, often after testing ideas on a smaller scale.

Costco offers predictable scheduling. In 2015, GAP eliminated on-call shifts and now schedules workers two weeks out. The retailer saw median sales rise 7% in some stores where managers experimented with more consistent start and end times and limited variations in number of hours worked.

Walmart adopted scheduling changes in 2018 after finding fixed shifts and worker-driven scheduling reduced absenteeism and turnover. 

“A way to think about it is there is some risk, some up and down in business,” said Harknett, with the Shift Project. “We don’t want workers to bear all the cost, but we want businesses to be successful.”