By DeAnna Baumle
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has thrown into sharp relief deeply rooted structural inequities in the United States. As U.S. government officials and media celebrate recent economic gains, women — especially women of color — are not recouping their economic losses. Further, the pandemic continues to kill nearly a thousand Americans daily and disproportionally affect Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities. It is no accident that these communities have been left behind in the nation’s so-called recovery: racial capitalism has long excluded marginalized communities from economic and social gains.
Despite platitudes about the importance of “essential” workers, the pandemic has worsened already-poor job quality for low-wage workers and further placed communities of color at risk of contracting the virus and facing other occupational hazards. One increasingly common poor job quality indicator are precarious scheduling practices, which include unstable schedules, little to no advance notice of schedules, split shifts, on-call shifts, and shifts canceled by employers at the last minute. Workers of color in low-wage jobs — particularly Black and Latina women — are most likely to experience these unstable scheduling practices. New research by the Shift Project at Harvard Kennedy School shows that workers in service sectors — such as retail, food service, hospitality, and health care — have continued to face the same level of schedule precarity over the past two years as prior to the pandemic, though racial and gender disparities have actually widened.
Schedule unpredictability and instability have measurable negative health effects on workers and their families. These scheduling practices cause greater stress for workers and their families and harm their physical and mental well-being. Workers with unpredictable schedules are more likely to experience material hardships, like food and housing insecurity, and struggle to find childcare. Essentially, these scheduling practices trap families in a cycle of hardships, and can even prevent workers from qualifying for the very public benefits that are meant to reduce poverty. These harms affect not only workers, but also their families and communities, contributing to the intergenerational transmission of inequity.
Law can be a powerful tool to advance public health, and workplace scheduling is no exception. As detailed in this report from the Center for Public Health Law Research at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law, a handful of cities and one state have recently enacted comprehensive fair workweek laws, which specifically target unpredictable scheduling practices and create several protections for certain hourly workers. Early evaluations of fair workweek laws in Seattle and Oregon show that, when successfully implemented, these laws can improve schedule predictability and stability, reduce material hardship, and improve worker health and happiness. And, despite opposition by some corporations and lobbying groups, evidence shows that predictable and stable scheduling practices benefit employers, too.
These laws and policies can improve job quality and reduce inequities in low-wage jobs — yet as of March 2022, there are no federal-level protections from precarious scheduling. In February 2022, the Schedules That Work Act was reintroduced in Congress. The act would create federal protections for certain hourly workers and require employers in the retail, food service, cleaning, warehouse, and hospitality industries to provide more stable and predictable schedules. But for now, most hourly workers remain unprotected from precarious scheduling practices, and Black, Indigenous, and Latinx women and their communities are bearing the brunt of these harms.
As public health officials and practitioners reflect on structural racism this National Public Health Week, we must turn our attention to labor conditions. Public health agencies can play a key role in labor and employment law. Working toward improving job quality is a necessary and crucial step toward reducing structural inequities and, ultimately, improving everyone’s health.
DeAnna Baumle, Esq., MSW, is a Law and Policy Analyst at Temple University’s Center for Public Health Law Research.