It’s become the new norm: In the name of “workplace flexibility,” low-wage hourly workers across industries are constantly on call, receive little advance notice of their schedule, and often can’t even control the number of hours they work. Studies show this kind of unpredictable scheduling leads to income instability and underemployment for workers, and stress on their families due to conflicts between work and caregiving responsibilities.
But in one of the most sweeping labor achievements of 2019, Chicago workers are set to see these practices change.
After two-and-a-half years of community-labor organizing, the Chicago City Council adopted the nation’s broadest “fair workweek” ordinance in a unanimous July vote. It is set to go into effect on July 1, 2020.
“This ordinance is not the first in the country, but it is the most expansive, and we want it to be a model,” says Jake Lewis, communications director at the Chicago Federation of Labor. “Too many workers are being told their hours are cut or changed. It’s a hardship. It makes it harder to take care of children or get an education to further their career.”
In the meantime, workers are reflecting on how the ordinance will improve their lives.
“I’ve been sent home from a regularly scheduled work shift with no notice,” certified nursing assistant LeCrisha Pearson told The Chicago Sun-Times. “I’ll soon be able to get paid for my full schedule and so will half of the hourly hospital workers like me. It’s a huge victory.”
The ordinance provides for “predictability pay,” which stipulates that employers still pay their workers for canceled shifts or cut hours. For example, if an employer subtracts or cancels hours from a previously scheduled shift with less than twenty-four hours’ notice, the employer must pay no less than 50 percent of the employee’s regular rate of pay for the hours not worked.
“I earn just $13.53-an-hour,” Pearson explained to the Sun-Times. “And that’s not nearly enough for the demands and skill set at my job. I have a hard time making ends meet for me and my son at this wage. And that’s when I have a full paycheck. But . . . I have not been getting my full paycheck.”
Fortunately, Pearson will be covered under the city’s new law.
“Chicago’s is the first scheduling ordinance in the nation to cover hospital workers,” tweeted SEIU Healthcare, highlighting the groundbreaking win for 30,000 hospital workers.
Most existing fair workweek laws only cover the retail and fast-food industries. But Chicago’s ordinance encompasses health care, hospitality, manufacturing, retail, restaurant, building services, nonprofits, and warehouse sectors, making it the most inclusive in the nation.
Most existing fair workweek laws only cover the retail and fast-food industries. But Chicago’s ordinance encompasses health care, hospitality, manufacturing, retail, restaurant, building services, nonprofits, and warehouse sectors, making it the most inclusive in the nation. Covered businesses have to employ more than 100 workers, and in the case of nonprofits, 250 employees, and have at least fifty eligible employees.
Under the ordinance, employers are required to:
Give ten days advance notice of work schedules starting July 1, 2020, and fourteen days advance notice starting July 1, 2022.
Offer additional shifts of work to its own employees or long-term temporary employees, if they are qualified to do the work, before offering the work to short-term temporary or seasonal workers.
Set a procedure for employees to request a flexible schedule that requires employers to respond in writing.
In addition, a provision known as “right to rest” allows employees to decline to work scheduled hours that begin less than ten hours after their last shift ended. In some industries, like restaurants, employees refer to these closely scheduled hours as “clopening”: having to close an establishment, and then mere hours later, open it back up. If a worker does agree to work with less than ten hours rest, the ordinance requires employers pay 1.25 times the employee’s regular rate for the entire shift.
These protections are far from trivial. University of California researchers have found that “exposure to routine instability in work schedules is associated with psychological distress, poor sleep quality, and unhappiness. Low wages are also associated with these outcomes, but unstable and unpredictable schedules are much more strongly associated.”
Given the sweeping nature of the new law, employers have already started pushing back. In November, the Building Owners and Management Association in Chicago, filed a lawsuit against the city claiming the ordinance violates the National Labor Relations Act and gives unions more leverage at the bargaining table.
“We have been working on this ordinance for years. Consulting with our lawyers, the city consulted with its lawyers,” Lewis says. “We are confident that it is compliant with all regulations.”
Even so, Lewis adds, the federation is “working very diligently so that workers know their rights.”
“Any time there’s a new change in the law and new standard that has to be set, education has to happen among businesses and workers” and there must be “vigilance” in enforcing the law, he says.
In 2014, San Francisco became the first city in the United States to pass a fair scheduling law. Over the past three years, as Donald Trump was elected President in 2016 and struggles for environmental, worker, and democratic rights shifted to municipalities and states, Seattle, Philadelphia, and more cities—mostly on the coasts—followed suit by passing fair workweek laws. Oregon passed a statewide fair workweek law in 2017.
As fast food and Walmart workers made $15/hour wages and union representation a global standard, and a reality in cities and states across the country, the fight for predictable schedules has advanced to the forefront of labor organizing.
The Fair Workweek Chicago campaign that succeeded in pushing for the measure brought together a diverse and broad coalition of unions, community and worker organizations, as well as women’s, anti-poverty, and environmental groups to advocate for the law.
Unlike her predecessor, Rahm Emanuel, new Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot spent some of her political capital and forged a compromise, ending the standoff between business and the Fair Workweek Chicago coalition. The ordinance had been opposed by multiple nonprofit and business associations, including the Illinois Restaurant Association.
One of the important changes Lightfoot worked out was limiting covered employees to those who made less than $26 an hour or $50,000 annually.
“Hundreds of thousands of Chicago workers will get much needed scheduling fairness on the job that will result in the predictability needed to care for loved ones, advance their educations, and plan for their financial futures. Today is a great day for Chicago’s workers,” Chicago Federation of Labor President Bob Reiter said in a statement.
Alderwoman Susan Sadlowski Garza, a former Chicago Teachers Union vice president and the mayor-appointed chair of the council’s workforce development committee, guided the ordinance through city council and its unanimous vote.
After the ordinance passed, Sadlowski Garza hugged the mayor, who tweeted the photo of the embrace with the word “proud,” followed by two fist emojis.