Fair Wages Aren’t Enough, Workers Need Hours, Predictability, too

Fast-Food-EmployeesThere’s no question that working families across the country are struggling to get by; wages for most income levels have been stagnant or declining over the past decade, while the cost of living has continued to increase.

One key to helping working families is increasing wages so that there are more living wage jobs available. However, increasing the minimum wage is only part of the solution for helping families whose low-wage jobs do not always include steady work.

Living wage calculations, like those produced by the Alliance for a Just Society, must make assumptions to remain consistent year after year. One of those assumptions is that workers have jobs where they can actually work 40 hours per week, year-round (for 2,080 hours per year). For many workers, this assumption doesn’t match their reality.

For retail and restaurant workers, a steady schedule with enough hours can be hard to come by. Retail salespersons and food preparation and service workers are two of the top five occupations with the greatest projected job growth between 2012 and 2022, but are also low-wage occupations, with 2013 median annual wage of $21,140 and $18,330, respectively. These jobs are also often shift work, without set schedules.

Last month, the Schedules that Work Act was introduced in Congress, which would help give workers a say in scheduling, helping ensure that workers who needed more steady schedules could get them. The act would require that workers receive pay for times when they report but are sent home early, that split shifts with more than an hour break between them on the same day come with additional compensation, and that the minimum number of hours are transparent and accurately reported to the employee. Additionally, the act would require that employees be notified of their schedules at least 2 weeks in advance or receive additional compensation.

This is a great step, but it will not help workers who simply aren’t given enough hours to get by, even if they were making hourly wages at or close to a living wage job. For retail and restaurant workers who would be earning an income near the poverty level at full-time work, part-time hours can make supporting themselves and their families impossible.

Working families need a full range of support to help make ends meet: living wages would bring incomes up and scheduling support would help make life more predictable, but for many retail and restaurant workers, that won’t be enough without more hours or other supports, too. If workers are to rely on retail and food service jobs for income, steps must be taken to make sure these growing occupations actually allow workers to make a decent living.

Allyson Fredericksen is a policy associate with Alliance for a Just Society. She holds an M.A. in Policy Studies from the University of Washington, with a focus on safety net and racial justice issues.