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Labor

How Workers in One City Won the Fight Against Too Few Hours on Too Short Notice

Workers at chain retail stores won big with a Retail Workers Bill of Rights.

Photo Credit: michaeljung/Shutterstock.com

The careers of workers in the retail industry are often at the mercy of their employers. Workers, especially those in part-time positions, often don’t receive their schedules far enough in advance to plan their lives, nor do they get enough hours to make ends meet.

But 40,000 retail workers in San Francisco will soon be seeing significant improvements thanks to the recent approval of the Retail Workers Bill of Rights. Last week, the city’s Board of Supervisors voted unanimously in favor of the bill, which will now be passed to the desk of Mayor Ed Lee. He is expected to approve it by the December 25 deadline.

“It’s groundbreaking legislation for part-time workers who work in chain stores,” said Michelle Lim, the strategic campaign organizer for Jobs With Justice, the key member organization of the coalition that pushed for the bill.

The bill contains five major provisions to curtail unfair practices at corporate retailers. According to Lim, workers were most in need of the one requiring fair and predictable scheduling. More than 80 percent of workers report having unstable work schedules. This provision requires employers to post schedules at least two weeks in advance. If employers change a worker’s schedule with less than a week’s notice, the employee will receive one hour of pay. If a worker's schedule is changed with less than 24 hours’ notice, workers will receive two or four hours of pay, depending on the length of the shift. 

Another key provision in the bill requires employers to offer more hours to existing part-time employees before hiring additional part-timers. Lim said not getting enough hours is a big struggle for many workers. Involuntary part-time employment in California has tripled to 1.1 million since 2006.

“One of our worker leaders is a mom with four kids,” Lim said. “She can’t get more than 24 hours at the chain grocery store she works at. And they even put her on the night shift. And she’ll ask for more hours and explain she could work during the day, and she’s not able to get any more hours.”

Employers will now be required to put their extra hours needed in writing and present it to part-time employees. The workers will then have the option to take or reject the hours with no retaliation.

According to Jobs With Justice, the other three provisions are:

  • Discouraging Abusive On-Call Scheduling Practices: Employers will be required to provide two to four hours of pay to an employee at his/her regular rate of pay when he/she is required to be “on-call” for a specified shift but the employer cancels the shift with less than 24 hours’ notice.
  • Equal Treatment for Part-Time Workers: Employers will be prohibited from discriminating against employees with respect to their starting rate of pay, access to employer-provided paid and unpaid time off, or access to promotion opportunities.
  • Encouraging Worker Retention and Job Security: If an employer’s company is bought or sold, the workers must be kept on at their jobs for at least a 90-day trial period.

This bill of rights will only apply to companies with 20 or more stores globally that have 20 or more employees in San Francisco. Lim said the bill was focused on protecting workers employed at the largest and most profitable companies such as Target, McDonald’s, the Cheesecake Factory, H&M, and Whole Foods.

“When we asked around, a lot of the small businesses were already doing these things,” Lim said. “This policy is also incentivizing for small businesses to plan in advance.”

Lim said the idea for a Retail Workers Bill of Rights evolved from a large Retailer Accountability Act that failed to pass in Washington, DC, and Boston. Jobs With Justice then wanted to focus on winning in San Francisco to set the stage for change.

“San Francisco almost has a duty to set a high bar and a good bar,” Lim said.

Jobs With Justice then formed a coalition of dozens of community organizations, which worked closely with the National Employment Law Project. They drew on research from University of Chicago professor Susan Lambert’s studies on precarious work schedules, as well as hundreds of interviews with retail workers conducted by New York City’s Retail Action Project. In addition, they talked to workers in the city and formed a worker committee to advocate for the bill.

Lim said the key to winning this bill was creating a vast coalition that could help push the legislation. But getting all of the groups involved to agree on all the terms wasn’t easy.

“We had a coalition of 30 different groups having 30 different conversations,” she said. “We had to have lots of meetings”

Starting in January, San Francisco’s Office of Labor Standards Enforcement will work with Jobs With Justice on a six-month education period to inform employers and employees about the new legislation. The bill will then be enforced in the summer of 2015. Jobs With Justice will create a two-year enforcement plan, which includes participatory research from its worker leaders, to ensure that the bill is properly implemented.

Other cities are in the preliminary stages of creating their own Retail Workers Bill of Rights. And George Miller’s (D-CA) introduction of the Schedules That Work Act in July has helped prompt a national conversation around fair scheduling.

Lim said it’s important for the labor movement to start taking a proactive approach to corporations’ attempts to weaken workers’ rights.

“I think a lot of labor groups, too often, too much take the defensive route, where they’re not actually strategically planning, they’re just responding to what corporations are doing,” Lim said. “So it’s really exciting to be part of something that’s like, hey, we’re not just going to wait for the company to do something, we’re going to put our foot down here."

Alyssa Figueroa is an associate editor at AlterNet. 

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