A Walmart cashier in Richmond, California. | Justin Sullivan, Getty Images
Originally published in the Maine Beacon on April10, 2023
Legislation was introduced in the Maine State Legislature last week to give hourly workers mainly in the service industry predictable schedules and some degree of control over their lives outside of work.
In a public hearing before the legislature’s Labor and Housing Committee on Thursday, Sen. Mike Tipping (D-Orono), the committee’s Senate chair, introduced a “Fair Workweek” bill.
Such laws — which have been enacted by cities across the country including New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco and Seattle — aim to counter advanced scheduling software, which is increasingly being used by large retailers to manage labor costs by scheduling employees based on fluctuating consumer demand.
If successful, Maine would be the second state, following Oregon, to pass a Fair Workweek law.
“In recent decades, we’ve seen large businesses move to a just-in-time model for supply chains, with parts and products arriving just before they’re needed as a way of promoting efficiency and cutting down on warehousing costs,” Tipping told the committee. “Many large businesses have also moved to a just-in-time model for scheduling their employees. They now use algorithms to track and predict their staffing needs, modifying work schedules on the fly and at the last minute. For these large employers, this practice allows them to increase efficiency and lower costs. But those costs are now being passed on to employees.”
Tipping (who founded Beacon but is no longer editorially involved) explained that for many shift workers in low-wage service industries such as retail, fast food and hospitality, their days off are never truly off.
“They must keep their schedules open in order to work on short notice. And they often find that shifts they were planning on have been canceled with little warning,” he said. “The burden of these precarious schedules obviously falls heaviest on those workers who make some of the lowest wages, receive the fewest benefits, and are the least likely to be organized and struggle the most to have their voices heard.”
The bill, LD 1190, would create a requirement for companies with at least 250 employees worldwide to provide workers with a regular schedule at the time they are hired. Employers can make changes to this regular schedule, but for short notice changes they must give the worker extra compensation to make up for the disruption. It would not interfere with a worker’s ability to request a change.
A similar bill, LD 827 sponsored by Rep. Amy Roeder (D-Bangor), the Labor Committee’s House chair, would tackle the scheduling issue from a different angle. She proposed to establish a process that allows workers to request a flexible work schedule in six-month increments.
The Maine Center for Economic Policy released a survey in 2019 that found that almost half of all hourly workers in Maine, 154,000 people, have a schedule that varies from week to week. Around half of those workers get less than a week’s notice of schedule changes and almost one-in-five, around 30,000 people, get less than a day’s notice.
“Say you work at a national retail chain,” Arthur Phillips, a MECEP policy analyst, posed a hypothetical to lawmakers. “Last week, you worked the closing shift on a Sunday, an opening shift on a Monday, a half shift from 11 to 3 on Wednesday and a double shift on Friday. And the week before you were only given two shifts, one Saturday and one Wednesday, neither of them a full eight hours. Today, you’re waiting to see what your schedule is going to be over the next week. But your boss has told you you need to be available even on the days you’re not scheduled just in case you’re needed.”
He continued, “In this situation, you can understand that it would be extremely difficult to juggle responsibilities outside of work, let alone seek another job or enroll in school to improve your prospects. And it puts tremendous stress on parents and is linked to behavioral problems and worse performance in school for children and toddlers whose mothers work irregular hours.”
Similar Fair Workweek legislation has been considered by the Maine Legislature before, first in 2015 and again in 2019, but labor advocates are hoping for a successful outcome this session.
Business owners and corporate lobbyists including HospitalityMaine (formerly the Maine Restaurant Association), the Retail Association of Maine and the Maine State Chamber of Commerce all spoke in opposition to the proposal.
Fox Keim, vice-president of the Kittery Trading Post, said that the Southern Maine-based outdoor outlet does not use just-in-time scheduling software, but he conceded that many retailers do.
“That is something a lot of big boxes do,” he told lawmakers. “My background before here: I ran multiple stores for Cabela’s and Home Depot and, yes, there were electronic schedules.”
Keim also boasted that Kittery Trading Post provides its employees with two-weeks’ notice for work schedules, but he suggested that mandating such a standard would devastate business profits in Maine.
“I am scared for Maine businesses and the impact this bill could have on them,” he said.
Tipping and Phillips said just-in-time scheduling is a growing problem in Maine and across the country. Many shift workers are underemployed and desperate to work as many hours as possible and these service industries are taking advantage of their desperation by monopolizing their time and leaving room for little else.
“This bill would improve Mainers’ economic well being as irregular schedules often mean irregular incomes,” Phillips said. “This would help with food insecurity, trouble making rent, missing utility payments and skipping medical care because workers can’t afford it.”
Dan Neumann studied journalism at Colorado State University before beginning his career as a community newspaper reporter in Denver. He reported on the Global North’s interventions in Africa, including documentaries on climate change, international asylum policy and U.S. militarization on the continent before returning to his home state of Illinois to teach community journalism on Chicago’s West Side. He now lives in Portland. Dan can be reached at email@example.com.