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How 'flexible' schedules have become a trap for working parents

Flexibility was supposed to be a good thing
Flexibility was supposed to be a good thing
Elvert Barnes

Melody Pabon used to start most weeks not knowing when she would be expected at her job. Sometimes, the 26-year-old would receive her work schedule a week in advance. But it was more common for her employer — the retail chain Zara — to give her a mere one or two days notice. The only thing predictable about Pabon's work schedule was that it created a stressful, last-minute scramble to secure childcare arrangements for her four-year-old son Mason.

Like many employers, Zara's schedules are "flexible" (read: erratic). That unpredictability has serious consequences. According to a recent study, many workers in similar retail jobs with "just-in-time" scheduling can be called in for a shift just two hours ahead of time, and most are not guaranteed a minimum number of hours each week. That means paychecks fluctuate as much as shifts.

The new normal that has come to characterize most service and retail jobs — among the fastest growing industries in today's economy — disproportionately impacts women and millennials. Women shoulder much of the burden of low-wage work. They make up two-thirds of the country's 20 million low-wage workers and  young women's representation in the low-wage workforce is 1.4 times greater than young men's. Mothers comprise 21 percent of the low-wage workforce (compared to 6 percent for fathers) and nearly one in five working mothers with children under three is employed in low-wage jobs. A third of them live in poverty. With the majority of minimum-wage workers between the ages of 16-24, millennials also face unique challenges. What's more — they may continue to face them if the current policy environment doesn't change: The number of minimum-wage workers over age 30 is on the rise, which could mean that the older end of this generation won't simply age out of low-wage work.

Headlines are boasting of economic recovery and falling unemployment rates. But behind those optimistic numbers and forecasts is a workplace ecosystem that's been fundamentally altered by the Great Recession's shift of bargaining power away from employees. Employers are creating jobs, but against a backdrop of mass joblessness they've done so on their own terms and family life bares the burden.

Look no further than millennial attitudes on marriage. In 1960, 59 percent of Americans between the ages of 18-29 said "I do." Today?  It's just 20 percent.

Not only are fewer people getting married today, those who are getting married are doing so later than any other generation in history. That, in and of itself, is not reason for alarm. But it's telling that marriage is declining even though 70 percent of the millennial generation says they would like to get married. They simply don't believe their economic situation isn't strong enough to do so. Indeed, many young people, particularly women, see financial security as a pre-requisite for tying the knot. Seventy-eight percent of women — compared to only 46 percent of men — say it is very important for their future partner to have a steady job.

The changing trend in marriage is just one indicator of how financial insecurity is shaping the personal and family goals of U.S. workers. The recession has also slashed homeownership and birth rates, and depleted savings.

This generation is in a tough spot — in the middle of crosswinds that may be strengthening a still-hurting economy at the expense of their personal life goals. How might we guarantee U.S. workers more predictability and security? Instituting paid sick and family leave and raising the minimum wage is critical.  Local governments could implement (or, in some cases, strengthen) "reporting pay" legislation, which require employers to pay employees for a set number of hours when they're scheduled for a shift — even if they're sent home early. Why not require companies to post schedules with at least two weeks notice?

For Pabon, who left her job at Zara and is now on unemployment as well as a member of the Retail Action Project, the most important thing a company can do is to offer employees more control over their schedules, and to honor that their workers have other responsibilities.

"[Managers] think we don't want to work because we want to party, or we just don't want to work late," she says. "But some of us, we just can't work late. It got to a point when I had to close [ the store] two days in a row, and I hadn't seen my son in two days. He called me up crying to say that he missed me, and I started to notice a change in him."

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