Workers marched in Seattle and other nearby cities this fall to demand more advance notice of their work schedules.
Workers marched in Seattle and other nearby cities this fall to demand more advance notice of their work schedules. Working Washington

Yesterday, restaurant industry lawyer Bob Donovan sat across the table from Seattle City Council members and, in one brief sentence, exposed the gulf between business interests and low-wage workers: "It does not seem like it's an emergency situation."

"It" is the movement to address unpredictable scheduling for hourly workers, who say they struggle to find childcare, pursue higher education, or work a second jobs because they get so little advance notice of when they're expected to work. Pushed by fast food workers and Starbucks baristas, Seattle City Council members are considering legislation to require large companies to give workers more advance notice of their schedules. Business owners are, predictably, freaked out. Donovan and others were in council chambers yesterday asking the council to delay action on this type of legislation because it is, to them, not urgent.

Recently, I heard from a 20-year-old Starbucks employee who told me (on the condition on anonymity) that he used to have two part-time jobs, but the unpredictability of both schedules made it impossible to keep both. He said he once got a text at 5 a.m. from a Starbucks coworker informing him he was expected to come in at 6:30 a.m. The schedule had been changed at the last minute and neither of them knew it. These days, the barista, who has a 1-year-old daughter, is getting only about 20 to 24 hours a week at Starbucks. He described the difficulty of juggling competing needs: Staying home to take care of his baby vs. picking up extra shifts for much-needed extra income. For some workers, this issue is indeed an emergency.

Donovan, joined by restaurant owners, told council members restaurants need flexibility to schedule workers with short notice and that many workers value the "flexibility" of the restaurant industry. (Sounds familiar.)

Tom Douglas Restaurants CEO Pamela Hinckley said she would "admit to frustration that city government considers it their job" to regulate scheduling. She expressed doubts that unpredictable scheduling and practices like "clopenings" were really a problem in Seattle and called for a citywide audit of scheduling practices "to see if we really do have a problem here." (Donovan and David Jones, owner of several Blazing Onion and Subway restaurants, echoed those concerns.)

This national study found that unpredictability in scheduling is "the norm among low qualification, closely supervised jobs," but business advocates claim that because that study was nationwide, it's "not applicable to Seattle." When pressed by council members to answer why Seattle would be an exception to the national rule, no one at the table had much to say. "Making assumptions about what's going on in Seattle," Donovan scolded council members, is "very reckless."

Sejal Parikh, executive director of the labor-backed advocacy group Working Washington, said her organization plans to release a survey next week of about 300 local food service workers who've experienced the stresses of not having a predictable schedule.

Council Member Mike O'Brien told business owners he understood that sometimes staffing needs change quickly, but "the question for me is does that variability then fall on the single mom who's got to come up with childcare on short notice or is it up to the business to figure out how to manage that?"

"My concern," O'Brien continued, "is that uncertainty and the cost of that uncertainty will get shifted on to a low-wage worker. There's got to be ways to do that [so] the burden isn't borne by somebody who's really in a poor position to bear that."

Donovan told O'Brien he was making "an assumption that has no basis in fact" and again insisted that a majority of food service workers don't actually have harmful unpredictable schedules.

"That may be true," O'Brien shot back, "but if we pass legislation that fixes it for a handful and everyone else is abiding by the law already, then we know we made it a little better for some people. I don't need a million people."