The Unsocial and Erratic: The Growing Instability of the Working Class


By Elaine McCrate

In August 2014, the New York Times described the erratic work schedule of Jannette Navarro, a single mother who worked for $9 per hour on a part-time job at Starbucks. Her wage would have been at poverty level even on a fulltime schedule. But because her total hours varied from week to week, she could never count on a stable income stream, rarely bringing home more than $1000 per month. In addition, because her work schedule changed frequently, seldom with more than three days’ notice before the start of the work week, she could not commit to finishing her degree, she had chronic childcare crises, and she had recurring conflicts with members of her extended family who were often called upon at the last minute to provide childcare. She would sometimes arrive at work as scheduled, only to be told that business was slower than expected and she should return home. She was afraid to ask for a more stable schedule because she feared being assigned fewer hours of work.

Ms. Navarro is not alone in this regard. Using a national sample of American workers aged 26-32 in 2011, researchers at the University of Chicago estimated that 38% of them got notice of their schedules one week or less in advance (Lambert, Fugiel and Henly, 2014). Examining a broader group – all civilian employees aged 18-65 – and defining unstable scheduling as varying starting and stopping times that workers have little control over, I conservatively estimated that 11.5% of American workers had unstable schedules in 2004, up from 6.6% in 1997. (McCrate, 2012) (More recent data for the entire country and a broad age group are not yet available.) This is not work-life flexibility for workers: among young Americans who are paid by the hour and whose hours vary from week to week, about 50% reported that their employer determined their schedules unilaterally. Another 45% enjoyed some discretion, or consultation with their employer, in setting hours (Lambert, Fugiel and Henly, 2014).

Employers in Europe and North America increasingly demand flexibility from their workers, even while they are providing flexibility for more of their white collar workers. While many activists have rightly decried the “standard” work day as rigid – which it usually is for nonprofessional workers, denying them the ability to respond to sick children and no-show babysitters – its regular, predictable rhythms are beginning to look like a good deal compared to schedules that involve constantly changing days and times of work, and short notice. Workers on these schedules can neither respond effectively to unforeseen contingencies in their own lives and their families’ lives, nor can they plan regular activities with others outside of work hours. Unstable schedules are especially problematic for workers who are paid by the hour, and whose total hours and therefore total income may fluctuate unpredictably from week to week.

For economists, work-family advocates, and labor activists, this entails thinking about labor supply and demand in new ways: not just about total hours (in Marxian terms, not just about absolute surplus value) but also about the coordination of time with others, and thus the specific placement of labor time in the schedule, and one’s tolerance of changes in schedule as required by the company. Employers increasingly prize availability: the willingness to work around the clock and at different times, as demand rises and falls, or as supply logistics require. In industries where the output cannot be easily inventoried (think retail trade, or personal services), or where firms have strategically sought to reduce physical inventory that would otherwise serve as a buffer against unexpected surges in demand, availability is the holy grail.

Social activists in Europe call it something else: unsocial hours. Unsocial hours blur or even shatter the normative line between work time and personal time. Social life requires that people reserve regular times for the things they do with other people – family activities, religious observance, schooling, and the local softball league or Saturday night poker club. The softball team can’t have the pitcher showing up for practice on Monday and the catcher on Tuesday. Parents need to know when they can be with their children, or when they will require childcare.

Who Works an Unstable Schedule?

Unstable work schedules are common among young people who often do not yet have children or parents old enough to require special attention, and who constitute a large pool of relatively unencumbered workers. In France, retail hiring agents often prefer young women with few qualifications, no families, and reliable transportation and phones. (Baret, 2000) However, young workers often have difficulty combining unstable schedules and education. (McCrate, 2012; Henly and Lambert, 2014) We do not yet know if these young people will be able to work their way up to stability over the course of their careers, or if advancement will require even greater availability and instability.

Unstable work schedules are also more common among African Americans and immigrants, who often provide a large supply of workers who are just desperate enough to trade off their family time and social life for income. For workers paid by the hour, desperation is often not too strong a word. My co-authors and I examined a national sample of prime-age Canadian hourly workers in 2003. We found that those who worked a fluctuating number of “base” hours (that is, excluding overtime) were much more likely than workers on stable schedules to get fewer hours than they wanted from their employers. (McCrate, Lambert and Henly, 2015) As Ms. Navarro experienced, the hunger for hours drives greater availability. As economists have known for a long time, black workers, especially black men, are more likely to report themselves as underemployed than white workers, and they are far more likely to experience unstable schedules (McCrate, 2012).

Overtime is also strongly implicated in unstable hours. In the same  sample of prime-age Canadian workers who are paid by the hour, nearly three out of five of those who usually worked overtime learned about their overtime schedules less than one day in advance (McCrate, 2015). Men are more likely than women are to work unstable schedules in many countries, partly because of the unholy nexus of long hours and unpredictable hours (McCrate, 2012 and 2015). Dan Clawson and Naomi Gerstel (2014) found that both professional and working-class men often actually embraced variable hours, certainly when they provided more overtime with overtime premia. This was also the case for the emergency medical technicians in their study, even when the jobs were salaried, as was the case for the male physicians in the same study.

In contrast, probably many primary family caregivers set limits on availability. In the 2004 data, white married mothers were the demographic group least likely to work variable starting and stopping times not under their control. Perhaps also many employers assume mothers will be insufficiently available, and categorically refuse to consider mothers in jobs with unstable schedules. While it would be quite difficult to tell whether women’s relatively stable schedules result from their own decisions or employers’ decisions, it nonetheless remains true that unstable schedules reinforce a traditional gender division of labor, where in its most extreme form men would be completely available for their employers, and women would be completely available for their families. In the United States, unstable schedules reinforce a traditional gender division of labor between paid and unpaid work. (McCrate, 2012)

What should be done?

Economists always want to get the price right. But we can’t assume that markets will compensate people for bad schedules by higher wages. Among Canadians who are paid by the hour and whose hours change from week to week, my co-authors and I found no evidence of higher wages for erratic schedules (McCrate, Lambert and Henly, 2015). Provincial Canadian labor laws require “show-up” pay, which is a specific amount that must be paid to workers when they come to work as required and are then then sent home. Some union contracts also require show-up pay in the United States. But implementing this through law, rather than unions, for all forms of unstable schedules – different starting and stopping times, different total hours per week, last minute notice – would be difficult to enforce.

Right to refuse unstable schedules, and right to request more stable work, may not be the answer, either, since employers may reduce hours when workers reduce availability.

History illustrates the effectiveness of reserving some time for coordinated social life outside of work. Religion has traditionally been a bulwark against unlimited availability and unsocial hours, always setting Sunday or the Sabbath, and numerous holy days, off limits for work. Religion has done all workers a favor in the process, whether they observe a particular religion or not. Social justice activists in American congregations may have an important role to play here, especially since weekend work schedules are often highly variable.

Unions have also defended the weekend for everyone, not just their own members. Unions are critical, because they can negotiate contracts that are tailored to the competing needs of specific workers and employers. For example, by examining a sample of collective bargaining agreements, Crocker and Clawson (2012) found that represented nurses (mostly women) were primarily concerned about limiting overtime and fairly distributing vacation times. In contrast, represented firefighters (mostly men) were more concerned about equal access to overtime opportunities. The nurses and the firefighters negotiated very different contractual provisions for the allocation of overtime. In addition, employers who really do need highly variable schedules can prioritize this in negotiations – and give up something else (maybe higher wages) for broad access to their workers’ time. American workers typically are not covered by collective bargaining agreements, but unions and workers’ centers are beginning to tackle employers’ demands for greater availability. (See, for example, Luce and Fujita, 2012.) Consequently, unions, workers’ centers, work-family advocates (including groups that are concerned about senior care), and religious activists might be able to create effective coalitions for schedule stability.

A longer version of this article will appear in Perspectives on Work (published by the Labor and Employment Relations Association) in fall 2016.


Clawson, D., & Gerstel, N. (2014). Unequal time: Gender, class, and family in employment schedules. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Crocker, J., & Clawson, D. (2012). Buying time: Gendered patterns in union contracts. Social Problems, 59, 459–80.

Henly, J.R., & Lambert, S.J. (2014). Unpredictable work timing in retail jobs: Implications for employee work–life conflict. Industrial and Labor Relations Review, 67(3), 986–1016.

Kantor, Jodi. 2014. Working anything but 9 to 5. New York Times, August 13, 2014. Accessed May 9, 2016.

Lambert, S.J., Fugiel, P.J., & Henly, J.R. (2014). Precarious work schedules among early-career employees in the US: A national snapshot. Chicago: Employment Instability, Family Well-being, and Social Policy Network, University of Chicago. Accessed May 9, 2016.

Luce, Stephanie and Naoki Fujita (2012). Discounted Jobs: How Retailers Sell Workers Short. New York: Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies.

McCrate, E. (2012). Flexibility for whom? Control over work schedule variability in the US. Feminist Economics, 18 (1), 1–34.

McCrate, E. (2015). Gender and control of work schedule variability in North America and Western Europe. Working paper, University of Vermont.

McCrate, E., Lambert, S.J., & Henly, J.R. (2015). Schedule instability, hours of work, and underemployment among hourly workers in Canada. Working paper, University of Vermont.