When American women have no control over their own work schedules, they have no control over their own lives.
Mary Coleman of Wisconsin knows this first-hand. She was working the night shift at a Milwaukee Popeye's restaurant, a time slot notoriously unpopular for its exhausting hours. When she asked her manager for a transfer to the day shift, she was denied, lied to, and then penalized for even asking.
Coleman's manager told her that there were no more shifts available during daylight hours that she could have. But just weeks later, five new employees were hired to Popeye's, all of whom were given day shifts. Simultaneously, Coleman's hours were dramatically cut. She now only works two days a week. That is not nearly enough to live on.
Coleman expressed her struggles at a Tuesday briefing in the Cannon House Office Building jointly hosted by the Center for Popular Democracy and the National Women's Law Center.
Coleman's experience is like that of roughly 2.5 million other American women working in low-wage jobs who are at the mercy of their employers for consistent work, and so, for consistent pay. As corporations have become more powerful (without unions to keep them in check), workers have become more vulnerable to these kinds of scheduling practices – none so more than women, who are overrepresented in low-wage work.
New data released by the Employment Instability, Family Well-being, and Social Policy Network (EINet) at the University of Chicago found that 46 percent of women say their employer determines their work schedule without any of their input.
Moreover, an overwhelming 70 percent of women reported work-hour fluctuations each month, or a change in the number of hours worked from week to week. The reported range was as much as eight hours, or one full day's pay. Without consistent work, women are left with the impossible choice of carving time out for themselves and their families, or getting paid.
Further, they have no recourse when faced with unpredictable work schedules. They know they will be punished with cut hours or termination for speaking up and speaking out. So, many of them do not.
Fortunately for her fellow employees at Popeye's, Coleman will not be silenced by employer threats. She has chosen to channel her anger into action. As a member of Wisconsin Jobs Now, she is determined to fight until there is effective federal action against subjective employer scheduling and retaliation practices. "A lot of my fight is for my co-workers," Coleman said. "They are afraid to speak out because of retaliation. A lot of my co-workers have been fired for speaking out."
Coleman's story is not unique to Popeye's restaurants or the fast-food industry. Tiffany Beroid had been working at a Maryland Walmart, the nation's largest private employer, as a customer service representative for three years when her husband finished college, giving her the opportunity to go to college herself.
She approached her manager about tailoring her work hours so that she could attend classes at night. At first, Beroid said, Walmart management seemed accommodating. They told her that they would work with her to create a suitable schedule. But they never did. Instead, they severely cut her hours. She became a part-time employee, even though she expressed a desire to remain at Walmart full-time, just at a different time than her previous shift.
"It was so bad that I couldn't pay for school anymore and I needed to drop out halfway through a semester," Beroid said. "I lost all the credits and the money I spent on that semester."
In the midst of this injustice, Beroid took a brave stand. "I stood up and said we shouldn't face problems like this working at a company that brings in $16 billion in profits a year, when all we want is more hours and decent pay so we can support our families. And then Walmart fired me for speaking out."
When women have no control over when they work, they also have no control over when they can go to school, when they can care for their children, or when they can care for themselves. They cannot move on from what Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) calls "temporary," minimum-wage work so long as they are at the mercy of their employer.
Millions of women employees are suffering similar workplace abuses. And they are either silently suffering the financial consequences, or being punished for not doing so.
The good news is some notable members of Congress have taken notice of the workplace struggles of the many American women like Coleman and Beroid. The "Schedules that Work Act," championed by Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and George Miller (D-Calif.), seeks to curb some of the shameful practices that allow employers to cheat employees.
The newly proposed legislation grants employees the right to participate in their own work schedules in an effort to give those who are also juggling families, school, medical conditions, and even second jobs, some flexibility. It also prohibits employers from denying their employees requested schedule changes for arbitrary or abstract reasons. Most importantly, it prohibits employers from retaliating against any employee who stands up for herself and asks for more control over her work life.
While this landmark legislation was inspired by the plight of low-wage women workers specifically, it would undeniably help us all. Liz Watson, Director of Workplace Justice for Women at the National Women's Law Center, deems this legislation "a bill for the 99 percent." She is so right. When women win, we all win.