Abstract: Creating Resilient Employment Standards: The Role of Fair Workweek Laws in Protecting Job Quality during the COVID-19 Pandemic (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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Creating Resilient Employment Standards: The Role of Fair Workweek Laws in Protecting Job Quality during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Thursday, January 12, 2023
Encanto B, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Susan Lambert, PhD, Professor, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Anna Haley, PhD, Associate Professor, Rutgers University
Hyojin Cho, MSW, Doctoral Student, University of Chicago
Resha Swanson, MSSW, Doctoral Student, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Background. Fair workweek (FWW) laws are intended to establish universal standards for scheduling low-paid employees in targeted industries, primarily in the retail and food service sectors and in large corporations. Yet the well-documented role that cost-focused business models play in these industries raises concerns that these laws may fall short of delivering the standards they define – even without a pandemic.

Although the need for the work hour standards included in FWW laws may be greater now than before the pandemic, barriers to employer implementation are stronger as well. The pandemic has disrupted the key conditions within which hourly workers are scheduled and FWW laws are implemented. The information frontline managers relied on to make their weekly schedule – from sophisticated labor forecasts to their own experience – is no longer trusted. Government mandates change quickly, businesses have added new services, and the health risks of working on-site mean that assigning hours and hiring workers is fraught. Given that consumer demand is more variable and unpredictable than prior to the pandemic, and with many businesses facing an uncertain future, workers are likely to be at unprecedented risk of unpredictable and unstable work hours and earnings – unless fair workweek laws protect them.

This paper examines frontline business managers’ implementation of FWW laws in Seattle and Chicago during the heart of the pandemic (Seattle 2020-2021; Chicago 2021-2022). We assess the alignment between managers’ scheduling practices and distinct FWW provisions (e.g., advance notice, predictability pay) and the organizational, policy, and personal factors that eased or hindered implementation.

Methods. Employing a comparative organizational method, we sampled worksites in industries covered by FWW laws in both cities, targeting the same or similar businesses in retail and food service (N=64: 29 Seattle; 35 Chicago). Data come from surveys and in-depth interviews with managers directly responsible for scheduling workers. Interviews were coded to capture firm accountability requirements, the alignment of managers’ practices with FWW provisions, and managers’ strategies for navigating legal requirements, firm performance metrics, and the needs of staff.

Results. There was wide variation in the implementation of the provisions of FWW laws in both cities. In Seattle, we trace how shifting demand and public health directives early in the pandemic led to changes in most every business practice, including how workers were scheduled. In both cities, few managers received supports from the larger corporation to smooth implementation of FWW laws – compliance receded as other business needs prevailed. Still, particularly in Seattle where the law had been in place since 2017, some managers treated the provisions as standard-operating-procedure. For others, compliance was viewed as an unreasonable requirement, a law they “would get back to.” As before the pandemic, the accountability requirements of the larger company directed compliance onto different paths, creating a trade-off between increasing predictability or earnings.

Implications: Social workers have an important role to play in efforts to enact and enforce employment regulation. We discuss strategies to create resilient employment laws that protect job quality, especially during times of economic uncertainty.