The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Split shifts, unpredictable hours. A retail worker’s life.

Unless she lives in a ‘fair workweek’ state, there’s not much a retail worker can do about her schedule.

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Reader 1: A friend of my college-age daughter is living with us. This kid works like a demon trying to save money for college. Just now she was in tears because her retail employer has once again scheduled her to work nine consecutive days. Some days are split shifts: She has to be there from 7:30 to 10 a.m. and then come back from 3 p.m. until 10:30 p.m. It doesn’t help that she’s recovering from oral surgery. What rights does she have?

Karla: Under current U.S. law, not many. Unpredictable, erratic work schedules are a common complaint against retail and food-service employers who struggle to arrange employee shifts to match client demand without incurring overtime or pushing part-time workers into full-time status. The system fosters uncertainty and anxiety in an already marginalized sector of the workforce, many of whom are juggling multiple jobs, school and family responsibilities.

Your young tenant may have some recourse if she lives in one of the growing number of states or cities that have instituted “fair workweek” laws requiring employers to provide ample notice of schedules and adequate rest time between shifts. (Some members of Congress — including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) — have announced plans to reintroduce a bill, the Schedules That Work Act, to implement fair-workweek laws at the federal level.) Likewise, an increasing number of localities require employers to offer paid sick-leave days to workers so they can recover from illness or medical procedures without jeopardizing their income or jobs.

If she is lucky enough to live in an area that offers any of these protections, she can file a complaint with the state or local labor board. Edgar Ndjatou, executive director of employee advocacy group Workplace Fairness, advises that she and all workers keep their own personal records of hours worked, in case their employers’ recordkeeping is as erratic as their scheduling.

Reader 2: I am 80 years old and come from Venezuela. My concern for human rights, highly sensitized by events in my country, makes me wonder why in the United States, cashiers in stores, supermarkets, etc. need to be standing up. It seems to me that offering these workers a chair would improve their work conditions and prevent leg, feet and back problems.

Karla: It seems to me that you are right. Even as office workers are embracing the concept of standing desks to improve health and posture, their retail counterparts who spend all day on their feet can tell you that too much standing is as detrimental to health as too little.

Pro tip: If you’re planning on dining out for Thanksgiving and perhaps taking advantage of Black Friday and Cyber Monday bargains, spare a thought and some patience for the cashiers, servers, call-center staff and warehouse workers putting in overtime to fulfill your desires.

Speaking of overtime, it was around this time three years ago when a federal court abruptly blocked a Labor Department rule, under President Barack Obama’s administration, that would have nearly doubled to $47,476 the income threshold at which certain workers become exempt from overtime.

The rule was finally struck down the following summer because it based overtime exemption on salary level without regard for job duties. But even opponents agreed the rule was long overdue for an update.

The Labor Department, under President Trump, proposed a new overtime rule this spring and finalized it in the fall, raising the salary threshold from $455 per week ($23,660 per year) to $684 per week ($35,568 per year) and indicating that the threshold would be adjusted more regularly in the future.

Note: Work Advice will be dark next week in celebration of pumpkin pie.

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