Lorraine Battle checks prices on merchandise at a new Wal-Mart store at First and H streets NW in 2013. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

One-third of service-sector employees who responded to a D.C. Jobs With Justice survey released this week said they receive their work schedules less than a week in advance. Last-minute scheduling, these workers say, makes it grueling to coordinate child care, shuffle two jobs and pay their bills.

Now activists are laying the groundwork to introduce legislation to the D.C. Council that would fight against this practice, dubbed “just-in-time” scheduling, by setting strict guidelines telling companies how much advance notice they must give their employees when scheduling their shifts.

This type of workers’ rights legislation has already been passed in San Francisco and is being considered in places like Indiana, Maryland and Massachusetts.

The latest effort could test the mettle of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s slogan of wanting to “create pathways to the middle class” for the District’s working class. Curbing just-in-time scheduling has emerged as a top priority of labor groups across the country, but strict mandates on employers have been opposed by the same businesses that Bowser has said she wants to empower to expand and create more jobs in the city.

[The next labor fight is over when you work, not how much you make]

At the same time, local activists are campaigning for a ballot initiative to raise the city’s hourly minimum wage to $15. The controversial initiative has already garnered opposition from business groups and would put D.C.’s minimum wage among the highest in the country.

D.C. Jobs with Justice, a workers’ rights activist organization, says it hopes to work with the D.C. Council to craft legislation in the coming months and already has support from at-large council members Elissa Silverman and Vincent Orange, who chairs the council’s Committee on Business, Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.

“We didn’t put in all these efforts to get the minimum wage and paid sick leaves bills passed in order for it to be compromised by scheduling issues and employees not getting the appropriate hours to work,” Orange said.

D.C. Jobs with Justice — along with the DC Fiscal Policy Institute and Georgetown University’s Kalmonovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor — released a survey of about 500 workers this week, showing the impact of erratic scheduling. Workers from big companies with a presence in the District, such as Forever 21 and Marshalls, said inconsistent scheduling is persistent; 40 percent of workers surveyed said their initial schedules changed at least once per month, and when schedules do change, there’s a 50 percent chance they’ll get less than a two-day notice of the modification.

Stephanie Dunn, a cashier at Marshalls in downtown, said she receives her schedule the Friday before each week and, even then, the schedule is subject to frequent changes.

A spokeswoman for Marshalls wrote in an e-mail that “generally speaking, our practice is to provide Marshalls store Associates with their schedule approximately ten days in advance.”

“At Marshalls, we approach our business by taking into consideration what is best for our Associates and for the Company overall and our store management teams work to develop schedules that serve the interests of both,” Marshalls spokeswoman Doreen Thompson wrote in the e-mail.

Companies are already responding to increased scrutiny across the country about “just-in-time” scheduling. Starbucks announced last August that it would require all work hours to be posted at least one week in advance and amend its scheduling software, allowing employees to provide more input in the process.

Dunn also said in the survey that she wants to work a full 40 hours at Marshalls in the District but was recently cut back to 15 hours, despite, according to Dunn, Marshalls recently hiring another cashier at her store. The survey and accompanying report said these retail and service stores typically have a large number of employees on staff so they can keep them on-call, expecting them to work nonstandard and last-minute shifts.

The average service employee in the District, according to the survey, works 32 hours a week. More than 23 percent of respondents said they feared retaliation if they complained about their schedule; 18 percent said they had been penalized for requesting a different schedule.

“It’s frustrating and stressful to not get hours,” Dunn said. “The money from 20 hours a week only gets me back and forth to work but nothing more for my family.”

Ari Schwartz, a campaign organizer at D.C. Jobs with Justice, says the D.C. legislation could also include a clause requiring businesses to assign additional work hours to existing employees, rather than adding more part-time employees to their workforce.

“In order for these companies to operate in the District, they should be providing jobs that aren’t just bottom of the barrel jobs,” Schwartz said. “They should be providing middle-class jobs.”

While workers and activists would like to see standardized scheduling practices, business leaders say such laws could drive away jobs.

“I’m concerned about anything that would make it harder to do business in the city. Businesses share with employees the desire for stable and predictable work schedules, but that must be balanced against the need for flexibility to meet customer and operational demands,” said Harry Wingo, the president and chief executive of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce.

Aaron C. Davis contributed to this report.