Shifting Hours: Unstable Work Scheduling Practices


Lina Stepick, Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco

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December 22, 2022

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Stable work schedules are a key component of job quality and of supporting a thriving labor force. Stable scheduling practices are associated with improved job attachment, lower turnover, and higher revenues.i On the other hand, employer-initiated unstable scheduling practices have been shown to destabilize workers’ finances, sleep, caregiving, education, other employment, and community and leisure activities, and are associated with negative health outcomes, reduced worker satisfaction, and increased turnover.ii Though unstable scheduling practices are widespread, with about 41% of all workers experiencing such practices, hourly and part-time workers and workers in low-wage occupations are especially affected. Further, due to occupational segregation,iii workers of color are disproportionately impacted by unstable scheduling and its negative outcomes. These inequities in scheduling instability were only compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic.iv As jobs have been added back into low-wage industries hit hard by the pandemic, workers’ hours in many of those jobs have remained low and unstable.v

Unstable scheduling practices exacerbate the increasingly steep tradeoffs that low-income households face in navigating the costs of low-wage work, including the costs of transportation, housing within a reasonable distance of work, and caregiving. This instability in work hours and income makes it particularly difficult to qualify for employer and state benefits, access reliable care, pursue education or training, and consistently cover rising basic costs of living. As these factors play a role in household employment decisions, understanding unstable scheduling is an important consideration for the Federal Reserve’s dual mandate.

This brief outlines the employer practices that comprise unstable scheduling, how underwork and overwork—and fluctuations between the two—can be understood as intertwined with unstable scheduling, and how we can measure the prevalence of unstable scheduling practices across industries. What follows is a discussion of the inequitable distribution and impacts of unstable scheduling, the negative effects of unstable scheduling practices for all workers, and the benefits of stable scheduling for both workers and employers. The final section discusses how potential solutions could address both quality and quantity of work hours, as well as the related challenges of accessing benefits and affordable care.

The views expressed in this report are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco or the Federal Reserve System.


Thank you to Reyna Orellana, Elizabeth Kneebone, Crystal Theresa Ejanda, and Kelly Kramer for editorial guidance.

End Notes

i. Lambert, Susan J., and Julia R. Henly. 2012. “Frontline Managers Matter: Labour Flexibility Practices and Sustained Employment in Hourly Retail Jobs in the U.S.” In Warhurst, Chris, et al., eds. Are Bad Jobs Inevitable? Trends, Determinants and Responses to Job Quality in the Twenty-First Century, pp. 143–59. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

ii. Schneider, Daniel. 2021. “Unstable, Unpredictable, and Insufficient: Work Scheduling in the Service Sector in New England.” Federal Reserve Bank of Boston Community Development Issue Brief 21-4; Choper, Joshua, Daniel Schneider, and Kristen Harknett. 2022. “Uncertain Time: Precarious Schedules and Job Turnover in the US Service Sector.” ILR Review 75(5): 1099‒132; Loustaunau, Lola, et al. 2021. “No Choice but to Be Essential: Expanding Dimensions of Precarity During COVID-19.” Sociological Perspectives 64(5): 857–75; Schneider, Daniel, and Kristen Harknett. 2019. “Consequences of Routine Work-Schedule Instability for Worker Health and Well-Being.” American Sociological Review 84(1): 82‒114; Dugan, Alicia G., et al. 2022. “Precarious Work Schedules and Sleep: A Study of Unionized Full-Time Workers.” Occupational Health Science 6(2): 247–77.

iii. Here, occupational segregation refers to the uneven distribution of racialized or otherwise marginalized workers in specific, often low-wage, occupations.

iv. Gould, Elise, and Melat Kassa. 2021. “Low-Wage, Low-Hours Workers Were Hit Hardest in the COVID-19 Recession.”Economic Policy Institute; Loustaunau et al., “No Choice but to Be Essential.”

v. Zundl, Elaine, et al. 2021. “Still Unstable: The Persistence of Schedule Uncertainty During the Pandemic.” The Shift Project,Harvard Kennedy School; Herrera, Lucero, et al. 2021. “Reopening During COVID-19: The Experience of Nail Salon Workers and Owners in California.” UCLA Labor Center.

Article Citation

Stepick, Lina. 2022. “Shifting Hours: Unstable Work Scheduling Practices.” Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco Community Development Research Brief 2022-07. doi: 10.24148/cdrb2022-07.