Local Activists Push for Fair Workweek for Employees

By SOPHIE KASAKOVE/ecoRI News contributor

The Fair Workweek Coalition is working to change unfair scheduling practices in Rhode Island. (Fair Workweek Coalition/Facebook page)

The Fair Workweek Coalition is working to change unfair scheduling practices in Rhode Island. (Fair Workweek Coalition/Facebook page)

PROVIDENCE — On a hot day in Kennedy Plaza, 21-year-old Abigail Riviera waited for the bus with her toddler. When Riviera arrived at the East Providence IHOP that morning, she expected to work an eight-hour shift. But when the trickle of customers slowed to a halt after just four hours, Riviera’s employer told her to go home.

Riviera was hired for a full-time position, but often ends up working as few as 25 hours a week. As the sole provider for herself and her daughter, the $3.30 an hour plus tips she makes during these hours are hardly enough to make a living.

For Riviera and many other workers here and across the country, last-minute shift changes represent not only a loss of wages but a loss of control over time. Riviera gets less than 24-hours notice of her shift schedule — the workweek starts Monday and she finds out her hours Sunday.

Riviera said these conditions severely limit her ability to arrange child care, schedule doctors’ appointments, get a second job or go to school. While her employer can change her schedule at a moment’s notice, she has to give her employer a week’s notice if she needs to skip or reschedule a shift.

Waiting for the bus at Kennedy Plaza, Riviera told her story to Chris Coughlin, a canvasser for the Fair Workweek Coalition. The coalition — comprised of several Rhode Island-based organizations including Jobs with Justice, Fuerza Laboral, Rhode Island Center for Justice, the Committee for Better Banks, and Rhode Island Coalition of Labor Union Women — spent months collecting the stories of 150 Rhode Island workers.

Survey results — collected randomly at bus stations, farmers markets and children’s soccer games — found that Riviera’s experience is common across the state. Coalition members hope to eventually speak to 500 Rhode Island workers.

The coalition’s findings so far are consistent with national surveys. Research conducted by the University of Chicago in 2014 found that 40 percent of early-career adults receive their schedule one week or less in advance, and 75 percent reported at least some fluctuations in the number of hours they worked in the prior month.

The study also found that people of color are more likely to be subjected to last-minute schedule changes — people of color are more likely to work in retail/service jobs, where last-minute scheduling is common. In addition, the study found that many seeking full-time employment are only offered part-time hours and are treated as “on-call.” These conditions severely limit workers’ ability to schedule their lives or plan for the future. Giving workers fewer hours also allows companies to avoid paying for employees’ health care.

“Historically, owning access to one’s time was a central part of the dignity of work,” said Mike Aruajo, executive director of Rhode Island Jobs with Justice, who is leading the canvassing project. “Over the past 35 years we’ve seen a real erosion of that view of labor, in exchange for an aggressive employer-centered view of the labor market, where it’s just about the employers getting the most amount of work.”

Recent technological advances have played a role in this transformation, as many companies now use computer software to schedule their workers in the most efficient way possible. The end result of this dynamic, is, according to Aruajo, a very productive workforce working for increasingly low wages.

In February, the Fair Workweek Coalition attempted to challenge these types of scheduling practices with a 14-page bill, introduced in the House of Representatives by Anastasia Williams, Aaron Regunberg, Scott Slater and Shelby Maldonado. The bill would have required employers to provide employees with their work schedule two weeks in advance and to compensate workers for changing shifts. The bill also would have required employers to offer additional hours of work to existing employees before hiring more employees, and to treat employees equally regardless of hours worked.

The bill also stipulated employees’ right to rest, including the right to bathroom breaks and to decline working more than six consecutive days. Araujo noted that as the law currently stands employers are required to provide a bathroom for their workers but are not required to allow free access to it.

“You wouldn’t believe some of the stories we’ve heard from bank workers,” he said. “Some workers were working themselves into a state of illness in bank call centers. When they complained, their employers told them to wear diapers.”

As its sponsors anticipated, pushback to the bill was intense. They withdrew it before it even went to a vote. Business owners and lobbyists forcefully opposed the bill in numerous publications. Dale Venturi, president of the Rhode Island Hospitality Association, wrote in the Providence Journal that the bill would “not only change the way business is done in the state but would cripple it.”

Bill supporters say these criticisms are based on misconceptions. Ben Wolcott, organizer for the Committee for Better Banks — a member organization of the Fair Workweek Coalition — said the legislation would require companies to give workers an extra hour’s worth of pay for schedule changes made within two weeks and four hours of pay for changes made within 24 hours.

“This predictability pay system would give employers an incentive to help workers have healthy lives,” Wolcott said. “But it wouldn’t break the bank.”

However, the bill’s supporters also recognized the criticisms that the legislation would be detrimental to Rhode Island’s weather-dependent businesses, such as agricultural and maritime-based industries. They say that future iterations of the bill will stipulate exemptions for certain industries.

The coalition recognized during the bill’s drafting process that it was a long shot — nothing like it has been passed anywhere in the country. Only one similar piece of legislation was passed in San Francisco, but it applied only to companies with more than 40 locations worldwide and at least 20 employees in the city.

Despite this, the Fair Workweek Coalition was hopeful that presenting even a preliminary draft of the bill would raise awareness among legislators about the struggles facing workers in the state and lay the groundwork for future change.

“If our Legislature took a stand and started passing these types of bills, it would help people recognize what kind of benefits their work could and should provide and the effect that would have on their quality of life” said Abby Godino, an organizer with the Rhode Island chapter of the Coalition of Labor Union Women.

The Fair Workweek Coalition is eager to submit an edited and more limited version of the bill in upcoming legislative sessions. However, the coalition believes that the legislative push, while important, is only a small piece of the puzzle.

Araujo said more important than an legislative win is a “transformational win,” shifting the culture of labor so that workers feel empowered to advocate for their rights in the workplace.

“Right now workers tend to think, ‘I’m just busy’ rather than ask, ‘Why am I so busy?’” Araujo said.

Getting people to ask this question, he said, is the only way future legislative change can be effective. To prove his point, Araujo cited the Caretaker Leave Act. Passed in Rhode Island last year, the bill gave men full access to paid leave. But Aruajo noted that the impact of this change has been negligible. Few men have taken advantage of the bill because it’s not seen as culturally acceptable to do so, he said.

Shifting the culture of labor may seem like an insurmountable task, but the coalition is optimistic. “We've done this before and won,” Araujo said. “People think of eight hours as natural, but labor invented that. Greater shifts have happened with less effort.”

In fact, this current shift has already begun, albeit in limited ways. Last April, the Local 328 Union successfully pressured Stop & Shop into implementing a two-week advanced scheduling program by the end of this year. Beginning in June, employees’ schedules were available Thursday for the workweek beginning the following Sunday.

The coalition is hopeful that its canvassing efforts will help facilitate this cultural shift. The 50-question survey aims not only to collect information about working conditions in Rhode Island but to establish a relationship with interviewees that can be developed.

“The way that unions traditionally worked doesn’t work anymore because of how low skilled and temporary the jobs are,” said Godino of the Rhode Island Coalition of Labor Union Women. “You can’t go to factories and get everyone together anymore, so it’s important to find new ways to meet people where they’re at.”

Araujo noted that while other organizations such as the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless and The Economic Progress Institute have done similar studies on the state of working in Rhode Island. But the Fair Workweek Coalition’s study, he said, is the only one that aims to not only collect information but to identify potential leaders within the community and to build labor power.

“There are moms out there who can budget on a nickel, feed their kids, pay their rent, do all those things that make society function,” Araujo said. “That person knows where the solution lies. So we want to find her.”