San Francisco Workers Can Now Request Flexible Work Schedules—But Not Predictable Ones

San Francisco continues to be ahead of the curve in terms of progressive work and family policy. It was the first city to enact a paid sick leave policy six years ago—legislation we are now seeing in several other cities. And last month, San Francisco became the only city in the nation to enact an ordinance guaranteeing workers legal protection when they request flexible work arrangements so they can care for their children or other loved ones. (Vermont is the only other U.S. jurisdiction to have such a policy.) San Francisco’s ordinance applies to employees who have been with an employer at least six months and who work eight hours or more per week. A flexible schedule can include varied hours, telecommuting, or other schedule changes.

The philosophy underlying San Francisco’s flexible schedule policy is one that recognizes the importance of parenting and other caregiving roles—which women are still disproportionately saddled with. But even as San Francisco sets trends, the city’s policy could improve, especially with respect to low-wage positions, which also tend to be dominated by women.

Restaurant work, for example, is one of the fastest-growing U.S. sectors. Like many low-wage and tipped jobs, more than half of all restaurant and food service positions are held by women. In a report from earlier this year, the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) points out that two million restaurant workers are mothers, and 1.2 million are single mothers.

ROC’s report lists predictability in scheduling as a critical need for mothers who work in restaurants. But of women they polled who work in restaurants, 40 percent had unpredictable schedules, and one in five women restaurant workers had actually lost their child-care support because of changing work schedules.

But the San Francisco policy does not address predictability.

“We were involved in discussions with Council members before the ordinance passed,” ROC Director Saru Jayaraman told RH Reality Check. “While I think it was a well-intentioned effort to address some very real issues workers face in our industry, this ordinance does not unfortunately have any real teeth to help workers in our industry.”

In crafting the policy, San Francisco Board of Supervisors President David Chiu originally did include language that would have required supervisors to provide two weeks’ notice for schedule changes. ROC and other worker advocates were encouraged by this provision. Over time, however, due to opposition from employers’ groups, this provision fell away.

“There is additional work to be done to address scheduling predictability, which is important to many workers, including restaurant employees,” Chiu told RH Reality Check. “To that end, we will convene a working group on the topic, and the conversation will include ROC, as well as other advocates for employers and employees.”

There are some restaurant owners who think work schedule predictability is a fair and achievable goal. Jennifer Piallat, owner of Zazie Restaurant in San Francisco, has advocated for better policies for workers, including paid sick days and set schedules. “Many restaurants change the schedule every week—supposedly to give everyone some good and some bad shifts, but I think it’s to keep people from being able to rely on their schedule and thus get other jobs,” Piallat told RH Reality Check. “For employees to be able to go to school, have child care, have other jobs, or schedule doctor appointments, they need to know more than 24 hours in advance what their schedule will be that week.  It’s amazing how many restaurants don’t have set schedules.”

In addition to evolving policy to address the needs of all workers, an assessment of how workers utilize San Francisco’s policy will be instructive as well. While protecting the right to request flexibility is an important first step, is it something workers will take advantage of in today’s economy? Though the ordinance mandates that the flexible schedule policy must be visible for workers to see, it still puts the onus on the worker to request flexible time. Many workers simply may not feel they have the leverage to make such a request—or that they can afford to, given that finding enough work continues to be a challenge for many.

At the federal level, in 2007, then Sens. Barack Obama (D-IL) and Hillary Clinton (D-NY), along with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), advocated flexible work schedules for employees who are responsible for caring for their loved ones, but the policy did not go anywhere. There have been murmurs of family-friendly federal workplace policies since then, evidenced by the 2010 White House summit as well as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY)’s five-point family policy plan.

Still, recent polls show that U.S. workers want more family-friendly workplace and economic policies generally. And despite the popularity of policies that enable better family care, protecting the right to request flexibility is still limited to Vermont and San Francisco.

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