Restaurant Owners Want City Council to Believe Scheduling Abuse Doesn’t Happen in Seattle

“If those bad practices are in fact in Seattle, we as well would like to know about them, because we don’t know if they exist,” said Pamela Hinckley of Tom Douglas Restaurants—after saying to the Council that the company’s scheduling policies vary from restaurant to restaurant, and that some company employees receive one week’s notice of their schedules.

In recent years, the City Council has made an effort to advance labor regulation in Seattle to worker-friendly realms beyond where state and federal rules dare to go. Now the Council has begun to consider regulating the way that hourly workers are scheduled—a package of regulations that proponents are calling “secure scheduling.”

And, as with the minimum-wage and sick-leave ordinances before it, the Council is getting strong pushback from Seattle’s business community, especially restaurateurs.

In service industries, particularly restaurants and retail, managers are required to stay within a budget of labor hours set by ownership. Thus there’s a strong incentive for managers to hedge their schedules, with several results: Many workers don’t know their work schedule until a few days in advance of their shifts. Workers might find themselves on call to go in if there’s a surge in demand. Others might find themselves “clopening”—closing one night and opening the day after, often with only a few hours’ break between shifts. According to a national study conducted by the University of Chicago, 41 percent of hourly workers age 26 to 32 get one week’s notice or less of when they’re expected to be at their job. Solid majorities of all workers—56 percent of men and 62 percent of women—are paid by the hour and might experience scheduling insecurity.

Council staffers and labor advocates have suggested that some of the measures the Council is considering include requiring employers to give two weeks’ notice of schedules, providing compensation to on-call workers, and compensating workers who are sent home early. Newly elected Council members Lorena González and Lisa Herbold have taken the lead on the issue, and a committee that Herbold chairs has, at labor groups’ urging, convened hearings on the subject with the ambitious goal of drafting and passing legislation by July.

This political effort springs from the coalition that successfully pushed for a $15 minimum wage and paid sick leave. “Workers started talking to us about this years ago, and wanted to start working on it,” says Sejal Parikh, director of Working Washington, one of the labor groups organizing in favor of secure scheduling. “Once we started the implementation of the minimum wage, workers started saying they wanted us to start working on secure scheduling.” But there’s plenty of opposition from Seattle’s business community—which is not arguing that flexible scheduling is necessary for their businesses, but rather that the controversial scheduling practices well documented across the nation don’t exist here. “A lot of business owners had a lot of concern about whether this is even an issue in Seattle,” Bob Donovan, an employment lawyer, said during a March 22 hearing Herbold held on the issue. “You are making assumptions about what is going on in Seattle, and I think that is very reckless and inappropriate.” (In a later conversation, Donovan emphasized that he was not at the meeting on behalf of a client, and said he was not advocating for or against schedule regulations.)

“If those bad practices are in fact in Seattle, we as well would like to know about them, because we don’t know if they exist,” said Pamela Hinckley of Tom Douglas Restaurants—after saying to the Council that the company’s scheduling policies vary from restaurant to restaurant, and that some company employees receive one week’s notice of their schedules. Following the hearing, González said she was “disappointed” by the business testimony. “I think it’s important for us to have this conversation from the perspective of understanding … You can’t start at a place where you are wholesale denying what [workers] are experiencing.” González emphasized that a majority of councilmembers, and the mayor, support passing secure scheduling legislation.

González gave the impression that businesses can get on board or watch the legislation pass them by. The Council’s left wing (González, Herbold, Mike O’Brien, and Kshama Sawant) is definitely in favor of legislating secure scheduling. González says that Debora Juarez is also on board, and Mayor Ed Murray highlighted the issue in his State of the City speech and has helped recruit some of the stakeholders involved in the process. Extensive lobbying by labor groups seems to have made the ordinance a certainty. Business leaders, by contrast, seemed dismissive of the issue in the first place; councilmembers spent most of their questioning time at the March hearing trying to get business leaders to acknowledge the problem. So, as the legislationbegins to take form, the question is whether business will continue to ignore the fundamental issue—hourly workers don’t generally have a great idea of when they’re going to work—or if Seattle’s business lobbies, like the Seattle Restaurant Alliance, will aim to work with the Council to make the ordinance more business-friendly?

That’s what the business community made happen in the $15 minimum-wage battle. That ordinance has a generous definition of small businesses (500 workers or fewer), and allows employers to credit tips as part of workers’ hourly wages, among other business-friendly provisions.

Restaurateurs, however, seem posed to use any and all options to avoid scheduling regulations—including trying to discourage workers from supporting the legislation. An alarmist memo from Jim Rowe, former chairman of the Washington Restaurant Association and president of Consolidated Restaurants, to the company’s employees stated that “some of the possible consequences of this legislation could be elimination of shift swapping, elimination of on-call shifts, [and] elimination of working double shifts.” These issues are real concerns for restaurant workers, who prize the flexibility in their schedules. It’s an angle that provides a political opportunity for business groups to contribute to the legislation.

But supporters of safe scheduling at City Hall say employee-initiated flexibility shouldn’t suffer under the regulations. “I am not interested in restricting the parts of this work that workers want to be able to take advantage of,” González said. “If workers want to pick up an extra shift, they should be able to do that as long as it’s truly voluntary. If workers want to be able to phase out early that night and they choose to do so, they should be able to do so, without a penalty to the business… . I think there are ways to fashion this legislation that will preserve the parts of flexibility that I’ve heard workers in restaurant and retail like to have.”

But she also thinks that the flexibility advocated for by business leaders could be a way for business to distract from the issue. “We are not trying to abolish the workers’ ability to have flexibility within the career that they choose. What we are trying to do is make sure that flexibility isn’t being taken advantage of by an employer who isn’t a good employer.” E

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