Why Are Some Servers Joining Industry in Opposing Safe Scheduling Legislation?

Complicating the worker-vs.-boss narrative at City Hall.

Seattle is on the verge of passing groundbreaking new legislation designed to protect food-service and retail workers from unreliable work schedules. If passed into law, the new rules would require restaurants and retailers to create employee schedules at least two weeks ahead of time and would make businesses pay extra to workers whose schedules are changed at the last minute.

But a group of restaurant workers, calling itself the Full Service Workers Alliance of Seattle, objects to the proposed new rules. And whether or not FSWA influences the actual secure-scheduling policy, its presence has changed the optics in a policy discussion which has heretofore been framed in simple business-vs.-labor terms.

FSWA claims that food-service workers at full-service restaurants—those where patrons sit down and get waited on, as opposed to the counter service one gets at McDonald’s—already have reliable schedules. They worry the legislation will take away existing freedom and flexibility. And they argue that while the legislation may benefit workers at fast-food restaurants, it will only hurt workers like them.

“Thousands of full-service industry workers have had the freedom to craft their own schedules to meet their own personal and financial goals,” says FSWA organizer Sean David, a bartender at Tom Douglas’ restaurant TanakaSan. “We already have the flexibility that apparently other workers [in limited-service restaurants] do not. This legislation will cause way too much bureaucratic red tape that will take away what we currently enjoy as workers.”

As evidence, David points to a survey, published earlier this year by the Washington Restaurant Association, an industry group, which claims that Seattle workers are overwhelmingly happy with their jobs and don’t want government regulations. He also notes that more than 750 people have signed an online petition asking the City Council to exempt full-service restaurant workers from secure-scheduling rules. “If there are issues” in how full-service workers are treated, David says, “we don’t need the city to come in and tell us how to do it. We can figure it out on our own. We don’t want to be a part of the legislation when it’s imposing restrictions on how we do our job.”

Advocates for the legislation now before the Council argue that none of the ordinance’s restrictions would apply to David or the vast majority of full-service workers in Seattle, but only to restaurants or retailers with at least 500 employees worldwide. For full-service restaurants like TanakaSan, there’s an added criterion of having at least 40 locations worldwide.

David responds that the Council might expand the regulations to include all full-service restaurant workers after a two-year study period. And he’s got a point: The text of an Aug. 1 draft of the bill reads in part, “The Council shall use the results of the evaluation to identify possible areas for revision and to determine whether to extend application, in whole or in part, to employers in different industries and/or with different thresholds for coverage.”

Translation: Let’s try this new rule on mega-corporations first, then decide whether to similarly regulate schedules at smaller businesses.

The crux of the bill is the requirement that workers know their schedule two weeks in advance, and get extra “predictability pay” if the restaurant changes that schedule later on. For example, if the boss adds a shift without two weeks’ notice, the worker gets an extra hour of pay. If the boss cuts part or all of a shift, the worker gets paid half-time for the lost hours. Workers also have the right to decline shifts that aren’t on the schedule, and employers have to offer extra hours to existing employees before hiring a new worker to cover them, which would discourage employers from having a bunch of disposable part-time employees—a strategy many service-industry employers use to avoid the responsibilities that come with full-time employees.

However, those extra-pay rules don’t apply to most employee-initiated schedule changes. For example, if employees swap shifts on their own, there’s no predictability pay, nor is there if a boss needs a shift covered and offers those hours to all qualified employees.

In fact, the only time employees can’t waive predictability pay is if they work two consecutive shifts with fewer than 10 hours between them. In that case, the worker must get compensated at 1.5 times their regular pay. In effect, employers would have to pay extra for double shifts and “clopenings”—that is, working the closing shift one night, then the opening shift the next morning—just as they have to pay time-and-a-half for hourly workers who exceed 40 hours per week.

The legislation has support from both the mayor and Council. Sponsor Lisa Herbold and her colleagues Debora Juarez and M. Lorena González pledged their support in a February op-ed in the Puget Sound Business Journal, and the offices of Council lefties Mike O’Brien and Kshama Sawant say they’ll also vote in favor. Of course, it’s possible that the details of the legislation—say, whether it should apply to any full-service workers—could spark disagreement in Council.

Organizers like David see the group as a worker advocacy organization, but its existence is also a rhetorical boon to anti-regulation business groups. Writing for the conservative think tank Washington Policy Center, Erin Shannon points to the group as evidence that “Workers who understand the real-world impacts of restrictive scheduling regulations are worried the flexibility they enjoy working in the service industry is in peril.”

That’s where FSWA’s real impact may lie: Its existence complicates the labor-vs.-business narrative which has so far framed the secure-scheduling debate. A spokesperson for Working Washington declined to comment on FSWA, saying, “We don’t want to be in a perceptual dispute” with another group of organized workers. When FSWA workers line up at the commenter podium in Council chambers—as they have in previous meetings and vow to continue doing—they change the dialogue and potentially the legislative outcome. This obviously benefits business interests which oppose the legislation, but David says that he and other FSWA organizers are working independently, without any backing or support from business owners.

“We haven’t had any help from anybody,” he says. “No one has paid us. No one has reached out to us. This is literally a grassroots movement of workers.”