The Opposition to Secure Scheduling Sounds Very Familiar

secure scheduling

Your record is broken, my dudes. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Déjà vu is a fairly common experience (with a surprisingly scientific explanation)—but if you ever really want to pause and ask yourself “haven’t I been here before?”, all you need to do is listen to business interests try to argue against pro-worker policies.

The most recent instance of this truly puzzling phenomenon is in the bubbling battle over a potential secure scheduling ordinance in the City of Seattle—where in the last five years, Councilmembers, activists, unions, and business leaders have clashed over similar laws, including paid safe and sick leave and the increased minimum wage. And despite how recently these fights were won—in spite of the fact that we can all clearly remember the exact people and businesses who opposed the ordinances and their precise language—those same forces are now back at the table and seem to be entirely comfortably recycling their talking points.

In a March 21 meeting of the city’s Civil Rights, Utilities, Economic Development & Arts Committee, headed up by secure scheduling proponent Councilmember Lisa Herbold, representatives from local restaurants—including Pamela Hinckley, the CEO of Tom Douglas’s Seatown Restaurants—and the business community were invited to discuss their concerns about the potential legislation, which hasn’t even been officially drafted yet.

Immediately, the defensiveness began—and with it came the three arguments that we typically see in these situations:

  1. It’s not really a problem/workers like it how it is.
  2. It’s not really a problem for us because we are nice to our workers / it’s just a few bad apples.
  3. Even if it is a problem it’s too expensive to fix.

In the corner of the first argument, we had Hinckley, who seemed suspect that the issue even existed and suggested—of course—that there just wasn’t data to support it.

“We’d like to put forward a request for a full city audit of scheduling practices,” Hinckley explained, “to see how businesses schedule…to see if we really do have a problem here. I think we need to know.”

Hinckley also noted that “the employees are attracted to the business that is flexible,” because some may want to “coach their daughter’s basketball team” or do other things outside of work, which is arguably difficult when you have no idea how much you’re working.

Bob Donovan, of Donovan Employment Law, joined Hinckley in pressing the councilmembers about their data and insinuating that the workers like it how it is. He questioned whether or not Susan Lambert’s national report on insecure schedules, which they’d Herbold’s committee had been briefed on two weeks prior (and which states that 48% of service workers, nationwide, get their schedule a week or less in advance), actually represented Seattle. Despite mountains of anecdotal evidence collected by Working Washington,UFCW 21, and even the personal stories of Councilmember Lorena González, who herself was a migrant farm worker, Donovan insisted that workers in Seattle just didn’t seem to be dealing with the precariousness of issues like unpredictable hours and wages, clopening shifts, and the lack of compensation for on-call shifts.

“This doesn’t seem to be an emergency,” he explained.

Donovan also argued that many restaurant workers like what he called “flexibility,” though he seemed to be conflating “picking up the occasional Saturday shift” with “not getting paid for the shifts that I may or may not have to work and as a result being unable to pay my rent.”

Lambert’s study would indicate that this “flexibility” often comes with financial hardship for employees; 87% of retail employees say their hours fluctuate, which can make it difficult to know how much they’re getting paid on a weekly basis. According to Hinckley and Donovan, that’s necessary, because the business climate is unpredictable. They simply can’t provide stable hours, they explained.

“Does that variability fall on the single mom who’s got to come up with childcare on short notice?” asked Councilmember Mike O’Brien “or is it up to the business to figure out how to manage that? What’s a fair way to do that? Because my concern is that the cost of that uncertainty will get shifted to a low-wage worker.”

“With all due respect,” Donovan answered, “I think that’s an assumption that has no basis in fact.”

“I’ve heard from people who do that,” O’Brien answered.

“Ok, how many?” Donovan asked.

If only he’d seen the study, he’d know that most hourly workers in low wage jobs have unpredictable schedules, and that their employers are often the ones who decide just how “flexible” the schedule really is.

secure scheduling

Image: Susan Lambert

Both Donovan and Hinckley were also eager and prepared to take up the line that Tom Douglas and his ilk have been towing for literal years, which is that the problem is real in some restaurants, but not theirs. Hinckley admitted that yes, some restaurants may not take their workers’ needs into account, but they do. And for that reason, you don’t really need laws.

“I admit to express frustration that the City government considers it their job to enforce guidelines on how to schedule employees…the other thing that was unsettling from Susan Lambert’s study was that employers only care about profit…I take offense to that, because every company I have worked at puts their employees first.”

Which sounds a lot like Tom Douglas when he fought the living wage in 2013 (in the same interview where he noted that he was “25 years in…I own my car, you know, I own my house, I own my farm. Now, instead of buying more toys, I just feel like this is the way I want to pay back a bit of the incredible luck that I’ve had over the years” with wages):

I’ve always wanted to be the best place to work in town. And sometimes that is just being a good boss, just being nice to people…I can’t speak for every other company, but I think it’s a personal decision. It’s also a time in your life decision and I don’t think there necessarily needs to be laws. I think that people need to stand up with their backbone and not go to places where they feel like the workers aren’t taken care of.

And Tom Douglas when he side-eyed paid safe and sick leave:

It just felt like an intrusion into my business philosophy that we already had, but it wasn’t official.

Then, of course, there’s the final argument against policies which actively seek to benefit workers: That it’ll kill jobs.

Douglas and his company have also used the third talking point in the past, threatening that increasing the minimum wage would shut down businesses, or at least make growth difficult. Here he is in 2014:

I don’t know that it would put us out of business, but I would say we would lose maybe a quarter of the restaurants in town, would be my guess. And if we have to lose a quarter in order for people to make what people are considering a living wage, maybe I should just shut up and take it. I just want the facts. I don’t want these slogans because they’re nonsense. Let’s talk about real numbers.

Since the minimum wage ordinance went into effect, Tom Douglas has opened six new establishments—Assembly Hall, Home Remedy, Tanaka San, Serious Pie Pike, Cantina Lena, & Carlile Room—though, when Working Washington’s Sejal Parikh brought up this figure, Hinckley somewhat cryptically denied it, saying “we haven’t, actually,” but didn’t expand any further. 

Similarly, Subway franchisee David Jones—who said his employees are scheduled out weeks in advance— explained that unless people start eating the same volume of sandwiches all day long, rather than just at meal time, he’d never be able to offer regular hours. It would be too expensive, he said, to keep someone on the clock for a full, predictable shift, rather than splitting shifts.

That sounds a lot like when, during the debate over $15, Jones said that “a footlong sub may go up by more than a dollar.” In reality, Subway owners ended up settling on a price increase of just about 4%, and are continuing to open new locations throughout Seattle.

Which forces a bystander to ask the question: Is secure scheduling not a problem at all, is it a problem that’s not being addressed properly, or is it a problem but one that’s just going to cost too much to fix?

Councilmember González was incredibly straightforward in her answer: It’s a problem and one that we need to fix, and if businesses want to be part of the solution, they are welcome. But questioning that this is the experience of workers, and that it is making their lives and finances difficult or impossible, is unacceptable.

“I don’t want to be apologetic about having that perspective; I have worked in those industries…I understand what it means to have that lack of predictability about how much you’re going to make the next week. And I hope that we can have that conversation…from a place where, though we might disagree on the pervasiveness of the problem, we’re not having it from a place of ‘well, there is no problem.’ There are people who are expressing concerns,” she stated. “To deny them that truth is unfair.”

Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who herself was integral in the passage of Seattle’s landmark $15 wage, seemed incredulous that the same talking points were being reused—and that they were couching their concerns as worry for employees yet again.

“These are not entities that have any track record of standing up for their workers,” Sawant said, indicating the restaurant industry, “Tom Douglas spoke out against paid safe and sick leave. He said it was going to really destroy business. Then he, himself, came out and said ‘actually, as it turns out, the cost was a third of what I thought it would be.'”

She’s not wrong, either; Douglas somewhat infamously walked back his end-of-days claims in the Puget Sound Business Journal. From that story, called “Apocalypse Not”:

“Douglas has now changed his mind about the law, saying he was ‘naive’ to think that restaurants would raise pay on their own.”

Is it possible, then, that he’s being naive in this instance as well, or is he simply doing what business owners always seem to do—hoping to delay the process into oblivion with their myriad “concerns”?

This is, of course, not surprising—basically none of the doomsaying from restaurant owners and other business interests after the increase of the minimum wage or paid sick and safe leave came to fruition and, in fact, many of the very business owners who wrung their hands have since seen opened new establishments.

Still, we’ve seen this same rhetoric used in regards to everything from child labor laws to OSHA requirements for the last 80 years, so we really shouldn’t be shocked when they’re being trotted out again so soon. If anything, if those who are trying to protect their own bottom line are showing up to recycle these same statements so often in just a few years, it probably means Seattle is doing something right.

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Hanna Brooks Olsen
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a reporter in Seattle. Her writing about the economy and politics has appeared in the Atlantic, the Nation, Salon, Fast Company, and elsewhere.