Case studies of fair scheduling pilot programs at the company level13 and ongoing evaluations of local fair scheduling ordinances6 have demonstrated implementation challenges and perceived improvements in scheduling among employees and managers, but no studies to date have causally linked recent state-level fair work scheduling policies with outcomes for parents and children in the prenatal-to-3 period. A growing body of observational research is working to define empirically the consequences of unpredictable, unstable work scheduling practices for worker health, work-life conflict, and child outcomes. In lieu of strong causal research on the impact of state-level policies, this problem-defining body of observational research is the subject of the review below.
Access to Needed Services
A 2019 research brief from the Urban Institute showed that public safety net beneficiary families are more likely to have variable and precarious work schedules than nonbeneficiary families, and many families are at risk of being noncompliant with safety net work requirements as a result of scheduling practices outside of their control.7
Parents’ Ability to Work
Observational evidence suggests that unstable work schedules may reduce parents’ ability to work. Though the sample was not limited to parents, a recent working paper with a national sample of service sector workers found that higher levels of work schedule instability, measured on a scale that included on-call or canceled shifts and a categorical indicator of advance schedule notice, were associated with significant increases in employee turnover.18
Sufficient Household Resources
Work schedule instability has also been shown to be negatively associated with financial and material wellbeing. A study of parents working in nonmanagerial retail jobs found that variable work shifts and having less than two weeks advance notice of work schedules were both associated with reduced financial security.14 Similarly, a recent study of service sector workers showed that higher levels on a scale of schedule unpredictability were associated with higher levels of hunger and housing hardship.19 Panel survey data of service sector workers has also shown that weekly earnings were significantly lower among those employees who had quit their previous job due to scheduling issues.18
Parental Health and Emotional Wellbeing
Observational research supports the connection between schedule unpredictability and reduced mental and physical health among workers overall, though evidence focused on parents is more limited. One study with a large sample of hourly retail and food service workers found that routine schedule variability was associated with higher levels of psychological distress, lower sleep quality, and lower happiness levels;5 however, this sample was not limited to parents, who may experience even greater strain. A recent working paper similarly found that parents’ variable work shifts were associated with lower wellbeing, higher parenting stress, and less time spent with their children.14 An observational study with a small sample of female hourly employees at one retail chain found that having less than one week advance notice of work schedules was associated with higher levels of work-life conflict.ii,8 Counter to these findings, one study of low-income parents with children ages 1 to 11 found that variable work schedules had no significant effect on parent stress.17
Nurturing and Responsive Child Care in Safe Settings
A growing body of observational research examines the effects of nontraditional work hours on child care arrangements among working parents, but research focusing specifically on child care among those experiencing unpredictable work schedules is largely still emerging. Using a large sample of working parents in the retail and food service industries with children ages 0 to 9, one working paper found that on-call scheduling and last-minute schedule changes were significantly associated with 0.21 more types of child care and a 100 percent increase in the probability of a child being left home alone.15 Additionally, a small qualitative study of 25 parents working hourly jobs in the retail or fast food industries found that unpredictable work schedules were associated with a “scramble” for child care, placing strain on both parents and their support networks.11
Optimal Child Health and Development
A recent working paper found that parents with greater schedule unpredictability scored their children higher (worse) on internalizing and externalizing behavior scales; parental wellbeing was a significant mediator of this relationship, as were economic insecurity and time spent with children.16 An older study similarly found that variable, nonstandard work schedules were associated with child behavioral problems, but the effect did not remain significant for child behavior in the long term.17
- Work-life conflict is defined in this study as a conflict that challenges one’s “ability to effectively plan activities and meet responsibilities outside of work, such as participating in children’s school and extra-curricular programs, assisting with caregiving needs of aging parents, scheduling medical appointments, and socializing with friends” (p. 988).