Seattle’s Looming Labor Scheduling Law: It’s Going To Be Kind Of Complicated

San Francisco's enacted measure has an exemption for workers represented under a collective bargaining agreement.

Seattle's Worker Scheduling Mandate: It's Complicated
Likely to be exempt from worker scheduling mandates now being considered by the Seattle City Council are one-off retail and dining venues such as the Space Needle restaurant, seen here shortly after opening. Regional and national chains would be affected. Photo: 1950sUnlimited

Labor advocates call it “fair scheduling” or “guaranteed scheduling.” Opponents describe it as “restrictive scheduling.” Depending on your perspective, it may be a worthy attempt to give early-career part-timers in retail or restaurant jobs something closer to full-time wages and conditions. Or it’s more of the granular grit that government sprinkles in the wheels of free enterprise. Either way, it’s another battle coming to Seattle.

A related law in San Francisco hasn’t worked out well so far, and includes a carve-out exempting qualifying employers whose workers are unionized. Another government-imposed scheduling regime stalled in Minneapolis, and Washington D.C.’s version hasn’t hit lift-off yet.

The basic idea is for government to require larger chain stores and restaurants to set schedules several weeks in advance for hourly workers, many of whom are part-timers, with monetary penalties for short-notice shift cancellations or call-ins due to changing conditions. Other provisions may cover time off between shifts, restrictions on use of temporary employees, and as in San Francisco, compliance exemptions for unionized workplaces.

Seattle since 2012 has approved several other workplace mandates including paid sick leave, a progression to a $15 minimum wage, and no discrimination against applicants with prior felony convictions. The city calls this new one “secured scheduling.”

A Seattle City Council draft ordinance is expected as soon as August, after a localized study is delivered to council members in July from the consulting firm of Jacob L. Vigdor, an economist and professor at the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Policy. Public hearings might come as soon as September, and council action thereafter.

In San Francisco, the city’s enacted Fair Scheduling Ordinance requires employers to essentially pay workers double for eight hours of “on-call” work requested with less than 24 hours notice. There’s a 50 percent penalty for on-call work of four hours or less. Shift cancellations with less than 24 hours notice result in as much as a full day’s pay (four hours wages for every four hours of work cancelled), or two hours of pay if a shift of four hours or less is cancelled on short notice.

Exemption For Unionized Workplaces, Under San Francisco’s Law

There are certain exceptions to the penalties, such as if a shift vacancy arises because another worker is disciplined or ill, or in case of a utility system failure or natural disaster. The ordinance also requires two weeks notice of work schedules and payment of smaller hourly wage penalties for schedule changes made one to six days prior. It applies to “formula retail” store operators, defined as those with more than 40 outlets globally and 20 or more employees in each local store. Section 18 of the San Francisco ordinance exempts qualifying employers “covered by a bona fide collective bargaining agreement.”

Things haven’t been working out that well in San Francisco, reports the Washington Post in an article titled, “Why It’s Hard To Legislate Good Corporate Behavior.”

For one thing, the Post reports that due to the penalties, “some workers grumble the law discourages employers from offering extra shifts on short notice…even if workers would be happy for the chance to pick up more hours.”

And California grocers and movie theater operators have reported problems because flexibility to staff-up nimbly is curtailed when bright weather hits or a picture suddenly starts to draw big crowds, according to the Post.

In Washington D.C., the city council is considering passage of the Hours and Scheduling Stability Act. For cancellations or reductions in hours within 24 hours of work start times, employers would have to pay a penalty of four hours wages or more depending on the length of the scheduled shift. There would be smaller penalties, of one hour’s pay, for every change to a schedule less than 21 days before a shift’s start.

The draft D.C. law also stipulates that before engaging contractors or new hires, an employer would have to administer a six-step notification and assignment process to offer the extra shifts to existing workers. Not keeping the paperwork on hand for investigators for three years would constitute a violation. The law would apply to restaurant chains with at least 20 outlets nationally, and retail chains with at least five.

D.C.’s Bid Gets Critical Scrutiny

In a report on the draft D.C. law the Employment Policies Institute (EPI) found that only one in seven of affected D.C. workers are are involuntarily part-time, and 80 percent have less than a four-year college degree.

A survey for EPI of 100 D.C. restaurant and retail businesses showed a majority would find onerous the 21-day advance notice requirement and the penalty pay provisions for shift changes less than 24 hours before scheduled start times. More employers than not also said they’re likely to reduce part time workers, and half said they’d provide workers less shift-change flexibility, offer fewer jobs overall, and schedule fewer employees per shift.

The Minneapolis draft ordinance has been tabled after strong concerns surfaced from employers.

State’s Restaurant Industry Tracking Seattle Developments Closely

The Washington restaurant industry is watching developments in Seattle closely.

“We do believe some kind of scheduling mandate will pass in Seattle. We are concerned since flexibility is a cornerstone of our industry. We hope the new law…is a workable compromise and not something punitive for local restaurants. This is yet another requirement for Seattle restaurants that haven’t had time to adapt to what’s been asked of them so far. Restaurants are particularly dependent on seasonal, tourist, and community demands when it comes to staffing so certain scheduling requirements could hit our industry disproportionally,” said Stephanie Davenport, Communications Advocacy Manager for the Washington Restaurant Association.

At an April 26 meeting the Seattle City Council’s Civil Rights, Utilities, Economic Development and Arts (CRUEDA) Committee discussed the scheduling issue and reviewed a staff memo on plans to to develop the ordinance. It will be done in consultation with a range of stakeholders and the office of Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, which is pursuing its own inquiry into the issue.

At the committee meeting, Seattle City Council Member Kshama Sawant said a key concern driving the effort is that there is a lack of access to hours for part-timers – an “insecurity of pay” for workers who “just want to make enough money to pay the rent.”

As with minimum wage laws enacted by some cities in Washington state, there’s tension with lawmakers in Olympia who want to minimize patchwork compliance requirements statewide.

A bill that failed to gain passage last session, SB 6578, nonetheless foreshadows one priority that may gain traction next year.

It not only sought to pre-empt local minimum wage laws for more-uniform county, state or federal counterparts. The measure also included an an adopted amendment to bar local laws requiring guaranteed minimum hours for hourly workers.


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