In a new book, “Unequal Time,” sociologists Naomi Gerstel and Dan Clawson argue that workers’ control over their time is a crucial labor issue that deserves more attention. ”Most the conversation about inequality is about wages–and that’s a really important discussion,” says Gerstel. “But time is a key way to talk about inequality.”
For “Unequal Time,” Gerstel and Clawson studied four professions within what they call the medical-health sector: doctors, nurses, emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and certified nursing assistants (CNAs). Their research emphasizes how class and gender impact who has the most control over their regular work schedules and time off.
Doctors had the most amount of control, and were the wealthiest and most male profession in the group. They had the most control over what schedules they worked regularly, and when they took time off for illness, vacation or caregiving. The CNAs, on the other hand, the lowest-paid employees and mostly female profession in the study, had very little control over any of these questions. They worked schedules determined by their employers, with little flexibility for time off.
Race is often considered in the text, but in their study, the authors didn’t look at race as a factor independent from class. Part of this was caused by the study design–they set out to look at how gender and class specifically impacted these workers differently. But the demographics of the so-called medical health professions they included also made it difficult to draw conclusions that were about race separate from class. The doctors, EMTs and nurses were all less than 13 percent non-white while the CNAs were 58 percent non-white. Because there were so few doctors, nurses and EMTs of color in those professions, the authors cite fear of violating their confidentiality if they discussed the racialized experiences of those individuals.
The one place where they were able to extrapolate more about race was within the group of nursing assistants. They studied two different nursing homes in the same region of the country; one had a predominantly black staff and the other a predominantly white one. “The black women faced much more rigid regulations and were distrusted by management,” says Gerstel. “The white women at the [predominantly white] nursing home were not [treated in the same way].” But the authors say that the differences between the two nursing homes also made it difficult to definitively say what conditions were about race and which were caused by institutional differences. Ultimately, Gerstel and Clawson argue that class is the common denominator between the conditions they witnessed, while acknowledging that class is also racialized. “White working-class women, black working-class women and Latina working-class women faced many of the same deficits of time and unpredictability, an inability to control their time,” says Gerstel.
“Unequal Time” also addresses the ways family structures create pressures on women of color at work and at home.”So you’re a single mother, with two kids at home, one of whom has asthma, and you’re in a job where you’re unexpectedly offered an extra shift [that] you need to take because you need the money. You’re facing unpredictability in two arenas,” says Gerstel. “Your life is chaotic.”
As if to prove her point, news of the untimely death of Maria Fernandes, a 32-year-old mother and employee at three different Dunkin’ Donuts locations, was reported by the New York Times on the morning I interviewed Gertsel. Fernandes’ presumed accidental death from gasoline fumes and carbon monoxide occurred as she napped in her car between jobs with the motor running. In that instance, it was likely a combination of low wages and scheduling–of needing to juggle shifts at three different locations to make ends meet while not being able to schedule in sleep between shifts.
Economic factors such as increased unemployment post-recession have exacerbated the situation for the low-wage workers. “The CNAs more than any other group have relatively high rates of unemployment. We know the rates of unemployment among people of color are much higher than among whites,”says Gerstel “If the unemployment rate is higher, what happens is that employers can staff lean–hire you for 24 to 32 hours [per week]. Then on any given day they can say ‘I’ve got an extra shift. Can you take it?’,” says Gerstel. ”They’re not mandating overtime. They’re offering overtime that you can’t refuse because of the conditions of employment that they’ve provided. It’s that kind of lean staffing and unpredictability that we think is the new normal.”
The conditions described in the book, particularly for the CNAs, create a precarious situation where workers struggle to make ends meet but also face punitive policies that restrict how often they can miss work for things like illness or caregiving. In the other professions studied, particularly the doctors and nurses, there was much more flexibility and control in the hands of the employees to help them manage these responsibilities, not to mention financial means to pay for childcare or have a stay-at-home spouse.
Recently there has been a policy push to address employer scheduling practices. In July, Senate Democrats introduces the Schedules that Work Act. “By creating a right for all employees to make scheduling requests, and protecting employees who make requests from retaliation, the Schedules That Work Act would give employees a say in their work schedules. Employers would be required to consider scheduling requests from all employees and provide a response,” reads a fact sheet from National Women’s Law Center about the law. Unless there is a bona fide business issue, employers would be required to grant requested schedule changes for things like caregiving, pursuing education and workforce training, or for the employee’s own serious health condition.
Gerstel expressed mixed feelings about the potential legislation: “It is important and could, if passed, deal with some of the worst issues raised in “Unequal Time” and some important aspects of the unpredictability that creates havoc in the lives of low-wage workers who are mostly women and often women of color,” says Gerstel. “It is good, for example, that it not only includes pay for those who come to work but are sent home, but it also covers workers at establishments with 15 or fewer workers.”
Among the bill’s limits, Gerstel says it overlooks the service sector, that the definition of family may be too limited to encompass everyone and that it may give the employer too much leeway to deny requests for time off. And of course, enforcement of any legislation becomes a major issue once it’s been passed. Gerstel and Lawson point out in the book that it is the women of color in the nursing assistant roles who were least likely to take advantage of the benefits of the Family Medical Leave Act, a major policy meant to improve worker protections.
“One of the arguments we’re making is that we’re led to believe that the retail sector is the place where there are unpredictable schedules creating chaos. What you read about in the media is the unpredictability of the lives of young people in retail jobs–Starbucks or clothing stores or restaurants,” says Gerstel. “But that really understates the pervasiveness and the new normal of unpredictability. In the health sector, in the service sector, across class there is a huge amount of unpredictability. And it’s the CNAs, the women of color, who have the least amount of control over this unpredictability.”