To make it to work by nine, Chartisia Griffin had to wake up at 4:30 a.m. On public transit, her commute was two-and-a-half hours.
“I'm big pregnant. I'm walking from my house all the way up to the closest bus stop. In the dark, by myself,” she remembered.
After two trains and another bus, Griffin finally clocked in for what was usually a six-hour shift.
“I'm tired by now because I'm pregnant, I done rode all this far,” she said.
But if there weren’t enough diners, the managers sent Griffin home.
“By 10 a.m. we're open,” she said. “I could possibly be sent home by 11, 11:30 a.m., if business is not what they expected.”
That meant another two-and-a-half hour trip home.
It wasn't just a big waste of Griffin's time. She would make less money, leading to stress and making it harder for her to care for her three kids and elderly mother.
“My gas got cut off, and it only stayed off a couple of days, ‘cause I got some decent human beings in my life. But I couldn't, I couldn't, and it was winter time,” Griffin said.
Sometimes Griffin made extra money when managers asked her to work longer than her scheduled shift. But it was usually at the last minute, which meant she couldn’t get another job. Any personal plans she had for that day were blown.
By the time Griffin got home from a late shift she was exhausted.
“I would just lay down and sleep and be like 'please, don't let me oversleep because I got to do it again in the morning.’ ”
Cities vs. States
The challenges facing workers like Griffin are at the center of the latest conflict between businesses and labor activists.
New laws in cities like Seattle and San Francisco require employers to schedule shifts weeks in advance, and pay workers when their hours are cut. On-call employees are paid even if they don’t end up coming in.
In Georgia there are no similar regulations, and business groups and Republican lawmakers want to keep it that way. They say employers need flexibility.
A bill pending in the Georgia Senate would block local governments from requiring employers to pay workers when their schedules change at the last minute.
“We’re just preventing a local government from saying you have to do it,” said Rep. Bill Werkheiser (R–Glenville). “That can’t be good for business, and if it’s not good for business, it’s not good for the employees, because if businesses don’t come here, then they’re not hiring.”
At least two other states–Minnesota and New Mexico–are trying to block cities from regulating how workers are scheduled. Alabama, Arizona, Indiana, Kansas, and Michigan already have similar laws.
These state laws, known as preemptions, ignore a reality of the U.S. economy, according to Carrie Gleason of the Center for Popular Democracy. The group is pushing for local regulations like those in Seattle and San Francisco.
“Our economy can support good jobs in the service sector,” said Gleason. “There are many cities and states that are proving that you can have a thriving economy that provides good service sector jobs.”
The Georgia bill “comes down on our side of the issue,” said a spokesperson for the National Retail Federation in an email, without directly taking a position on the measure.
The group’s website includes an entire page on worker scheduling.
“Every retailer has unique business processes and every employee has unique needs,” the website reads. “Retailers need flexibility to adapt to changing conditions in a store, and they don’t need the government telling them how to do what they do best – run their businesses.”
A ‘Death Sentence’
Federico Castellucci owns four restaurants in metro Atlanta. He supports the Georgia bill, and said for businesses just starting it would be a “death sentence” if they had to pay employees when they sent them home.
“The substantial hit that that would take to the business would be almost to the point of insolvency,” said Castellucci, adding that many of his workers like getting sent home early if business is slow.
Castellucci said his managers set schedules two weeks in advance, and taking care of employees means more money.
“We don't think it's a good business practice to just call people in and send them home,” he said. “That's not what we're trying to do. It's really in the instances that something unforeseen comes up, and we need to make an adjustment.”
Lonnie Golden, a professor of labor economics at Penn State, agrees that predictable schedules are good for business.
He said that manufacturing used to be the big labor battleground, but factory schedules are more rigid. In growing service industries like retail, health care and restaurants, demand for labor is less predictable.
“More and more jobs are going to involve potentially fluctuating work weeks, unlike what we would see in manufacturing, typically,” said Golden.
Chartisia Griffin, the mom and former restaurant worker, says it’s unfair for states to block cities from requiring employers pay workers when their shifts change. She's now an organizer with the pro-labor group Jobs With Justice.
“I think it's jacked up. You're basically saying ‘we don't really care. We just need your labor to keep this thing running, to keep us getting rich,’ and I'm not okay with that at all,” Griffin said.
Griffin said she knows some businesses treat workers well, but for the ones that don't, she thinks local governments should be able to step in. That's exactly what Republicans in the Georgia legislature don't want.