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How Will The 'Fair Scheduling Act' Affect Restaurant Workers?

Watch the California Matters episode on fair restaurant wages here.

In the ongoing battle between some food service workers and their employers, there have generally been two concentrated areas of struggle: The raising of the minimum wage, and the formation of a union. These are the focal points on the news programs, the buzz words on the signs at rallies. But there are also less talked-about ways where food workers get short-changed.

For instance, ever have the pleasure of making plans with a friend only to have him cancel at the last minute because he was called into work? Sure, it happens in a lot of different industries, but it's more common in the restaurant and retail industries because of how schedules are made. A few California lawmakers are trying to change that.

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Last week, Assemblymembers David Chiu (D-San Francisco) and Dr. Shirley Weber (D-San Diego) co-introduced bill AB 357 to the California state legislature. If passed, the "Fair Scheduling Act" would require food and retail establishments that have more than 500 employees to do two things: (1) Give workers their schedules at least two weeks in advance; and (2) provide additional pay to workers if they're called in to work at the last last minute.

Why's this important? Let's allow Assemblymember Weber break it down for us:

While this makes sense on a gut level, will it realistically affect the mental sanity and economic stability of workers? I put the question out to friends with restaurant experience, and here are some of their responses. (Quotes have been edited for clarity and format.)

"Many servers are artistic hippie floater-types," said Jaime Jessup. "Few of us want to be career-servers. We're working at a restaurant while we finish our novel/college/complete our screenplay/sell our short film/discover ourselves, etc. Having a concrete schedule -- just like real people! Just like the Daywalkers! -- That would allow us to live and schedule the rest of our lives."

"This would have been amazing in all the other restaurants I've worked for in the past," said Christine Salera. "They had me by the nads all the time with the scheduling nonsense, and since you're always replaceable, you have no say. 'Surprise! You're doing a double tomorrow! Oh you can't? That must mean you don't really need this job, lemme look at my stack of resumes on deck.'"

That said, there's a downside to consider when it comes to this new proposal. While the lack of specificity regarding schedules may seem disrespectful, restaurants and retail spaces operate in a realm where bosses may not realistically know how many people they need to staff on a particular night.

"Places would be overstaffed, limiting tips," said Gretchen Siemers. "And what if they make you come in just so they can let you go home after an hour of work because it's slow and they couldn't have known that two weeks ago, but they would have two hours ago?"

(Note: California law already dictates workers sent home early must be paid half the time they were scheduled for.)

There's also the problem of the bill's second point, wherein restaurants and retailers would be forced to pay out money for last-minute shifts. While restaurants and retailers may draw the ire of customers if they short-staff too often, adding extra workers may penalize the employees who look forward to those last-minute shifts.

"I have been thankful for the last-minute shifts I have been able to pick up in the wake of auto troubles or medical bills," said Salera. "Sometimes that last minute bit, covering for someone or coming in for extra time because there's suddenly a huge reservation -- it's the difference between making rent or not."

(I reached out to a handful of California-based large-scale restaurants, including Hillstone Restaurant Group and Tender Greens, but they both issued "No comment" statements.)

Which is all to say: This is a murky situation with no clear fix. The bill only takes into consideration establishments with over 500 employees -- and, thusly, those who should have a good understanding of how many workers are needed on any particular night. But many hourly workers are employed by smaller companies. While any kind of legislative push towards promoting respect towards restaurant workers is positive, if the penalty for scheduling last-minute shifts keeps owners from doing so, it may adversely affect employees who depend on getting those extra shifts.

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