Employers often give people less than 40 weekly hours, leading to resignations and more trouble finding workers
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL // FEB. 28, 2022
American workers quit a record 47 million jobs last year. They quit for better pay, or to be their own boss, or to work around child-care needs, or from worry about catching Covid-19. Some were burned-out and just wanted a break.
There’s another reason, less recognized: Their employer wouldn’t give them enough hours.
Colton Lewelling has cycled through seven jobs over the course of the pandemic—slinging burgers, making meatballs, helping customers and restocking shelves. At interviews, prospective employers told him they could give him plenty of work, as many as 40 hours a week, he said.
Then managers scheduled him for only eight to 25 hours. He couldn’t survive on that, said the 19-year-old in Fresno, Calif., so he would quit and move on.
At a time when retailers, restaurants, hotels and others reliant on hourly workers complain they can’t hire enough people, many whom they do hire say they are put on schedules too skimpy to let them earn enough. Some employees in that position piece together a living with second or even third jobs. Others, like Mr. Lewelling, resign, creating a vicious cycle.
For employers, it is difficult to know how many people to hire even in the best of times, and it is trickier than ever with today’s high turnover and unstable demand, said John Gulnac, vice president at Adecco USA Inc., a large employment agency.
As a consequence, he said, some companies are overhiring by as much as 40% to give themselves a cushion, choosing to prune staff or hours once managers have a better sense of their true labor needs.
Mr. Lewelling has seen this first hand. “They hire a lot and see who sticks around,” he said. “I’m not keen on waiting.” This year, he began training as an emergency medical technician, a career he hopes will offer more stability and satisfaction.
The turnover that results from overhiring is itself a factor in the way companies hire. Fifty-five percent of employers are bringing people on more quickly than they did before 2020, and in larger hiring groups, according to data from HourWork, a software provider that helps employers recruit and retain workers.
If these processes aid corporate stability, they can spell insecurity for hourly employees, despite a hot labor market in which workers might seem to have the upper hand.
When Joy Gray was hired at a pest-control company as a customer-service agent last April, the man who conducted her online training class said it was twice as big as any class he’d taught before, she said.
Instead of the 40 hours she needed, the company assigned her as few as 28 hours a week, said Ms. Gray, a 27-year-old in Panama City, Fla. It was the opposite of what she had experienced earlier in the pandemic, when, while working in food service at a hospital, she found herself putting in extra-long hours as co-workers who feared for their health quit around her.
Ms. Gray worried that the number of weekly hours she was getting at the pest-control job wouldn’t cover her bills. “I was running the risk of my power or water getting cut off, or my rent going underpaid,” she said.
She promptly began job-hunting again, left within a couple of months, and now works for a telecommunications company.
Around the country, businesses have been raising wages to draw in workers. Yet 24% of hourly workers say that their employer isn’t giving them as many hours as they want, according to a fall 2021 survey from Harvard University’s Shift Project, a research initiative that tracks working conditions for hourly workers.
For years many businesses that hire hourly workers have tried to keep their employees from working full time because then they don’t have to offer some benefits, such as healthcare, which saves them money.
According to Deputy, a scheduling software company, some companies are experimenting with ways to offer hourly workers more control over their schedules. Before the pandemic, about 6% of shifts worked by hourly employees were “open shifts,” for which workers could volunteer if interested, according to data from Deputy. That has risen to 22%.
“Employers aren’t hiring people to screw employees,” said Derek Jones, the head of partnerships for North America at Deputy. But right now, too many companies desperate for workers are “just hiring and then trying to find a spot for someone that they might not have, and that leaves a bad taste in people’s mouths.”
After Benjamin McCoy was hired at a Dollar General store in Mansfield, Ohio, last August, he couldn’t understand why the store was putting him on the schedule for only 10 hours a week while continuing to hire more people.
When he was working, he said, the store often seemed shorthanded. “People were always like, ‘Could you open up another damn register?’ ” he said.
Mr. McCoy, 19, said he repeatedly asked the store to increase his hours and was told no. Feeling “there was no beacon of hope,” he quit and went to work at Menards, a home-improvement retail chain, where he gets 25 to 45 hours a week.
Dollar General’s chief people officer, Kathy Reardon, said, “We have always worked to balance store and distribution center staffing needs, including the need for staffing to cover absences, with employee work hours and schedules.”
The tenure of hourly workers averages just 1.8 months at restaurants offering fast food and limited service—down 55% from before the pandemic—said David Cantu, chief executive of Black Box Intelligence, a restaurant-industry data benchmarking and analytics firm. The resulting turnover forces restaurants onto a hiring treadmill that makes it easy for them to overlook workers’ needs, he said.
“It’s hire and let’s keep on hiring, and that’s going to create a situation where no one’s going to have enough hours,” Mr. Cantu said.
Justin Rosa, based in Wallingford, Conn., is a server at a Red Lobster. He said he regularly is assigned just 20 hours of work a week, despite his repeated requests for more. Yet the restaurant continues to hire more servers, he said.
“It feels like they’re just looking for more options to cushion themselves,” said Mr. Rosa, who is 24.
Red Lobster said this is a difficult labor market in which people have many options about where they work, but it is on track to bring a record number of new employees aboard this year. “We work closely with our employees to understand their needs and build schedules that meet their needs and the needs of our guests,” said Chief Executive Kelli Valade.
Mr. Rosa said he does DoorDash deliveries for extra earnings. He also took a second job at a sandwich shop, Jersey Mike’s Subs.
There, the lack of hours assigned to him caused a different problem.
The shop advertised a $300 signing bonus after three months on the job, he said. It rarely gave Mr. Rosa more than eight to 10 work hours a week, he said, despite his asking for more.
After three months, he said, he went to collect his signing bonus, only to learn that he hadn’t worked enough hours on a weekly basis to qualify for it. Disillusioned, he quit.
“Something like $300 feels like $3,000 when you need it,” said Mr. Rosa, who has rent and car payments. He said he is scraping by with a monthly food budget of around $100.
Jersey Mike’s Subs didn’t respond to a request for comment.
A number of jurisdictions have passed laws in recent years to promote better schedules for hourly workers, among them Seattle, New York City and Oregon. Such laws require more notice of work schedules and often require companies to offer existing employees additional hours before hiring more people.
For many employers, that doesn’t make sense, said Jacob Vigdor, a professor at the University of Washington who has tracked the legislation. He said a lot of businesses that hire hourly workers have only limited peak hours where they need full staffing.
“You hear businesses saying, ‘I can’t find workers’ and workers saying, ‘I can’t get enough hours,’ ” he said.“ The trouble is, the hours where businesses need more people are the ones where the existing workers are already on the job.”
The rise and decline of Covid-19 variants, creating peaks and troughs in customer demand, has meant more fluctuation in workers’ hours, said Luke Pardue, an economist at Gusto, a payroll and benefits software company serving small and medium-sized businesses.
Gusto’s data show that in 2021, an average of 17% of workers had their hours cut by 10% or more from the prior month. Just 12% did in 2019, before the pandemic.
Recently, when the holiday season ended and the Omicron variant of Covid-19 surged, 39% of workers saw their hours cut at least 10% from the preceding month.
Bob Clements, chief executive of Axsium, which consults with large employers on workforce issues, said lately he has heard more employers say they want to give hourly employees the option to work more hours.
Target Corp. said last year it was committing to giving more hours to existing employees during the holidays and making fewer seasonal hires. Walmart Inc. said last spring it hoped to make two-thirds of hourly jobs at U.S. stores full-time jobs. About 64% were as of the end of 2021.
Valerie Breshears, 36, a delivery driver for a pizza chain in Unionville, Tenn., said the restaurant where she works was frequently understaffed last summer, when it paid $8.25 an hour. In September, when it boosted pay to $13, that changed.
“Everyone in town applied, so they hired like everyone that applied,” Ms. Breshears said. She went from being one of four drivers to one among a dozen. The 25 hours a week she was used to fell to about 10. A single mother, Ms. Breshears struggled and contemplated leaving.
Turns out she didn’t need to. In a matter of months, most of the new drivers had handed in their resignations—frustrated, like her, by their limited hours.
Ms. Breshears stuck around, and her time on the clock went back up to her old, regular schedule. Now she has no plans to leave.
Write to Te-Ping Chen at firstname.lastname@example.org