Protecting Chain Retail Workers

In December 2014, the city of San Francisco adopted a landmark law, the Retail Workers Bill of Rights, which requires large retail and restaurant chains to give workers advance notice of their schedules and offer part-time employees access to more hours before hiring additional people.  This first-of-its-kind policy consists of two ordinances, both passed unanimously by the city’s Board of Supervisors. The ordinances apply to employees at “formula businesses” that have at least 20 locations globally and 20 or more employees in San Francisco.

Unpredictable scheduling has become a major problem for workers at retail and restaurant chains. Just-in-time scheduling software now allows big companies like Walmart and Darden (parent of Olive Garden, Longhorn Steakhouse, and other restaurant chains) to slash labor costs by shifting workers’ hours at the last minute, including sending them home early and canceling shifts, in response to real-time weather, sales, and traffic data. While these systems cut costs for the company, they do so only at the expense of workers, their families, and ultimately taxpayers and the broader economy.  A University of Chicago study found that unpredictable schedules hinder workers’ ability to “arrange caregiving, pursue education, secure a second job, and earn an adequate income.” The study also found that the problem is widespread: Hourly workers now comprise about 60 percent of the workforce and 41 percent of them receive their work schedules one week or less in advance.

San Francisco’s law aims to protect workers by requiring chain retailers and restaurants to:

  • Post schedules two weeks in advance and provide compensation pay for any change made within the two-week window.
  • Provide pay to an employee if an “on-call” shift gets canceled with less than 24 hours notice.
  • Offer any additional hours to current part-time employees before hiring more part-time workers.
  • Prohibit pay discrimination against part-time employees
  • Protect workers’ jobs for a 90-day period if a formula retail business is bought or sold.

Although the primary advocate for the legislation was a coalition of about 30 labor-affiliated groups, led by Jobs with Justice San Francisco (JwJSF), the policy also garnered important support from small business leaders, including the San Francisco Locally Owned Merchants Alliance (SFLOMA), which represents several hundred independent businesses.  For the most part, small businesses do not employ scheduling software and generally approach scheduling with more respect for workers’ needs, according to Hut Landon, co-chair of SFLOMA who testified in support of the bill.  “We certainly think that workers should be protected from all the tricks that the chains use,” he said.

The Retail Workers Bill of Rights was one of three policy measures that SFLOMA and JwJSF worked together on in 2014.  JwJSF joined with SFLOMA in supporting significant updates to the city’s formula business law, a policy important to local businesses.  The two groups also sought common ground on a proposal to increase the city’s minimum wage, with JwJSF supporting a longer implementation timeline in response to concerns raised by SFLOMA.  (Voters approved the increase in November.)

The Retail Workers Bill of Rights was opposed by the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, which represents many large chains, such as Target and Walgreens. The San Francisco Office of Small Business also raised concerns about the law, citing its impact on franchises, many of which are run under contract with large global companies but are operated locally.

Some supporters of the policy, meanwhile, felt it should be applied to all businesses and objected to its application to “formula businesses,” a designation, they argued, better reserved for urban planning purposes than labor policy.

The new law, which went into effect on January 5, 2015, will help an estimated 40,000 hourly employees stabilize their erratic schedules. Starting in January, San Francisco’s Office of Labor Standards Enforcement, along with Jobs with Justice, will start a six-month educational period to inform employers and employees about the legislation. After the six months are up, Jobs With Justice has a two-year enforcement plan, which relies on participatory research from its worker-leaders to ensure the new regulations are properly implemented.


Legislative Digest – Ordinance 1

Legislative Digest – Ordinance 2

San Francisco Ordinance – Full Text 1

San Francisco Ordinance – Full Text 2

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Stacy Mitchell

Stacy Mitchell is co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and directs its Independent Business Initiative, which produces research and designs policy to counter concentrated corporate power and strengthen local economies.