Here’s a Deceptively Simple Issue

Stuart Waldman
President, Valley Industry & Commerce Association

The easiest policy issues are the ones that are black and white – I can happily rail against the latest bright spark who’s proposed a new rule which will kill jobs and hurt working families in the San Fernando Valley.

But most policy is complex, and what might look like a terrible idea can be workable, or what looks relatively benign turns into a real challenge for employers. But every elected official will tell you – they took the job to work on the hard issues.

A few months ago, the Los Angeles City Council came up with a proposal that they’ve dubbed the “fair work week.” Under this proposal, certain employers would have to post a work schedule at least two weeks in advance. It would apply to large retail employers with more than 300 employees globally. We don’t have any details yet on what would happen if the schedule is changed, but other cities have placed onerous new penalties on employers that change the schedule – even if that change wasn’t their fault, like an employee calling in sick or a large order being canceled.

Here’s the thing: in itself, a requirement for large retailers to post a schedule two weeks in advance isn’t that onerous. 

Many of these businesses already post their schedules in advance, which raises the question of what problem this proposal is a solution to. But, I digress. My point is that on the face of it, a two-week scheduling requirement for large retailers isn’t the end of the world.

Of course, there’s a but. Several buts, in fact.

First, I would bet money that in a couple of years, the new rules would be expanded out to other employers as well. And those employers might be small businesses who lack the specialized scheduling capabilities of large employers, who can predict months in advance what their busiest days and times will be.

Second, a requirement to post a schedule in advance is fine – but penalizing employers who need to make changes to the schedule due to unforeseen circumstances is less fine. Especially because many employees would like more hours, and a penalty for providing those additional hours would reduce the ability for employers to offer those hours as they come available. That could really be Exhibit A for how well-intentioned policies end up hurting the people they’re supposed to be protecting.

Many part-time employees value the flexibility that employers are currently able to provide so they can pursue their studies or creative opportunities. Punitive measures for updating the schedule after it has been posted would end up harming employees who have other commitments.

For example, an employer would not be able to provide flexibility for a student who doesn’t have their college schedule until the last minute, or an employee who has an opportunity for gigs or auditions. Parents whose kids have school events or other events for their kids often don’t find out about these until a few days before. Employees would need to make the choice either to skip work, losing pay and hurting business, or miss other important events and opportunities.

And finally, of course, the enforcement mechanism could make or break this proposal. As you know, often the documentation required to demonstrate compliance and avoid a lawsuit is more difficult to deal with than the actual law.

I made a suggestion that went down like a lead balloon: the City Council and other city departments could undertake a pilot project with all city employees, except public safety officers. Many city departments have similar operational challenges as retailers, including the need for consistent coverage, customer satisfaction, and fluctuating demand.

This type of pilot project could shed light on whether employees feel this ordinance is helpful or harmful. Rather than sic this experiment on private sector employers and employees, the city could try it out themselves to see what works and what doesn’t.

What a great opportunity for elected officials to develop a policy that works for our whole economy – employees and businesses.

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