Service workers report unstable work schedules affecting their children

  • Children of parents with unstable work schedules sleep less well, their grades suffer and they act out.
  • People of color are overrepresented in industries with inconsistent schedules and see less stability than their white peers.
  • Working conditions and hours for service workers have worsened further during the pandemic.

Service workers have seen some of the worst impacts of the pandemic, facing lockdowns, closures and increased risk of exposure to the virus.

Labor instabilities in the service sector don’t just hurt workers, they also have huge consequences for their children, a new study finds.

That’s according to the Harvard Kennedy School’s Project Shift. in a study on the well-being of workers and their families. The researchers found that the unstable and unpredictable work schedules, which service workers disproportionately experience, have “intergenerational impacts”.

“Substantial evidence shows that children suffer when parents cannot control the timing of their labor,” the study says. “Children are losing consistent daily routines and parent-child time as parents become more stressed.”

The report finds that these conditions impact their children in logistical and developmental ways: parents with unstable schedules are less able to manage their children’s health and drop them off at school, for example, but their children are also more likely to act and sleep poorly due to psychological stress. In the long term, this mentally and physically disadvantages the children of service workers compared to their peers.

This report comes as service workers across the country have faced increased challenges in the workplace during the pandemic, with service workers at higher risk of death than any other industry, also reporting that they are overworked due to constant understaffing and being forced to work by their bosses despite COVID-19.

The researchers write that children suffer when their parents cannot decide when to work, losing consistent daily routines and time with their parents, with both parties becoming more stressed. The study found that parents’ unstable schedules are associated with increased behavioral problems for their children, school absences, sleep problems and even worse health.

Last-minute shift changes mean parents can’t ensure their children get to school on time, for example, and children get less sleep due to economic stressors and psychological effects that the unstable schedule exerts on their home. 41% of children whose parents had the most unstable schedules did not get enough sleep each night compared to children of parents with stable and predictable schedules (27%).

And in the case of parents who have children with health problems like


an unpredictable schedule means they can’t plan to monitor symptoms, administer medications, or make doctor’s appointments, all of which impact their children’s health.

“Children thrive in contexts of stability and warm, engaged parenting,” Daniel Schneider, a Harvard sociologist who worked on the study with UCSF sociologist Kristen Harknett, told Insider. “Parents’ exposure to unstable and unpredictable schedules compromises household economic security, increases parental stress, and disrupts childcare routines, mealtimes, and bedtimes.”

Service workers don’t have stable hours, and people of color have even less stability than their white counterparts

People of color make up more than their fair share of service workers — quite a bit more four out of ten frontline workers are Black, Hispanic, Asian American/Pacific Islander, or some non-white category (41.2%), according to a 2020 Center for Economic Policy Research report. That’s much higher that the share of non-white adults in the overall population of 23.7%.

But they’re not just overrepresented in the industry: They’re exposed to unstable and unpredictable schedules more often than their white counterparts, the Shift report says.

Between spring 2020 and fall 2021, researchers found that men of color (67%) and women of color (68%) were more likely than white men (62%) and white women (62%) ) to be less than two weeks old. advance notice of their schedules. During this period, people of color were also more likely than white people to work on call, and women of color were 15-30% more likely to experience canceled or on-call shifts and involuntary part-time work than white men.

And those disparities have real implications for their families, the children of service workers of color bearing the brunt.

“Unequal exposure contributes to unequal contexts for children of color,” Schneider said. “But we find that all children whose parents are exposed to unstable and unpredictable schedules are at risk of negative consequences…It is [a] the schedule divide and workers of color are exposed to more unstable schedules.”


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