The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
December 12, 2016

Protecting children when parents’ work is unstable

December 13, 2016

Over the next two weeks, Urban scholars are reflecting on how different aspects of children’s lives affect family instability and their healthy development. This team of scholars recently released a report laying out insights from an exploration of what research is needed to stabilize the lives of children and families. This work is part of Urban’s Kids in Context Initiative.

We know that unstable employment and job loss can have negative effects on workers and their families, but many working parents face job instability even while in the same job.

Imagine the following scenarios:

  • A working parent in a retail or service job, whose daily schedule is constantly shifting, with only a week’s, or perhaps a day’s, notice 
  • An hourly employee who works 30 hours one week and 20 hours the next, with hours dwindling even lower during the off-season 
  • An independent contractor who is paid by the hour without any paid time off or health insurance

Such conditions of precarious work (i.e., work that is insecure, uncertain, and unstable) make it hard for parents to provide children with structured meals and bed times, secure quality child care, cover household expenses, and find ways to take time off to care for sick children. 

Yet precarious work, an under recognized form of job instability, is increasingly becoming the norm for many parents of young children. More than 70 percent of working parents ages 26 to 32 reported fluctuations in weekly work hours in 2012. And a third of working mothers and almost half of working fathers ages 26 to 32 said they had one week or less advance notice of their work schedules.

In contrast to the rich body of research on the effects of job loss, there is limited evidence on how precarious work may affect children. Yet, what we know about child development suggests several ways that precarious work may harm children. 

  • Unpredictability in hours, schedules, and income can increase parents’ stress, which is known to adversely affect children’s development.
  • Fluctuations in earnings can leave families without access to enough resources to support children, unless these families save enough to cover their needs when earnings are low.
  • Frequent changes in family schedules and child care arrangements can destabilize children’s relationships with other adults, contribute to household chaos, and negatively affect children’s sense of safety and security.

Some employers are experimenting with ways to reduce instability within jobs. Researchers can test the effectiveness of these policies and practice and build more evidence about how parents’ precarious work affects their children. 

Two years ago, Starbucks tried to reduce scheduling instability for baristas and offered a week’s notice about work schedules. Pier 1 Imports ended on-demand shifts following an investigation by New York’s attorney general and started offering workers 10 days advance notice about schedules. Other retailers have similarly promised to give workers their schedules at least a week in advance.

Cities have also taken action. Seattle and San Francisco have passed citywide bills requiring large employers to post schedules two weeks in advance, offer hours to part-time workers before hiring new staff, and offer compensation for last-minute schedule changes.

How do these new policies play out for companies, workers, and their families? Who is helped and who might be hurt? Do these policies help stabilize children’s lives? As companies and localities experiment with ways to improve stability for employees, they create ripe opportunities to evaluate outcomes for workers and for their children. 

Photo by Bo Zaunders/Getty Images

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