Some Saturdays, my 2-year-old says to me, “Mama, you go to work?” And I can say with certainty, “No, Devon, I’m home all day with you today.” Though my cell phone will still be tethered to me, my son can count on my sticking to my word that I’ll spend the day with him.
But I know too many moms who can’t make promises like that to their kids.
Take Shannon, who, when I interviewed her about a year ago, was working part-time, covering different shifts every week at Walmart—including some that involved closing the store late at night and others that required her to open it first thing in the morning. Her mother helped with caring for her two kids, but Shannon’s ever-changing schedule means constant scrambling for the whole family.
Or look at Randa, who had to let her full-time babysitter go after her steady (if part-time) shifts as an airport attendant were replaced with an on-call schedule—which meant she could no longer count on getting the hours she needed to cover full-time childcare.
Shannon and Randa are just two of the millions of working moms scrambling because of a growing, alarming trend: The proliferation of unpredictable schedules and involuntary part-time jobs that fill every day with difficult choices. Do I take a day off to care for a sick child and risk losing my job? If my boss asks me to extend my shift at the last minute, will I make enough to cover the extra late charges at daycare?
Some industry experts say that part-time work is great for moms, letting them balance a job with family responsibilities. Yet in real life, today’s part-time jobs aren’t working for moms. The hours for part-time workers fluctuate wildly—and can be posted as little as an hour before a shift starts, upending family routines and leaving moms and their kids to feel the stress of figuring out who’s going to be there when the school bell rings.
As a result, even a part-time job today requires a full-time commitment.
Moreover, part-time workers usually don’t get basic benefits like earned sick time, vacation days, health insurance or retirement.
And many part-time moms aren’t doing so by choice—even though the Bureau of Labor Statistics says they are. Moms who want to work full-time but end up working part-time because of “childcare problems” are labeled as “voluntary” part-time workers. Of the 3.4 million people who work part-time because of childcare responsibilities, 91% are women.
As if that weren’t enough, erratic part-time hours exacerbate the gender pay gap by holding women back from promotions and full-time work—and in some cases, leading them to drop out of the labor force because of childcare issues.
When working moms speak up about how hard it has become to keep up and get ahead, amazing things can happen. Cities like Seattle and Washington, D.C., have proposed laws to stabilize work hours. And in San Jose, Calif., a ballot measure would give part-time workers the opportunity to work more hours. These new policies ensure more predictable hours, give employees a voice in their schedules and grant access to full-time work that will improve the lives of working people, especially working women and mothers.
A national grassroots campaign called Our Time Counts is bringing attention to the need for all of us to have more of a voice in how much and when we work (and when we don’t). Starbucks baristas have been among the most powerful voices, calling on the company to deliver work schedules as consistent as America’s coffee habit.
Hillary Clinton has also called for workweek fairness, saying, “I believe you should receive your work schedule with enough notice to arrange childcare or take college courses to get ahead.”
As working moms continue to speak up, we can make the case for employers and policymakers to deliver the solutions working families need.
We know what needs to be done. Now we just need to build the political will to make it all happen.
Carrie Gleason is director of the Fair Workweek Initiative at Center for Popular Democracy.