A Landmark Retail Workers 'Bill of Rights' Passes Unanimously In San Francisco

11/25/2014 05:47 pm ET | Updated Nov 25, 2014
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Amid growing concern over erratic work schedules, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors on Tuesday passed a first-of-its-kind law aimed at securing more stable hours for retail workers.

Dubbed "the retail workers bill of rights," the law, which passed the 11-member, all-Democratic board unanimously, requires the city's large chain retailers to post workers' schedules at least two weeks ahead of time. Workers will be owed supplemental pay if unexpected changes are made to their schedules, or if they're required to be "on call" and their shifts are suddenly canceled.

The law, championed by Supervisor David Chiu, also requires that the employers offer any extra hours they have to their current workforces, rather than bringing on more part-time or temporary workers.

Passed as a set of two bills -- the first sailed through last week, the second on Tuesday -- the law marks a significant victory for labor groups and other advocates for retail and low-wage workers.

At a time when minimum wage and sick leave proposals are proving extremely popular, backers of the San Francisco legislation hope similar measures will now pop up in other cities and perhaps even states. California and its cities often find themselves on the leading edge of progressive labor policies.

Ann O'Leary, head of the children and families program at Next Generation, a San Francisco nonprofit that pushed for the legislation, said the law was fashioned partly in response to retailers' use of on-call and just-in-time scheduling. Modern scheduling technology may help retailers cut costs and become more efficient, but it also makes workers' hours less reliable, she said.

"It's not the manager thinking about people's needs -- it's a computer looking at the data," O'Leary said. "In San Francisco there's a higher minimum wage, but some weeks you're getting 10 hours and others you're getting 25. It's very hard to figure out what you're doing in terms of family income."

O'Leary also said the legislation was meant to address recent economic trends. With the high unemployment rates of the recession and recovery, many more workers than usual found themselves underemployed, working part-time but wanting more hours. The number of these so-called "involuntary part-time" workers has gradually dropped as the economy has rebounded, but it's still far from from its pre-recession levels.

Although popular among city supervisors, the San Francisco measures were opposed by the city's chamber of commerce. As Politico reported, the lobby sent a letter to the board last week criticizing the crafting of the law as opaque.

"These ordinances were drafted in large part behind closed doors, with last minute changes that brought numerous other employers within the scope of the ordinances, without notice or outreach," the letter stated.

Backers of the legislation tried to make it more palatable to the San Francisco business community by carving out smaller employers. The law only applies to what city law considers "formula retail" companies, which are retail and food chains with 11 or more locations nationally. So while companies like Target and McDonald's will have to follow the law, the local corner store and mom-and-pop boutique will get a pass.

Despite the chamber's concerns, O'Leary said advocates didn't encounter much opposition to the proposal, probably because of how it was limited to larger companies.

"Since we moved from something that would cover the entire workforce to more formula retail chains, we haven't seen big resistance from the employer community," she said.

The coalition of groups supporting the law was hoping to raise standards in general at large chains, according to Michelle Lim, an organizer with the San Francisco office of Jobs with Justice, a non-union labor group focused on low-wage industries. Groups like Lim's have been instrumental in winning labor-friendly measures like San Francisco's through city councils as well as the ballot box.

"What a retail worker bill of rights could do is really lift the floor not just for retail workers but for chain businesses," said Lim. "It's also creating lot of opportunities for organizing."

The San Francisco bill already has a federal companion of sorts in Congress: the Schedules that Work Act. The legislation would require businesses to compensate workers who show up for their scheduled shift but are turned away, as well as workers whose schedules are changed without at least 24 hours' notice. Sponsored by House Democrats, the bill has virtually no chance of passing the GOP-controlled House or the soon-to-be-GOP-controlled Senate.

With Congressional Republicans opposing a minimum wage hike and other legislation aimed at low-wage work, labor unions and their progressive allies have found much more success on the local level. Despite the drubbing that Democrats took in the midterm elections earlier this month, binding ballot initiatives on the minimum wage passed easily in four red states. A measure that will require many employers to provide their workers with paid sick days also passed in Massachusetts.

Polling shows that voters are highly sympathetic to minimum wage raises and sick-leave mandates. O'Leary said she suspects scheduling rights for retail workers will prove popular as well, even in cities that aren't as famously liberal as her own.

"There are a lot of eyes on San Francisco now," she said. "People are wondering if we can bring this citywide, and then to the state level, and then around the country."

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