12/23/2014 04:48 pm ET Updated Feb 22, 2015

Holiday Pay Falls Short

Many Americans will be scrambling in the final days of the 2014 holiday season to find the perfect gift and prepare their holiday meals. And helping Americans in that holiday rush are tens of thousands of retail workers. However sadly, for many of them they are often thinking about more than just holiday gifts. The holiday season is known for its long retail hours.

Yesterday shopping at my local mall I met a wonderful gentleman who was checking me out as I bought a gift for my mom. As we talked he told me he was working double the hours he usually works during the holiday season, not only to make ends meet, but to help pay for his daughter to participate in the extra curricula activities she wants to do and needs participate in to get in to college. The reality is, he told me, he would just make enough to pay the increase in his rent for the year... if that.

So many retail workers face long hours starting on Thanksgiving for many stores, and the extended hours throughout the holiday season, which in some cases extend 24/7 in the days leading up to Christmas. These "Thanksgiving and holiday hours" create an additional burden on our nation's retail workers, who are already struggling to support their families on the long hours, low pay and a lack of workplace flexibility required by these jobs.

Retail work, like other service sector work, is characterized by "just-in-time scheduling." According to a Workplace Flexibility 2010 report, many service industries, including retail and hospitality, attempt to keep costs down and profits high by achieving a tight fit between labor supply and labor demand. This scheduling practice means that both the number of hours and timing of those hours can change day to day and season to season at the discretion of management. The unpredictable work schedules complicate workers' lives as they try to adapt child care, transportation, etc. around the changing schedule.

Unfortunately, these additional seasonal hours do not close the economic security gap. Retail workers represent millions of Americans who are employed, live above the poverty line, and yet still can't pay for basic needs.

According to a recent Wider Opportunities for Women (WOW) study, the U.S. economic insecurity rate--the proportion of Americans who lack incomes to afford basic expenses--was 44 percent in 2012, almost three times the national poverty rate. WOW's research also found that 89 percent of cashiers in retail live below economic security for their family type. Working holiday hours may be a band aid to make the month's bills, but do not help diminish overall economic security.

Instead we need a true economic security agenda to ensure that retail workers--the majority of whom are women--can work reasonable hours with good wages, benefits and flexibility. Companies such as
Costco are paving the way, demonstrating how "high-road" employment practices are not only good for workers but profitable for companies.

Congress is currently considering The Schedules that Work Act which seeks to address these problems by giving employees the ability to request changes to their work schedules without fear of retaliation. It also seeks to give workers in certain industries known to have erratic scheduling practices more predictable and stable schedules.

As our nation increasingly becomes service oriented, we must ensure that "service" does not become synonymous with "enslaved." Instead we must adopt best practices and regulations that lift American workers. After all, a thriving working class is good for the nation's bottom line, which will bring cheer to any holiday season.