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Another Barrier to Higher Education: Unstable Work Schedules

  ·  Adriana Diaz

As a member of the Advocacy Council at Women Employed, I’m pleased to introduce this guest blog by Gloria Ortiz. Through my volunteer work at Women Employed, I often get to better see how the policy changes we advocate for at The Forum overlap with the work of Women Employed, and vice versa. The topic of unfair scheduling practices is an issue that affects working women, students, families, Latinos and immigrants alike and often in intersections. Read below to learn how undocumented students can be particularly affected. –Adriana Díaz

Guest blog post by Gloria Ortiz, Policy Associate at Women Employed—a Chicago-based advocacy organization that mobilizes people and organizations to expand educational and employment opportunities for America’s working women.

It's not surprising that most students work while earning a college degree. For many, even the most affordable option, community college, can be far too expensive. The cost of books, transportation, rent, and childcare add up. Meanwhile, our financial aid programs are underfunded and constantly threatened by budget cuts.

So it's predictable, if unfortunate, that students have been working more and more hours. Balancing work and school particularly affects Latino students, whose college enrollment has increased by more than 200 percent since 2003, and 75 percent of whom work while attending school. And they aren't just picking up a couple of shifts or working part-time; they average 30 hours per week.

Juggling work, family, and classes has always been difficult. But now, increasingly, there’s another barrier standing in the way of working students: employers are giving them unstable and unpredictable work schedules.

Today, especially in low-wage jobs in retail and food industries, employees may work 10 hours one week and 30 the next. They are often given their schedules with only two or three days’ advance notice, and they might be scheduled for mornings one week and evenings the next, or weekdays and then weekends. If business slows down, they can be sent home early, losing the pay they were counting on.  Some employers even require their workers to be on-call, which means they must be available to come in at a moment's notice but aren't guaranteed any hours.

These scheduling practices can have a devastating effect on students, says Nan Sullivan, an advisor at Truman College. Nan remembers one student whose job schedule originally fit with her class schedule. "But then her boss changed her hours and told her she either needed to work the new schedule or that she would not be able to work there anymore," Nan says. “She ended up leaving her job to stay in school. It was devastating for her. She had no income. She has no family supporting her. So she actually had to live with friends."

This isn't a lone case; Nan often speaks with students whose employers refuse to accommodate their class schedules, oftentimes varying their hours from day to day. She says that many students have to drop out of some of their classes, which can put their financial aid in peril. If they end up with too few credits, they become ineligible for financial aid.

Worse, some students drop out of college entirely. "One of the biggest reasons I had to drop out of school was because my schedule was very chaotic, it was all over the place," explains Abigail Tiu, who was later able to return to college and earn her associate's degree. "I wasn't really able to manage a set schedule for school and then a set schedule for work."

Undocumented students can be particularly affected by unfair scheduling practices. Students without permanent residency, citizenship, or VAWA status do not qualify for financial aid and often have to pay their whole educational bill. Working while going to school is an imperative for them, but they're likely to work for the employers who have the worst scheduling practices. Two critical policy changes would help: access to financial aid and work schedules which permit them to arrange both work and school.

We know how much difference a degree can make in the life of someone who is struggling to get by. It's clear that we need to make higher education more accessible, and part of that is fighting for fairer schedules that let students go to school and work at the same time. We needed businesses to change their practices and we need policies that make sure they do. My nonprofit, Women Employed, is discussing and implementing fair scheduling solutions with partners, businesses, and policymakers. Want to learn more? Visit WE's website. And stay tuned to hear more about the issue from Latino Policy Forum!

Posted In: Education