Kids of Frontline Service Workers Are Suffering. Don’t Blame Their Parents

A recent study found that the unpredictable schedules of shift workers harms their kids, and their kid's kids. Fair workweek laws would help.

a woman stands in a store she works at with a mask on
Luis Alvarez / Getty Images

During the Covid pandemic, while white-collar workers hunkered down and worked from home, front-line workers staffed grocery stores, made deliveries, worked in meatpacking plants, and kept supply chains open. They kept our society from pretty much collapsing in on itself.

While many platitudes were delivered on behalf of service workers for their bravery — who account for some 23 million workers across the United States, many millions of whom are also moms and dads — the truth is that frontline service workers are getting the short end of the stick from minuscule paychecks to lack of workplace safety to lack of consistent scheduling, and by default, so are their kids.

A recent study from the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shift Project found that the unpredictability of scheduling, and other variables in the service industry, can have long-term negative impacts, not just on service workers’ kids, but their children’s children, and their children’s children’s children, and on down the line—multigenerational harm.

We know that service workers are generally paid a pittance and have poor if any benefits. But it’s not just the stagnant earning potential or lack of PTO in the service sector that’s a problem; it’s also the very nature of how workers are scheduled. Service workers generally don’t have the luxury of a set schedule and instead work different days and hours each week, sometimes working the closing shift one night and the opening shift the following day. Service workers are also frequently on call and are subject to abrupt schedule changes with little to no notice.

Unpredictable Scheduling Affects Kids

Kids thrive on routine, and knowing what to expect each day brings children a sense of well-being and decreased anxiety levels. When every day is different and parents are forced to accommodate a schedule that’s less solid than a desert mirage, children suffer.

Unpredictable scheduling can cause behavior issues in children which can manifest in many ways—from anxiety and withdrawal to uncharacteristic acting out behaviors. Irregular schedules also result in more school absences. Children of parents who experienced closing then opening shifts (or “clopening shifts”) missed, on average, two more days of school than their peers whose parents work fixed schedules.

Parents’ ability to care for children with chronic health conditions like asthma is also negatively affected by unstable work scheduling. The study found that asthmatic children of parents with unpredictable work schedules were more likely to end up in the ER or experience episodes of wheezing associated with asthma.

Childrens’ sleep schedules are also impacted by their parents’ work hours. Because of the difficulty in establishing long-term routines, up to 41% of children of service workers get less than the recommended amount of sleep at night, and up to 47% did not get the same amount of sleep consistently from night to night. Inadequate or poor-quality sleep may put these children at higher risk of health issues and poor academic performance than their peers.

Workers of Color are Disproportionately Affected

Workers of color comprise over 40% of service industry workers, a number much higher than the percentage of non-white adults in the general population—21.3%. Not only are non-white workers disproportionately working in service jobs, but they also experience the brunt of unpredictable scheduling.

According to the Shift Project report, compared to white service workers, workers of color were more likely to work on-call shifts and experience schedule changes with less than two weeks notice, and women of color were more likely to have shifts canceled, work on-call shifts, and be forced to work part-time hours than their white male counterparts.

This means that children of color whose parents work in the service industry, who are already at a disadvantage compared to their white peers, experience more long-term adverse effects than their white peers or children of color whose parents have schedule stability.

Fair Workweek Laws Can Help

A few municipalities and one state, Oregon, are addressing the problems with scheduling in the service industry in the form of fair workweek laws. Seattle’s Schedule Ordinance mandates that workers receive at least two weeks’ notice of schedule changes or receive additional wages when two weeks’ notice is not given.

The ordinance also discourages employers from scheduling workers for “clopening shifts” by enforcing extra pay for workers who are not given at least 10 hours off between shifts. Researchers found that Seattle’s Schedule Ordinance had far-reaching positive impacts—improving workers’ sleep, overall happiness, and economic stability, all of which trickle down to positively affecting their children.

While there are no federal policies on the books that address these disparities, two bills hope to manage unpredictable scheduling.

The Schedules That Work Act, introduced by Senator Elizabeth Warren in 2019, requires employers to provide workers with their schedules two weeks in advance and offer additional wages for abrupt schedule changes.

And the Part-Time Workers Bill of Rights Act, also introduced by Senator Warren, requires employers to offer additional hours to part-time workers before hiring new employees to fill vacancies, reducing the number of workers forced into involuntary part-time work.