HKS Authors

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The COVID-19 pandemic brought public awareness to the vital role that front-line service sector workers play in our economy and daily lives. These workers did the essential and in-person work of staffing grocery stores and pharmacies, keeping restaurants and retail running, and delivering supplies while millions of other Americans sheltered in place and worked from home. The service sector makes up a large sector of the U.S. labor force, accounting for over 23 million jobs. Despite their importance during the pandemic, jobs in this sector are profoundly precarious, undermining both the economic security and the health and wellbeing of workers and their families. Jobs in retail, food service, and hospitality are known for their low wages and high turnover, but less attention has been paid to the schedule instability and unpredictability that many service sector workers contend with every day. Schedules in the service sector have not improved, despite the current low unemployment rate and the stated commitment of some firms to improve conditions for workers during the pandemic. The Shift Project has been tracking service sector workers’ schedules since 2017, using an innovative data collection method to survey thousands of workers twice annually. Drawing on data from about 110,000 workers who completed surveys between Spring 2017 and Fall 2021, we compare work-scheduling conditions before the COVID-19 pandemic to work-scheduling conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic. We find little evidence of change. Unstable and unpredictable work schedules continue to be the norm for service sector workers – especially for workers of color, and for women of color in particular.


Zundl, Elaine, Daniel Schneider, Kristen Harknett, and Evelyn Bellew. "Still Unstable: The Persistence of Schedule Uncertainty During the Pandemic." Shift Project Research Brief, January 2022.