Making It Work: Special Report on Hourly Workers

Predictable schedules, paid time off and health insurance help these companies hold on to their valuable nonexempt workers.

This article was originally published by Working Mother in April 2013.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis

When DeAna Jimenez’s 6-year-old daughter, Serenity, caught the flu and whooping cough last December, DeAna, 38, stayed home with her, missing out on four days of pay and bonuses in the lucrative pre-Christmas period. “I easily lost out on $250,” recalls the single mom, who works full-time as a store team leader at a specialty foods company in Denver but receives no paid leave. “That’s a light bill; it’s a week’s worth of groceries.”

At least she didn’t lose her job—a result that isn’t uncommon among hourly-working moms forced to choose between their families and their work. Such stories are familiar to Linda Meric, executive director of 9to5, National Association of Working Women, a grassroots advocacy group for low-income women. “Especially in these tough economic times, no worker can afford to lose pay or a job because they have to care for their own or a family member’s health,” Meric says. “And yet there are far too many hourly workers who are faced with exactly that dilemma. The ways in which some employers cheat and mistreat their workers are numerous and varied.”

From erratic scheduling and low wages to no health insurance or paid time off, the nonsalaried employees who help us at the fast-food restaurant, store or hospital too often face the toughest work life challenges. That’s why Working Mother honors the 2013 Best Companies for Hourly Workers, which have found solutions to these problems and strive to provide opportunities for nonexempt employees to advance into salaried and management roles. These 12 Best Companies have been judged on more than 300 questions, ranging from benefits and training to flexibility and paid time off, and include retailers, hospitals and manufacturers. These varied employers have one thing in common: All know that treating hourly workers right is not only the right thing to do, it’s also good for business—a positive culture is a competitive advantage in an economy that increasingly requires highly trained workers at all levels.

Planning Ahead

One of the most basic stress points for hourly workers is their weekly, or even daily, schedule. While many salaried working mothers long for flexible weeks or reduced hours, hourly-working moms wish for more predictable schedules that include enough work time to pay for their families’ needs. The retail and restaurant industries, in particular, have been known to ramp employees’ hours up and down, often at the last minute, as sophisticated staffing software gets better at predicting the minute-to-minute demand for smoothies or buy-one-get-one-free apparel.

It’s an issue that is central to the increasing number of people now working part-time. Since 2006, the retail and wholesale sector has cut 1 million full-time jobs and added more than 500,000 part-time jobs, for a total of more than 18 million positions nationwide, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Especially pernicious: the proliferation of call-in shifts (meaning an employee must make herself available for work without the guarantee of a paid shift) and the practice of notifying people when they report to work that they’re not needed that day. Currently, only a handful of states require employers to pay a certain minimum amount for “reporting time” in the latter case.

“All the flexibility is on the employer’s side and not the workers’ side,” says Vicki Shabo, director of work and family programs for the advocacy group the National Partnership for Women and Families, which recently interviewed hourly workers as part of a U.S. Labor Department initiative. “We heard from a lot of people who have no flexibility, no predictability, lots of last-minute changes and cancellations that don’t leave them any flexibility in terms of transportation or child care.”

It doesn’t have to be this way. For example, when registered nurse Megan Sanders, 29, was pregnant with her son, Gavin, she fretted over how to manage child care during her 12.5-hour shifts. “Day cares are not conducive to nurse’s hours,” says Megan, who works in an intermediate care nursery at the University of New Mexico Hospitals, a Best Company for Hourly Workers for the past four years. With her supervisor, Megan constructed a plan to work primarily Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, when her mother-in-law or husband could watch Gavin, now 2, and the company has stuck to it.

Beyond such individual scheduling, some Best Companies also allow workers to swap shifts through technological solutions like instant messaging and online scheduling, to accommodate doctor’s visits and school events. At Capital One Financial, for instance, customer service representatives can agree on a schedule swap by instant message and then enter it into the computer system.

This kind of schedule flexibility is crucial to employee satisfaction and retention, asserts John Wilcox, executive director of Corporate Voices for Working Families. “When you are going to work is just as important as how much you’re being paid,” he says.

Paying the Bills

Still, a great work schedule won’t help if you earn so little that you can’t make ends meet. “Whether you’re hourly or salaried, if you’re not making enough to raise a family on, that’s a problem,” says Amy Traub, senior policy analyst with Demos, a research and advocacy organization.

That’s one reason Donna Horton, 39, loves working at General Motors, which she joined in 1994. Sure, she starts on the Corvette line at 6:12 a.m. and may work 8 or 10 hours. But after 4:42 p.m., her day is clear to spend time with Alex, 15, Rachel, 12, and Macy, 2. “I’ve been very grateful for the fact that I’ve had a consistent schedule, I’ve made good money, and I haven’t been away from them from 8 in the morning to 2 the next morning to close a restaurant,” says Horton, who is a final fitter at the Bowling Green, KY, plant. “I know mothers who have to work more than two jobs to make things work for their families.”

Equally important is paid time off, another area in which the Best Companies shine. On average, 99 percent of full-time nonexempt employees with a year of service at the Best companies have access to paid time off, while 10 Best Companies provide paid leave to part-timers. By contrast, nationwide, 23 percent of American adults have lost a job or been threatened with losing a job for taking time away for their own illness or a sick family member, according to the National Partnership.

At eight Best Companies, hourly employees are eligible for job-protected maternity leave beyond the 12 weeks required by the Family and Medical Leave Act. For Jill Canada, 32, a client program coordinator at direct mail and marketing company Valassis, in Houston, this benefit was a job-saver when she was ordered to bed rest in her twenty-eighth week of pregnancy with twins last summer. Her employer’s response? Don’t worry, a position will be waiting for you when you’re ready to return. “This company is completely different from any other I’ve been at when it comes to being flexible for appointments,” says Jill, who remembers a prior position where 90 days’ notice was required to take any of five allotted annual vacation days. “Taking a vacation day or personal day—even if you needed to go to the doctor in the morning—was frowned upon. Coming here is a breath of fresh air.”

Jill’s employer finds that she and her co-workers are the oxygen that sustains the company: “We value our associates and the passion they have for our business, so we work closely with them to accommodate their schedules when a special need arises, whether it’s the occasional doctor’s visit or parent-teacher conference or an extended medical leave,” says Leslie Lenser, senior vice president, human resources.

Getting Healthier

It’s no surprise these days to find out that low-pay and service jobs are less likely to offer employer-provided health insurance than salaried ones. Across the nation’s lowest-wage jobs, only about a third of all employees had access to employer-provided medical benefits in 2012, while only 19 percent participated in them, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Meanwhile, women in full-time service jobs are often completely uninsured, with 35 percent of restaurant workers, 36 percent of cashiers and 26 percent of retail sales assistants lacking insurance, versus only 16 percent of all U.S. women, according to an analysis of 2010 Census Bureau data by the National Women’s Law center. Indeed, one survey of 4,300 restaurant employees found that only 10 percent receive employer-provided health insurance.

The Best Companies offer their employees benefits packages that can include not only health insurance but also tuition reimbursement and retirement plans, as well as other service discounts. All told, 41 percent of hourly employees at the Best Companies participate in family health insurance programs (and 61 percent in personal health insurance programs). On average, hourly employees at the Best Companies must work a minimum of 21 hours per week to be eligible.

Rose Kangethe, 40, a human resources generalist at the BWI Airport Marriott Hotel, taps Marriott International’s tuition reimbursement every year, having earned her bachelor’s degree and delved deep into a master’s degree during her 16 years with the company. “There were nights I had to do my homework and Lizzy was sitting right on my foot,” says the mom of Joy, 9, Cyrus, 7, and Elizabeth, 4. “But then I was still able to wake up the next morning and look forward to going to work.”

Rose, who started as a food runner in a Marriott restaurant, also uses her discounts on Marriott hotels and vacation packages, such as a Hawaiian vacation this year, and has set aside funds through the health savings account to fix her teeth. Plus, her youngest daughter goes to a day care that offers Marriott employees a 20 percent discount.

Moving Up

Tellingly, the Best Companies aim to create a culture of advancement. Among the 2013 class of winning companies, all offer job skills training for nonexempt employees, while seven have formal advancement programs meant to identify future leaders among the hourly workforce. Half have formal compensation programs that reward managers who help hourly employees advance. Also notable: Among all employees promoted from hourly to salaried positions last year at the Best companies, 47 percent were women.

Setoria Key, 36, who started at Sodexo as a human resources administrative assistant eight years ago, is one of those women who have risen through the ranks. Initially, “I called myself the phone girl,” says the single mom, who worked on-site at Sodexo’s operation running the University of Maryland–Baltimore county dining services. But through Sodexo’s action learning program, which allows employees to use work experience for coursework and take classes online at odd hours, Setoria earned a bachelor’s degree while working and raising her daughter, now 14.

Now Setoria is a senior program specialist in the talent acquisition group. “As soon as I got my degree,
I was able to apply for other positions so I could get higher pay and further my career with Sodexo,” she says.

Inspired, she wrote to Sodexo’s vice president of diversity to request even more opportunities for all hourly employees to gain more competencies and skills so they could advance. Within a few months, the company launched a professional development program offering networking, learning and mentorship. “I’ve never experienced that with any other company I’ve ever worked for,” says Setoria. At Sodexo, “even in a huge organization, they pay attention, listen and care about the little people.”

The company says that focusing on workers is vital: “Sodexo’s employees represent our greatest sustainable resource,” says Rohini Anand, senior vice president and global chief diversity officer. “Supporting internal mobility and enabling employees to exercise options such as flexible work schedules increases productivity, creativity and commitment to the operation.”

DeAna Jimenez hopes to work for just that kind of employer in the future. “One day,” she says, “my goal is to be able to make enough money so that I can give back, so I can have an extra $200 to say to some family, ‘Here’s $200 so you can have Christmas.’”