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News from EPI Parents’ Irregular Work Schedules Can Harm Children’s School and Life Outcomes

Children of parents working non-standard and unpredictable schedules are more likely to have decreased cognitive and behavioral outcomes, according to an issue brief by University of New South Wales lecturer Leila Morsy and EPI research associate Richard Rothstein. The brief, Parents’ Non-Standard Work Schedules Make Adequate Childrearing Difficult: Reforming Labor Market Practices Can Improve Children’s Cognitive and Behavioral Outcomes, is part of a broader EPI project by Morsy and Rothstein that examines social class characteristics that hinder children’s cognitive and behavioral development and provides policy recommendations to address these characteristics.

“When parents can’t predict when they will or won’t be working, their entire home lives are disrupted—they engage less with their children in critical activities like reading and telling stories,” said Morsy. “In many states, parents working irregular schedules even lose eligibility for child care subsidies.”

Irregular work schedules have consequences for children of all ages. Toddlers whose mothers work non-standard hours have worse sensory perception, learning, problem solving, and verbal communication. Meanwhile, 13- and 14-year-olds are more likely to be depressed and to engage in risky behavior like smoking and drinking when their parents work nights.

Advances in scheduling software let employers create “just-in-time” schedules, which call workers in or send them home on short notice. These non-standard schedules are more common among black workers, less-educated workers, and young, low-income single mothers. About half of black hourly workers in their childrearing years, half of low-wage workers in their childrearing years, and one-third of mothers with pre-teen children get one week or less notice of their weekly schedules. Workers with unpredictable schedules often don’t receive the same number of weekly hours—for example, 69 percent of hourly-employed mothers of pre-teens have weekly fluctuations in hours. When parents have non-standard hours, they are more tired, anxious, irritable, and stressed.

“We need policies that deter employers from scheduling work in ways that impede parents’ abilities to give their children stable home lives. Such policies will help parents to have more time and energy to devote to their children and will help their children to have the foundation they need to do well in school and life,” said Rothstein.

The authors recommend that workers should be compensated for unpredictable schedules. For example, premiums could be required for work performed beyond eight hours after the first working hour of the day or outside typical daytime hours. Additionally, workers required to stay beyond their regularly scheduled shifts should receive overtime pay, even if they have not yet worked eight hours in the day or 40 hours in the week.

The authors address this topic and four other social and economic conditions that shape children’s school and life outcomes in Five Social Disadvantages that Depress Student Performance: Why Schools Alone Can’t Close the Achievement Gaps.