Work scholar finds good labor practices are good for business

UChicago Prof. Susan Lambert retires after three decades of groundbreaking research on work scheduling

Prof. Susan Lambert has spent her whole career working on work.

“It was a no-brainer,” said the leading national scholar of work and family. “There are enormous wealth disparities, by race especially. Those disparities are lodged in our institutions—in education, in our social networks, but they're also in our workplaces.”

A faculty member at the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice (formerly SSA) for nearly four decades, Lambert’s research has not only deepened our understanding of labor practices, but also changed how we work.

When Lambert and frequent collaborator Prof. Julia Henly began documenting the experiences of low-paid workers, they identified a major—yet fixable—problem: work schedules.

For many hourly workers, the unpredictability of daily schedules can disrupt all parts of life from family dinner time to childcare to sleep.

“Susan’s specific focus on work scheduling was profound for me,” said Erin Devorah Carreon, a doctoral student at Crown working with Lambert. “It’s so important to think about how our work schedules, and the control we have over them, affects our daily lives.”

Lambert’s randomized trials in major national retailers have shown that not only are predictable work schedules better for people, they are also good for business. Often citing her findings and testimony, labor organizers and public policymakers have successfully passed Fair Workweek Laws throughout the country.

Though Lambert retired this August, her research, and its impact, isn’t done.

Clocking in

In the early 1990s, the U.S. was in the midst of a heated debate around welfare.

“A lot of that discussion assumed welfare recipients weren't working because they were dependent on public benefits,” said Prof. Julia Henly, a colleague of Lambert’s at Crown. “But most welfare recipients had histories of labor market involvement. Some were temporarily not working for caregiving or economic reasons.”

A 1996 law overhauled the welfare system and pushed unemployed parents into the workforce. Lambert collaborated with Prof. Emeritus Evelyn Brodkin on a study that examined the jobs public welfare participants were being referred to—jobs that were “setting up people for failure.”

“The problem was not the people, but the jobs,” said Henly.

For Henly, Lambert’s work opened her eyes to the critical role of workplaces to the success of anti-poverty programs. “I am so lucky that Susan and Evelyn brought me into their research project when I arrived at SSA,” Henly said. This early work kicked off a partnership with Lambert that would last decades.

In their first major study together, Lambert and Henly went inside businesses to learn what low-wage jobs look on the ground. They interviewed frontline managers and working mothers. The major thing that stuck out: the schedule.

“You never quite know when you're going to work,” Henly said. “You might close one day and then be called into work the next morning at 6 a.m. You might have three hours of sleep.”

“When I talked to managers, everything was about the schedule—the labor budget every day was driving what they did,” Lambert said. “On Julie's end, the schedule mattered for whether families could have dinner together, if parents could be there for bedtime routines and check homework. We both thought, ‘This scheduling thing is really interesting. And hardly anyone is looking at it.’”

Outdated survey questions made it difficult to fully estimate the scope of precarious schedules. When Lambert and Henly appealed to survey developers at the Department of Labor and NORC, they listened. New data from Lambert and Henly’s updated questions revealed that a substantial proportion of U.S. workers face unstable hours, short notice, and little schedule input—especially workers of color

The wide-spread prevalence and concerning ramifications of precarious scheduling practices would drive Lambert and Henly’s research for the next 20 years—not only as an issue to document, but one to change.

Getting down to business

In 2015, Lambert co-led the Gap Study where researchers tested new scheduling practices in 28 Gap stores across San Francisco and Chicago. Changes included giving workers two weeks advance notice of their schedules, easier ways to swap shifts with coworkers and generally making shifts more consistent.

The results were significant. Employees reported better sleep and lower stress. Business also improved.

“They found that these changes improved productivity—profit margins increased. I mean, it was kind of incredible,” Henly said. “Susan can then say to employers, ‘We've done this. There's a return on investment to employers for being thoughtful about what their employees might need.’”

Lambert now had hard data that demonstrated “all the little paper cuts” that precarious schedules caused. A late start here, a no-show there, all came at the expense of the labor budget.

“We found that improving work schedules increased sales and lowered outlays for labor because having a more consistent schedule reduced tardiness and increased engagement,” Lambert said.

Randomized trials like the Gap Study also gave labor organizers clear evidence to push for policy changes. Employers and policymakers alike sought Lambert’s consultation to help fix the problem.

In 2015, San Francisco became the first city to pass Fair Workweek legislation. “These laws have provisions that regulate frontline managers’ scheduling practices, from how far in advance the schedule is posted, to the right to refuse managers’ requests to change your hours—and extra pay if you agree to do so,” Lambert said.

Since then, Chicago, Evanston, New York, Philadelphia, Seattle and the state of Oregon have passed similar legislation.

Since 2017, Lambert along with Anna Haley, AM '95, PhD '03, and her research team of UChicago students have been evaluating the implementation of Fair Workweek Ordinances in Seattle and Chicago. Lambert and Henly are also looking at how the new laws matter in the lives of workers and their families.

Work in progress

Lambert’s passionate enthusiasm has also driven attention to a relatively small, but growing field within social work. “One of the things that attracted me to SSA over thirty years ago, and one of the reasons I've stayed, is because Crown is a place that has an expansive definition of social work,” Lambert said.

At Crown, she has mentored dozens of emerging scholars and practicing social workers interested in labor and policy. Her class Inequality at Work tasked students with doing a deep dive on a single working-class occupation—from ride-share driver to plumber to exotic dancer.

“A lot of students write to me that the course has transformed the way they see labor, the way they see people and their work,” Lambert said. “It’s one of the greatest rewards of my career.”

“Her mentorship of students has really been helpful for bringing more validation that labor issues are social work, that this work is important to addressing social inequality,” Carreon said. “I'm just glad that she's been able to mentor so many of us to continue that.”