Spotlight Exclusives

Meeting the Overlooked Challenges of Nonstandard Work Schedules

commentary commentary, posted on

The burden of working nights and weekends to keep our 24/7 economy moving is shouldered in large part by low-wage workers janitors, security guards, stock clerks, and others who begin their day after most people have gone home. A vital part of our labor force, they often struggle to find child care and transportation and to balance work and family time. Work-support strategies, employers, and schools can ease these challenges and make nonstandard schedules viable for low-income families.

According to my research, roughly 28 million people one in every five workers earn a living working most of their hours on the weekends or from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. on weekdays. These aren۪t jobs primarily held by students or moonlighters. For the majority of workers with nonstandard schedules, these are full-time jobs (76 percent) and their only jobs (85 percent). Many did not choose these schedules; rather, they took what jobs were available.

Sixty percent of workers on nonstandard schedules earn less than the median wage of the typical American worker, and 40 percent fall in the lowest wage quartile. The lack of flexibility in many low-wage jobs is exacerbated by nonstandard schedules. Many of these jobs don۪t offer paid leave, and accommodating emergencies can be difficult. Nighttime schedules are usually staffed at a minimum, so other workers may not be available to cover a shift.

The world of work is organized around a 9-to-5 day. Workers with nonstandard schedules have trouble securing evening, night, or weekend child care. Low-income single mothers who work odd hours often depend on informal care by relatives, but these arrangements can be unpredictable. Finding reliable transportation can also be tough. Public transit is limited, if available at all, late at night or very early in the morning. And carpooling and telecommuting are rarely feasible. Solving a payroll or human resources issue typically requires a daytime trip to the office.

Quality time with family suffers when one or both parents are working odd hours. Parents who work evenings often can۪t attend after-school events, help children with their homework, or read to them before bedtime.

And then there are the health risks. Night-shift workers are more likely to be injured on the job, and sleep deprivation and high stress levels are also common.

The conveniences of our 24/7 economy should not come at the expense of workers۪ health and family life. Our work-support policies must take nonstandard schedules into consideration.

Employers should acknowledge these realities and step up to the plate. They benefit from a stable workforce, which a few changes could help ensure. Scheduling is possibly the most powerful tool employers have to influence the lives of workers with nonstandard hours. They should create schedules that help workers balance job, family, and personal needs. For example, giving these workers even just one weekend off a month could allow them to spend more time with family. Offering paid time off or working with employees to make schedules more flexible can also help.

Limited child care options can also keep single mothers from accepting and keeping jobs with nonstandard schedules. Policymakers could promote expanded bus schedules and offer tax incentives to providers of evening and weekend child care, especially in areas with a lot of nonstandard-schedule work, such as tourist destinations.

Schools also have a role to play. In 2009, the Committee for Hispanic Children and Families recommended that New York City Public Schools create opportunities for parents working nontraditional hours to get involved in school activities. Schools should also be aware that some older students may miss out on evening activities because they are in charge of caring for younger siblings while their parents are working.

Creating the necessary workplace flexibility and support systems will only become more pressing in the years ahead. Of the ten occupations with the highest share of nonstandard schedules, eight are among the 30 occupations expected to grow most rapidly by 2020. Even more striking, three of the four fastest growing occupational fields registered nurses, home health aides, and personal care aides all have high shares of nonstandard schedules.

The experiences and challenges faced by workers with nonstandard work schedules has been neglected for too long. It۪s time for employers, policymakers, and schools to make the modest adjustments necessary to accommodate the needs of workers who aren۪t clocking in from 9 to 5.

To print a PDF version of this document, click here.

Mara E. Enchautegui is a Senior Research Associate with the Urban Institute.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of Spotlight. Spotlight is a non-partisan initiative, and Spotlight۪s commentary section includes diverse perspectives on poverty. If you have a question about a commentary, please don۪t hesitate to contact us at

If you wish to submit for consideration a commentary to Spotlight, please visit our commentary guidelines and submission page.

« Back to Spotlight Exclusives