Helping Workers Get To Work

In recent years, there have been dire warnings about work becoming more automated.  There’s also been much attention paid to telecommuting, remote work, and other technologically-assisted ways for workers to be able to work anywhere. But the reality is that many jobs still require humans to do them, and many jobs also require those humans to actually be at the workplace. Robots haven’t replaced everybody yet, and telecommuting isn’t something that’s feasible in every kind of job.

The city of Seattle is facing a particularly challenging situation right now in “the Seattle Squeeze” – a three-week closure of the major north-south highway that runs through the city, including its downtown. Although there will be some improvements to public transit during the shutdown, it’s anticipated that a lot of workers are going to experience unusually long commutes getting to and from their workplaces. So what can workers do if they have to be at their workplace and it’s going to take a really long time to get there?

Alaskan Way Viaduct in downtown Seattle, which will be demolished during the “Seattle Squeeze”. (credit: Flickr/Washington State Department of Transportation)

Working Washington, a organization in Washington State that advocates for higher wages and better working conditions, has come up with some very clever strategies to address that dilemma. Last week, it released a list of suggested “best practices” for employers to manage commuting-related problems in industries that “require a worker to show up at a particular workplace in order to do their job”. Here are some of the suggestions:

  • Provide at least two weeks’ notice of work schedules, so that employees can adjust their lives to accommodate their longer commuting time.
  • Set a minimum shift length of at least four hours; fewer shift changes mean fewer commutes.
  • Accommodate workers who need to modify their availability, which could include planning more overlapping shifts to accommodate unpredictable travel times.
  • Allow employees to trade shifts, to provide flexibility to each other.
  • Don’t rely on on-call shifts to staff the workplace.
  • Waive discipline for employees who arrive late due to transportation problems.
  • Contribute to employees’ transportation costs.
  • Employers in the “gig economy” can also provide workers with the estimated time to complete a job and not penalize workers who decline jobs, and not apply customer ratings to worker evaluations if job performance is negatively affected by unforeseen delays.

I was very impressed by this list for three reasons.

First, it provides very practical solutions to significant operational challenges in workplaces. The list was produced in response to a specific (and hopefully temporary) situation, but it has ideas that could be used in any workplace where employees might have problems getting to and from the workplace. Many of these ideas would be excellent practices for workplaces to use all the time, not just when employees might have more commuting problems than usual.

Second, the list places responsibility for managing these challenges on the employer as well ton he employee. Too often, employees are expected to figure out on their own how to deal with disrupted commutes and transit changes. The list is a good reminder that employers can be proactive in minimizing the workplace effects of these problems – and it’s also worth remembering that, in many jurisdictions, employers may also have legal obligations around issues like employee scheduling, such as paying employees for a minimum number of hours of work per shift.

Third, the list specifically targets industries and occupations in which the worker has to do their job at the workplace, such as “food services, retail, warehouses, caregiving [and] delivery”. Amidst the whirlwind of excitement about technology transforming how we work, it’s good to be reminded that not everyone can telecommute or have a robot do their job. Non-automated jobs are still a significant part of the labour market, and they also provide very important services in the economy and in society. Workers in these kinds of jobs also deserve fair treatment at their workplaces.

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