Working to Fail

12 Pages Posted: 22 Mar 2021

Date Written: February 26, 2021


Many scholars have examined the lack of opportunity for upward mobility in the United States, focusing on a range of factors varying from the neighborhood, to the minimum wage, to the decline of unions. All of these factors are important. In this Essay, however, I focus on two workplace issues that have garnered relatively little attention, but are significant barriers to upward mobility, particularly for low-income, single, working mothers. These barriers do not just prevent upward mobility for these mothers, but in many cases can result in swift downward mobility and job instability or loss. I first discuss the problem of non-standard work hours, defined as work times outside of Monday through Friday, 8 am through 6 pm. The number of jobs requiring non-standard hours is increasing, and the jobs that require non- standard hours are skewed toward low-wage “pink collar” jobs occupied by poor women. Second, I discuss the problem of so-called “on-call scheduling,” where workers are not told their work schedules more than a week in advance and their hours vary both in number and timing week-to-week. Like non-standard hours, many of the jobs that require on-call scheduling are the very low-wage jobs that poor single mothers tend to occupy.

I connect these labor market realities to the problem of childcare for mothers by examining the existing social safety net for parents working these types of jobs. I show that the safety net is virtually non- existent when it comes to childcare specific to nonstandard and varying hours. Thus, mothers often find themselves in a position where they are forced to put their families at risk in order to be able to put food on the table or pay the next rent check. After discussing these problems, I explore avenues for change.

Keywords: gender law, poverty law, law and inequality, employment law

JEL Classification: H31, H53, 130, 131, 138, 13, j00, j22, j38, j62, j68

Suggested Citation

Greene, Sara Sternberg, Working to Fail (February 26, 2021). Duke Journal of Gender Law & Policy, Vol. 27, No. 167, 2020, Available at SSRN:

Sara Sternberg Greene (Contact Author)

Duke University School of Law ( email )

210 Science Drive
Box 90362
Durham, NC 27708
United States

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