Research & Biography

Susan Lambert is on leave for the 2016-17 academic year. She has been named a Russell Sage Foundation 2016-2017 Visiting Scholar

Research Projects

Research
As employers wrestle with pressures to minimize labor costs, they are increasingly using daily scheduling practices to pass variations in demand onto workers. These growing legions of hourly employees - just-in-time workers - find that their jobs are subject to change season to season, week to week, or even day to day. Understanding how managers are structuring and scheduling jobs is crucial to determining new directions for both social policy and employer practices.

Susan Lambert, associate professor at the School of Social Service Administration, is one of the few researchers focusing on the "work" side of work-life issues, primarily studying low-skilled, hourly jobs. Central to her research - which has received funding from the Ford Foundation, Annie E. Casey Foundation, and the Russell Sage Foundation - is examining whether it is possible to create a better model of work for both hourly low-wage employees and employers. This is especially important at a time when employers are shifting risk from the market onto employees, subsequently undermining workers' ability to access social benefits such as health insurance, unemployment insurance, and paid leave.

In one major study, Lambert looked at 88 different low-skilled jobs at 22 large Chicago employers in the retail, hospitality, financial services, and transportation industries. Traditional job distinctions, such as full-time and part-time status, were often blurred, Lambert found, as front-line managers sought to hold down labor rates. Full-time jobs did not always provide full-time hours. And, part-time jobs often required employees to work beyond part-time limits. In their quest to hold down labor costs, firms rarely provide workers in hourly jobs with minimum-hour guarantees and often resort to last-minute scheduling. For example, hotel-worker schedules would be posted the Friday before the workweek that started on Sunday. Across jobs, schedules were often posted with little advance notice and changed after they were posted.

Unpredictable and unstable work schedules can interfere with workers' ability to manage their personal life and have unintended consequences for employers, including increased rates of turnover and lower productivity. What steps can be taken to "balance managers' goals with employees' goals," as Lambert puts it? Lambert and her SSA colleague, Associate Professor Julia Henly, are currently working with a national women's apparel retail firm on The Scheduling Intervention Study (SIS), the first random experiment that investigates how changes in scheduling practices may improve company and worker fortunes. A key question: Can greater scheduling predictability - posting job schedules further in advance - and increasing communication between front-line managers and sales associates on issues such as availability for additional work and scheduling time off lead to improved store performance and worker well-being?

The outcome of SIS is being keenly watched by the Work-Life Forum of the National Retail Federation, a leading group of retailers from which the firm for the study was recruited. Lambert's work is drawing attention from a variety of audiences across the country. She recently led three sessions on scheduling issues for Leadership Greater Chicago, next-generation leaders in business, government, and civic affairs. She is working with Women Employed, a non-profit seeking to improve the economic status of low-wage women, on a project for benchmarking firms' supportiveness of hourly workers. Lambert has been a featured speaker at the West Coast Poverty Center, the Center for Law and Social Policy, and the Mobility Agenda, and has participated in roundtable discussions on low-wage work at the Urban Institute. "The usual focus is on finding ways to improve low-skilled workers," says Lambert, "but I am trying to get employers and researchers to think of ways to improve low-skilled jobs themselves."

Biography

Susan J. Lambert is a Russell Sage Visiting Scholar (2016-17), Associate Professor in the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago, and co-Director of the Employment Instability, Family Well-Being, and Social Policy Scholars Network (EINet). Lambert received a B.A. summa cum laude in Psychology from Eastern Michigan University, a M.S.W. (Social Program Evaluation) and a Ph.D. in Social Work and Social Science (Organizational Psychology) from the University of Michigan.

Lambert studies how employer practices shape the quality of low-level jobs, the lives of low-paid workers, and inequality in society. The sites for Lambert’s research span both production and non-production industries, including retail, hospitality, financial services, transportation, and manufacturing, and both publicly-held and family-owned firms. Her research includes comparative organizational case-studies and randomized workplace experiments as well as analyses of national data on the prevalence of precarious scheduling practices in today’s U.S. labor market. Lambert just completed a randomized experiment at Gap, Inc., in conjunction with Professor Joan Williams of the University of California Hastings School of Law. The experiment assesses the potential effects of an intervention designed to improve multiple dimensions of employees’ work schedules (schedule stability, predictability, control, and adequacy) on both business and employee outcomes. Her research is supported by grants from the Russell Sage Foundation, Kellogg Foundation, Ford Foundation, Annie E. Casey Foundation, Center for Popular Democracy, and Washington Center for Equitable Growth. Lambert regularly advises policy advocates, labor groups, employers, and government officials on strategies to improve scheduling practices in hourly jobs.