LGBTQ+ Workers Especially Burdened by Unpredictable Work Hours, Unstable Incomes

06/27/2022 1:50pm

At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, other non-straight, non-cisgender (LGBTQ+) workers found themselves out of a job as the country faced its worst recession in over a decade. Workers in service sector jobs like restaurant servers, housekeepers, and retail sales associates, were particularly hard hit. Although the uncertainty about when their service sector jobs might return abated as the economy recovered, unpredictable scheduling by employers remained a common source of insecurity for many workers.

People who identify as LGBTQ+ are overrepresented in service sector jobs where unpredictable scheduling is common. Unstable work hours may lead to unstable incomes. This article seeks to illuminate the effects of unpredictable scheduling and unstable incomes on LGBTQ+ workers and discuss some potential solutions.

Work schedule uncertainty can affect many aspects of daily life. For hourly workers, fluctuations in the number of hours worked means earnings may vary from week-to-week, causing overall financial instability. Hour variability can also disrupt childcare arrangements and other personal obligations for hourly and salaried workers. In addition, employees may have little advance notice from managers about decisions to cut back or increase hours, prompting further uncertainty about earnings and financial insecurity. When employees are not given the opportunity to provide input or share their preferences about the hours they work, they are more likely to perceive schedule variability as a source of uncertainty and insecurity.

A growing body of research demonstrates how unpredictable scheduling practices can contribute to negative outcomes for workers. Uncertainty about work hours has been shown to affect economic insecurity and institutional distrust and increase the likelihood of turnover. It can also have detrimental effects on worker happiness, sleep quality, and material hardship, reducing overall well-being. The COVID-19 pandemic likely compounded these negative outcomes as layoffs in some industries and labor shortages in others meant work hours frequently fluctuated in both directions.

Research on how LGBTQ+ workers experience unpredictable work hours is underdeveloped.

This analysis uses 2019–2021 data (pooled to ensure a robust sample size) from the Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking (SHED) to show how LGBTQ+ workers fare compared to their non-LGBTQ+ counterparts across several measures of economic insecurity.

Not only are workers who identify as LGBTQ+ overrepresented in service sector jobs, where unpredictable scheduling is common, they are more likely than non-LGBTQ+ workers to have unstable work hours driven by their employers’ needs, as opposed to their own. (Table 1)

Nationwide, 12 percent of LGBTQ+ employees work in several major service sectors, while 9 percent of all workers are employed in the same sectors. About 18 percent of all LGBTQ+ workers experience work-hour instability. Meanwhile, nearly one-third of LGBTQ+ employees in the major service sectors report that their schedules vary at their employer’s request (see Table 1). This is 10 percentage points higher than their non-LGBTQ+ peers. For hourly workers in the service sector, reduced hours can mean reduced earnings and uncertainty about managing recurring expenses.

LGBTQ+ employees may be targeted with unpredictable scheduling tactics because of other characteristics as well, such as their ethnicity, age bracket, and marital status. More LGBTQ+ employees are Hispanic compared to non-LGBTQ+ employees, inside and outside the service sector. LGBTQ+ workers tend to be younger, with 62 percent of those in the service sector being between the ages of 18 and 34. They are also far more likely to be unmarried without children: over half of all LGBTQ+ employees and 58 percent of those in the service sector report being unmarried with no children. This is 21 percentage points and 18 percentage points higher than non-LGBTQ+ employees in all sectors and service sector jobs, respectively.

Table 1: Economic Outcomes and Demographic Statistics Among LGBTQ+ and Non-LGBTQ+ Employees
    All Employees Service Sector Employees
  Total LGBT Employees Non-LGBT Employees LGBT Employees Non-LGBT Employees
Economic Well-Being          
Work hours vary 15% 18% 15% 31% 21%
Month-to-month income varies 26% 31% 26% 46% 37%
Have to borrow for $400 18% 25% 17% 39% 31%
Workplace Characteristics          
Union coverage 13% 12% 14% 17% 21%
Work in service sector 9% 12% 9%
Race or Ethnicity          
White (non-Hispanic) 63% 64% 64% 56% 52%
Black (non-Hispanic) 11% 11% 12% 13% 17%
Hispanic 16% 18% 15% 28% 24%
Others 9% 7% 9% 4% 7%
Four-year college or above 45% 47% 45% 15% 16%
18-24 7% 13% 7% 22% 12%
25-34 27% 38% 26% 40% 24%
35-44 22% 21% 22% 15% 22%
45-54 18% 13% 19% 14% 18%
55+ 25% 15% 27% 8% 23%
Marriage and Parental Status          
Married, child 16% 6% 17% 5% 16%
Married, no child 47% 37% 48% 29% 38%
Unmarried, child 4% 5% 4% 9% 7%
Unmarried, no child 33% 52% 31% 58% 40%

Source: Authors’ calculation from the Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking 2019–2021.

Unstable work hours may lead to unstable incomes. LGBTQ+ workers experience occasional to frequent income variability at a higher rate (31 percent) than the non-LGBTQ+ working population (26 percent), and not just within the service sector. However, the discrepancy is even more pronounced in the service sector, where 46 percent of LGBTQ+ employees and 37 percent of non-LGBTQ+ employees experienced month-to-month income variability over the previous year.

It is difficult to meet regular financial obligations, like rent, when incomes are unstable. Therefore, it follows that LGBTQ+ employees disproportionately experience financial insecurity. When asked how they would pay for an emergency expense of $400, 25 percent of LGBTQ+ survey respondents answered that they would need to take out a bank loan, borrow from a friend or family member, use a payday loan or overdraft, sell something, or simply not pay it at all. Seventeen percent of non-LGBTQ+ employees responded the same way. Among service sector employees, these rates were 39 percent and 31 percent for LGBTQ+ and non-LGBTQ+ workers, respectively.

The Way Forward

In recent years, several jurisdictions have attempted to address schedule instability through fair workweek laws that require advance notice for schedule changes, transparency about scheduling for new hires, and protections for workers’ rights to provide input into their own work schedules, among other provisions.

An evaluation of Seattle’s Secure Scheduling ordinance shows that the law increased schedule predictability, along with several other perceived well-being measures. A study on the Fair Workweek Ordinance implemented in Emeryville, California showed similar results of decreased schedule unpredictability and improved well-being. These laws may be especially important for LGBTQ+ workers who more frequently experience precarious scheduling, as discussed above.

Increased union coverage may also be an effective way to increase schedule stability for LGBTQ+ workers. Union members have more power over and receive more advance notice of their work schedules than nonunion workers.

In addition, six of the eight existing fair workweek laws across the country are in states with high union density. But union coverage is lower among LGBTQ+ workers (12 percent) than non-LGBQT+ workers (14 percent). This gap grows wider in the service sector, where 17 percent of LGBTQ+ employees are union members compared to 21 percent of non-LGBTQ+ employees. By providing employees with greater bargaining power, unions can ensure schedule stability for all workers and LGBTQ+ workers in particular.

It is essential that policy makers address work schedule uncertainty to protect LGBTQ+ workers. Doing so could improve worker well-being and financial security. The key federal surveys used to study frequent employment stability must also expand efforts to survey members of LGBTQ+ communities to gain a clearer understanding of their unique economic and workplace issues.


Some of the key federal surveys used to study frequent employment stability, like the Current Population Survey and Survey on Income and Program Participation, do not ask about sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI). However, a growing number of federal surveys do include at least some SOGI questions. One of these surveys, the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking (SHED), has asked about gender identity and sexual orientation since 2019 and includes several questions about employment stability. Responses to the following questions in the SHED (2019-2021) informed the analysis in this article. Results are based on weighted data.

Table 2: SHED Measures
Measure Question Qualifying Response
Work Hours Vary At your main job, do you normally start and end work around the same time each day that you work, or does it vary? Schedule varies primarily based on employer’s needs
Month-to-Month Income Varies Over the past year, which one of the following best describes your and your spouse’s or partner’s income? Occasionally varies from month to month or varies quite often from month to month
Have to Borrow for $400 Suppose that you have an emergency expense that costs $400. How would you pay for this expense? Any of the following: taking a bank loan, borrowing from a friend or family member, using a payday loan or overdraft, selling something, or would not be able to pay at all
Service Sector Employees What is the occupation in your current or main job? Health care aides, food preparation and serving, building and grounds cleaning, protective service, and personal care/service
LGBTQ Populations What is your gender identity; which of the following best describes how you think of yourself? Transgender, non-binary, gay, lesbian, or bisexual

Source: Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking (2019-2021).

This analysis uses the “LGBTQ+” acronym throughout this article because of the options the SHED provides in response to its questions about gender identity and sexual orientation (see Table 2). The Federal Reserve’s summary of the 2021 survey findings also uses LGBTQ+ throughout.

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