A large body of research establishes that the quality and consistency of child care arrangements affects healthy child development. Yet many parents struggle to afford this kind of high-quality child care. And low-income working parents—especially those in the service sector—face the additional burden of routine uncertainty in their schedules because of “just-in-time” scheduling practices that offer workers little notice of when they will be expected to work. In a new working paper, Kristen Harknett, Daniel Schneider, and Sigrid Luhr of P4A’s Research Hub at University of California, Berkeley, examine the consequences of unstable and unpredictable work schedules on child care arrangements.


The research team used survey data from the Shift Project, collected in 2017 and 2018 from a sample of 3,653 parents who balance work in the retail and food service sector with parenting young children 0 to 9 years of age. Almost 30 percent of these parents report being asked to work “on-call,” and almost 70 percent report last-minute changes to their work schedule.

They find that routine uncertainty is largely incompatible with formal, center-based care, and increases the likelihood of needing a complex patchwork of care arrangements. Parents’ exposure to on-call work and last-minute shift changes is associated with:

  • more numerous care arrangements, with a reliance on informal care arrangements,
  • the use of siblings to provide care, and
  • young children being left alone without adult supervision.

Implications for Policy and Practice

This study represents the first time that the connection between routine uncertainty in work schedules and young children’s care arrangements has been established for a national sample. And by examining low-income service sector workers specifically, the researchers provide a unique lens on a particularly policy-relevant population: employees of large “big box” and chain firms that may be subject to city and state-level legislation to regulate work scheduling. Given the well-established relationship between quality of care and child development, policymakers should be attuned to the potential long-term effects of unstable and unpredictable schedules on families and communities.