Urban Outfitters joins retailers ditching on-call scheduling – for some workers

After New York Attorney General began questioning the legality of on-call scheduling earlier this year, Urban Outfitters joins a group of other retailers promising definite work schedules to their employees. 

Rick Wilking/Reuters/File
A customer enters the Urban Outfitters store in Denver, May 14, 2015. The New York attorney general said on Wednesday that the retailer will stop using on-call scheduling for employees in the Empire State beginning next month.

Philadelphia-based retailer Urban Outfitters Inc. has agreed to end on-call shifts for employees in its New York stores, the state’s Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said Wednesday.

Mr. Schneiderman wrote to 13 major retailers, including, Target Corp, TJX Cos Inc., and J.C. Penny Co Inc., questioning their practice of on-call shifts. 

The practice requires workers to be available for scheduled shifts, although they may be canceled at a moment’s notice. Schneiderman suggests this may violate New York’s state labor laws and it could also be a violation of the state’s requirement to pay hourly staff for at least four hours when they report for a shift. 

The Christian Science Monitor reported on the practice in September.

Also nicknamed ‘just-in-time’ scheduling, on-call shifts have long been common in service industries like retail and food service as a way to reduce unnecessary labor costs. In recent years, the rise of sophisticated scheduling software and real-time sales data has made it possible for companies to pinpoint exactly how many people they need working at a moment’s notice.

Some critics of "just-in-time" scheduling argue it hinders upward mobility, by preventing workers from adequately organizing their lives.

“‘Just-in-time employment’ may make business models more efficient, but it may also create uncertainty that undermines the best laid plans of low-income Americans,” Brookings fellow Richard V. Reeves wrote in 2014.

The solution?

Susan Scafidi, a law professor and the founder of Fordham’s Fashion Law Institute, suggests technology could help employers make the transition away from on-call scheduling. 

Employers can use the same micro data, but instead of pinpointing staffing needs hour by hour, they can look at needs over the course of a month or year. “This is a problem created by technology, and I think it’s a problem that can be solved by it,” she told the Monitor in September.  

The Monitor also highlighted potential repercussions from the shift. 

As with any labor reform, there is some worry that retailers could compensate at the higher cost in ways that are ultimately harmful to workers, like reducing pay or cutting back hiring. But Ms. Scafidi argues that especially in service-based industries, the shift could come with long-term financial benefits. In addition to avoiding costly employee turnover, working towards happier employees can lead to better customer service and, in many cases, better sales.

Schneiderman says Urban Outfitters agreed to provide New York employees with their work schedules at least one week in advance, starting in November. Other retailers that have recently reached similar agreements include Gap Inc., Bath & Body Works, Victoria’s Secret, and Abercrombie & Fitch.

This report contains material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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