Why retailers are moving away from ‘on-call’ shift scheduling

Six retailers have agreed to end 'on-call' shift scheduling, the New York Attorney General's office announced on Tuesday. It's good news for employees – and it could help businesses, too.

Elaine Thompson/AP/File
Joe Solorio (r.) attends a Seattle City Council meeting in September where the council voted on new scheduling rules for hourly retail and food-service employees.

For more than two decades, workers in the retail and restaurant industries have struggled to balance family life and other obligations with jobs that demand they be “on call.” Now, under legal pressure and in a tightening labor market, some employers are changing their approach.

On Tuesday, the New York Attorney General’s office announced that six retailers – Aeropostale, Carter’s, David’s Tea, Disney, PacSun, and Zumiez – have agreed to end “on-call” scheduling. From now on, their employees will not need to check each day whether they should come to work, nor do they risk being sent home early without pay when the store is quiet. Four of the companies also committed to giving employees their schedules one week in advance.

Ending “on-call” scheduling will make a big difference for employees, increasing the predictability of work schedules and making it easier to plan other activities. But they aren’t the only ones who will benefit from the change, observers say: It could also bring long-term benefits for businesses and society.

“It’s a pretty significant move,” Carrie Gleason, director of the Fair Workweek Initiative at the Center for Popular Democracy, tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview. “Retail companies ... are really starting to recognize that they need to invest in their workforce.”

In the past, workers’ wages were considered a fixed cost, wrote Robert Reich, who served as Labor secretary during Bill Clinton’s presidency and is now a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. In the 1990s, however, wages became a variable cost: Many businesses used on-call scheduling to trim costs by having as few workers as possible. Some even deployed software systems that highlighted the times when employees were least needed.

That kind of scheduling takes a substantial toll on workers, explains Lonnie Golden, a professor of economics and labor-employment relations at Penn State University-Abington, in a phone interview with the Monitor. Professor Golden was the primary author of an April report for the Economic Policy Institute about the consequences of irregular work scheduling.

Uncertain hours make it hard for workers to plan their daily lives, says Golden. Holding down a second job becomes more difficult, uncertain paychecks mean incomes often fall short, and childcare is an increased challenge. 

These employees are most likely to experience “work-life conflict” and be stressed at work, Golden notes.

That also puts businesses with “on-call” scheduling on the wrong side of some state and federal labor laws. In April, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and the attorneys general of seven other states and the District of Columbia sent a letter to the six retailers asking them to end the practice, as they have now agreed to do.

Ms. Gleason points to that April letter and other, similar investigations as the "single most influential factor" in moving businesses away from these scheduling practices. Seven other businesses announced that they would end "on-call" scheduling in 2015.

But with a new presidential administration kicking off in a few weeks, the future of these investigations is uncertain.

“The incoming Labor Secretary is [at] the complete opposite end of the spectrum,” Gleason says, making it “incumbent now on states” to continue pushing for these standards. 

Worker-friendly policies are becoming bipartisan causes in many states, the Monitor’s Schuyler Velasco wrote in October – and New York is one of several states working toward a legislative ban on “on-call” scheduling. In September, Seattle's city council unanimously passed a “secure scheduling” law, which requires employers to schedule their workers 14 days in advance, and includes a "right to rest" provision that allows workers to decline closing and opening shifts that are less than 10 hours apart. 

Businesses themselves may have incentives to end on-call scheduling. In a tightening labor market, employers want to hang on to their workers, notes Golden, who is also a senior research analyst at the Project for Middle Class Renewal at the University of Illinois. And businesses that offer better hours – and more consistent hours – are more appealing to workers, leading to better retention.

The more businesses sign on to these measures, the more workers’ wages are taken out of the cost-cutting equation. More than 300,000 workers have been impacted so far, says Gleason.

Greater certainty about schedules has benefits beyond individual workers, she says. If people know when they’re working, they can also schedule time to be with their children, or attend college and grad school classes.

“Employees are going to be better off, and maybe even society,” she says.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to Why retailers are moving away from ‘on-call’ shift scheduling
Read this article in
https://www.csmonitor.com/Business/2016/1220/Why-retailers-are-moving-away-from-on-call-shift-scheduling
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today
https://www.csmonitor.com/subscribe