Arbitrary Agendas: Worker Scheduling Practices Under Fire

It’s hard out there for a worker with unsteady hours.

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is looking into staffing trends among 13 large retailers. These companies, including Target Corp. and Gap Inc., were sent letters on April 10 about on-call scheduling from Schneiderman’s office.

This on-call scheduling practice has “made big retailers more nimble, allowing them to staff stores during busy times and save on payroll during slow days” according to the article. Software used by these companies predicts staffing needs based on current sales and traffic information.

The letter to employees says that these on-call systems allow for “too little time to make arrangements for family needs, let alone to find an alternative source of income to compensate for the lost pay” on days not worked. Additionally, Schneiderman’s office said that some of these employers require scheduled, on-call workers to contact the store shortly before their shift begins.

If called in, that means more money for the employee. But what about when they are asked not to come into work? Time equals money too — in this case, less money. Working fewer hours makes for less pay and less of a steady income.

Tsedeye Gebreselassie, senior staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project, said in the Journal report that workers “could be headed to work and get a text message from the boss saying, ‘I don’t need you to come in,’ and that worker has arranged for child care or changed a class schedule.”

According to an NPR article, if a New York worker reports for their shift and is not needed, “the law says he is due four hours of pay.” However, Schneiderman said “a lot of times, workers are not aware of these regulations, so they don’t report a breach of them.”

On top of all of this, the University of Chicago reported last year that 41 percent of young adults receive schedules a week or less in advance. When workers have transportation to consider, bills to pay, children to care for and food to buy, these unstable working schedules make for an unstable life.

Unpredictable scheduling, combined with the ever-increasing cost of living and minimum wage pitfalls, means that many workers lack financial security.

Many of these typically low-wage workers have multiple jobs just to make ends meet. I’ve been there. Waiting for a schedule from one job makes it hard to let the other know availability. And then it’s doubly frustrating to set aside eight or more hours for a job, only to be called off right before a shift or shortly after clocking in.

Living is expensive, and budgeting becomes that much more difficult with unsteady work hours. Low-wage workers make up a large part of our lives — they’re serving our food, making our coffee, selling us clothes — yet they’re underpaid and often seeking government assistance. Let’s make sure these employees are treated fairly.