A recent segment on NPR discusses a troubling pattern that is emerging, where more and more workers are having to accept positions at jobs that do not provide anything close to a consistent schedule, resulting in unpredictable hours that essentially make it very difficult to have a life.
Of course, working in the retail or restaurant industry has always required a bit of flexibilty, but more low-wage workers are noticing a shift from having to have “flexible hours” for shifts, to now being “on call”.
The NPR segment features for Zyad Hammad, an Urban Outfitters employee in Manhattan. He shares his experience–having to call the store a few hours before each shift: “I would call sometimes, I would speak to one manager, and they would be like, hold on a second, I have to ask to this other manager if we’re going to use you. Finally someone picked up and would say, yes we are using you, or, no we’re not going to use you.”
Hammad, who thought about going to school but could not due to the nature of his job’s scheduling, eventually realized that this behavior by management was very calculated–”managers were closely watching the volume of sales to determine whether additional workers were needed.”
The Urban Outfitters example, where management determines whether they “can use you” on a moment’s notice, is telling of a larger epidemic, according to Susan Lambert, a professor at the University of Chicago.
“The reason that companies do this is that they’re trying to make a profit through containing their outlays for labor in a very kind of narrow way.” Says Lambert, who studies low-wage workers.
In order to maximize profits, these companies are “keeping just the right ratio of staff to revenues”, which is now possible to track in real-time with all of the advances in technology. These businesses, who employ eight million part time workers, are making big bucks this way.
But by using the bare-minimim, and often paying as much, companies like Walmart can also see a decline in customer satisfaction. Oftentimes, a sudden rush can happen and there will not be enough staff on hand to re-stock shelves or adequately assist customers.
More importantly though, this efficiency drive takes advantage of the worker, who has a life of their own. For Hammad, working at Urban Outfitters became more like a “freelance gig”. Looking for another job to fill in the gaps, Hammad was dismayed to find that most other jobs he found operated the same way–they required staff to be on-call, meaning there was no way he could have two jobs, because there was no way of knowing when the hours would interfere with each other.
Its fine for employers to try to increase their profit margins, but when the workers can’t get enough hours and don’t earn enough to get by, and also must sacrifice parts of their personal time because they don’t know when their next shift is, something is wrong.
Without set schedules, its nearly impossible for working parents to find childcare. Without knowing what hours will be worked in a day, a worker can’t go to school. With a union, low-wage workers have the ability to collectively bargain with their employers for fair scheduling systems. Union jobs are better jobs. When we all stick together, we can stop these irresponsible business practices and create better jobs for all workers in the retail and food industry.