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‘Always on Call’ in Retail: Uncertain Hours a Problem for Students

Work schedules assigned at the last minute have become more commonplace in the growing retail industry, as stores seek to boost profits by cutting costs. The trend toward “on-demand” scheduling can be a particular problem for current or prospective college students.

This fall, CUNY’s Murphy Institute released a report, titled “Short Shifted,” that details how unpredictable work schedules are affecting retail workers in both economic and personal terms. Stephanie Luce, associate professor of labor studies and a co-author of the report, told Clarion that after boosting earnings by selling more cheaply produced garments from low-wage countries, retailers have been looking for new ways to cut costs. They found their answer, she says, in “tightly controlling labor on the shop floor.”

Murphy Institute’s Stephanie Luce is a co-author of the report “Short Shifted,” which looks at how “just-in-time” scheduling affects retail workers.
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On-Call Schedule

That close control means a shift toward on-call scheduling, where workers may only find out a couple of hours before their potential shift whether or not they’re going to work. Schedules can vary week to week, or change based on the weather or a store’s sales on a given day.

For college students trying to balance school with employment, it can be an advantage to work in an industry where not every schedule is nine-to-five. But many students in retail jobs say they are under pressure to always put availability for work ahead of college obligations or completing their assignments. For current students, this creates obstacles to academic success; it also discourages potential students from enrolling.

“The constant flux of the schedule does not work in favor of the students; it works entirely in the favor of the employer,” says Luce. “It makes it hard to deal with your class schedule, to plan out your studying and your transportation.”

That was the dilemma for Latoya Simpson, who was studying radiology at City Tech while working full-time as a cashier at Juicy Couture. The company gave her a choice, she said: be available for more hours or go part-time and earn less.

“I felt that was unfair, because when they promoted me to full-time, they said it was fine for me to go to school,” Simpson told CBS News last year. “Then they gave me an ultimatum about dropping out of school or opening up my schedule. I had bills and rent to pay, so I kept the full-time position and stopped going to school.”

Working Students

Bonnie Lucas, an adjunct faculty member at CCNY, told Clarion about a former student who was working at a supermarket for minimum wage: “[She] told me the schedules are given out randomly, so she never knew when she was going to work,” Lucas said. “It’s punishing.”

Anika Chowdhury, a sophomore at Queens College, worked at the shoe store Aerosoles earlier this semester and liked the constant hustle of the job, but the expanding hours became too demanding.

She had set days to come in, working around 25 hours a week, but was expected to work more hours whenever it was needed. If another worker was out one day, she would have to stay longer. “I felt pressured to put this work on top of the school work,” Chowdhury said. “Sometimes I would come in earlier, and then I’d have to stay way later.”

‘More People, Less Hours’

In the end, the growing hours were making it too hard to keep up in school, and she quit her job. She wasn’t alone: Chowdhury told Clarion that two of her coworkers, also students, quit because of scheduling concerns.

Fortunately, she found a tutoring job that was easier to balance with school. If she had not, she might have had to let her schoolwork take a hit: “I don’t have the option of not working,” she told Clarion. “I have to pay for my books, my MetroCard, my food.”

Nacelle Peña, a former York College student who had to take time off from school because of financial issues, is working at Zara in the hopes of saving money for school and having a smaller student loan burden. But that hope isn’t panning out: her hours, and thus her earnings, have been cut. Even though she is available “full-time,” she has no guaranteed minimum – the other main problem detailed in the report.

“Zara is hiring more people and giving workers less hours,” she told Clarion. When she first started working, she clocked around 40 hours a week. Now she gets around 25 hours of work per week.

Peña is a member of the Retail Action Project (RAP), a labor-community coalition that is organizing for more predictable schedules for retail workers. That means two things: a clearly established minimum number of hours, and work schedules set enough in advance that workers can plan the rest of their lives. Too many workers, says RAP, face a hard choice of unpredictable and too many or too few hours.

Out of 226 New York City retail workers interviewed for the report, only 40% have a set minimum for hours. One quarter of those interviewed work on-call shifts, often finding out as little as two hours before a potential shift if they’re needed. And about half of part-time workers surveyed said they would like to work full-time, but don’t.

The Murphy Institute report, produced jointly with the Retail Action Project, says that calls to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour need to be paired with a vision of a fair workweek in order to effectively lift people out of poverty. It warns that without action to make sure that workers’ interests get more weight in scheduling decisions, the demand that workers be always on call, but have no minimum hours or earnings, could spread to other economic sectors.

In part, the trend toward on-demand scheduling is driven by new technologies that track sales patterns to help retailers squeeze labor costs. With data on how many customers leave with a store bag and whether or not sales quotas are being met, employers seek to fine-tune scheduling so workers are available “just in time,” paying the exact minimum number of employees needed for customer flow while having more employees on call and ready to work if needed. Luce points out that scheduling technology could also be used in workers’ interests, but that at present this is rare.

“We found workers who are still filling out paper requests if they want to change their schedule,” says Luce. Management has this sophisticated technology, she notes, yet “the company is posting the schedule on a bulletin board, so [workers] have to come in and see it.”

Stronger Incentives

Luce says one of workers’ goals is “to make the technology work for us.” They want to be able to see their schedules online, and have ways to switch their schedule with other workers’ or see when there’s a chance for them to pick up additional shifts.

“Short Shifted” suggests that policymakers consider mandates or incentives for establishing minimum hours, and notes the positive role of unions in securing more predictable schedules. The report also suggests enforcing and improving existing laws, such as a New York State statute that requires employers to at least pay minimum wage for four hours if a worker is sent home early.

“Employers can increase worker morale and productivity, as well as customer satisfaction and loyalty, with larger workforces, higher wages and lower turnover,” the report concludes. “Retail work does not have to be insecure, low-wage and unpredictable.”

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If you want a copy of the report or if you’re interested in learning more about campaigns around retail work, please contact Retail Action Project Director Sasha Hammad at sasha@retailactionproject.org.