Raising the minimum wage seemed to be the most buzzed-about retail employment issue this year, with politicians and retailers of various stripes taking all sides.
Some experts say raising wages would eventually help retailers make more money. Many argue that sluggish wages were part of the “retail funk” that may be keeping consumers from filling shopping carts on or offline.
The issue is hardly gone. The National Retail Federation opposes an official hike. But Gap and Ikea are two retailers that have announced increases to their own minimum hourly payments to workers; Costco is already known for better wages and benefits. Many cities across the country have announced new minimum wage laws or are mulling them over.
But another issue is also gaining notoriety — the working conditions that make retail jobs a nightmare for many workers.
The big problem: “just-in-time” scheduling
Algorithms in software are helping retailers cut costs through efficient staffing — a practice known as “just-in-time scheduling.” They are also making life difficult for workers who are trying to manage their households, attend school, work additional jobs, or earn enough money to get by.
The practice can be especially bad for part-time workers. In 2012, one in three retail employees worked part-time, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And that number is growing.
The City University of New York and the Retail Action Project (an initiative of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union) in September released their report “Short Shifted.” The report details how employees at New York retailers faced a variety of pressures, including last-minute scheduling, unpaid hours on call, or hours shortened without warning.
One cashier at a New York City Zara store said her hours were cut by 30% last year and “stand-by” shifts were introduced.
“I think they capped us at 15 hours so we’d need the extra hours and conform to being on call,” the 26-year-old told the New York Daily News. “It’s tough because you can’t commit to anything else until you call.”
By contrast, unionized workers at Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, H&M, and Modell’s Sporting Goods in New York know their schedule three weeks ahead, can work full time, and have guaranteed hours, even if a shift sees few customers due to the weather or because fewer than anticipated shoppers show up for a sale.
“The biggest issue for workers today is scheduling,” Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which negotiated contracts for those Manhattan stores, told the New York Times. “It’s not just about how much they’re paid per hour, but how many hours a week they get to work.”
The response by policy makers
As with minimum wage, cities, states, and the federal government are taking up the issue. Vermont and San Francisco are among the locales that have already enacted laws giving workers the right to predictable work schedules and time off, known as the “right to request.” New York is considering similar legislation.
On the federal level, members of both houses of Congress in July introduced the Schedules that Work Act. Among the bill’s provisions:
- Bars retaliation against workers requesting predictability or flexibility in work schedules
- Balances the needs of workers for child care, education, other employment, and health with business needs of the employer
- Requires compensation to retail, food service, and cleaning workers for at least four hours of work (even if shifts are shorter)
- Requires workers know their schedules at least two weeks in advance
- Requires extra pay for giving workers less than 24 hours notice of a schedule change or giving them split shifts
Earlier, in June, President Barack Obama issued an executive order requiring government agencies to give federal workers the “right to request.”
The response by retailers
After reading an in-depth story in the New York Times about the difficulty of living with a capricious work schedule, Starbucks chief of its U.S. operations, Clifford Burrows, said the company would make significant changes. The paper had featured a Starbucks barista.
The coffeehouse chain says it's revising its just-in-time software so that its managers can take into account workers’ needs for consistency and flexibility. Starbucks employees no longer have to work back-to-back shifts, and they will know their schedules a week in advance. Burrows also said that the company is working to allow employees to work at a Starbucks closer to their homes if their commute is an hour or longer.
But that doesn’t meet many of the requirements by legislation being considered across the country and in Congress, and it’s unclear if would be enough to make work less of a hassle and more financially viable for retail workers. If it doesn’t, as employment in the U.S. rises, retailers may find it more difficult to find and keep good workers. The grueling, hard-to-handle part-time work schedule is creating an unproductive workforce, experts say.
Indeed, as with the minimum wage, more flexible scheduling could help both workers and the retailers employing them, says retail expert Zeynep Ton.
"We don’t have to pay our employees a lot for them to want to work for us," Ton told the PBS Newshour. "We don’t have to offer them good schedules. But if we do — if we pay them decent wages and if we offer them better schedules — then they will contribute a lot more than what we invest in them.
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