There seems to be no end of creativity when it comes to inventing new methods of exploiting workers and compromising their human dignity. While the need to raise the federal minimum wage has garnered some attention in the past year, other practices common in today’s work environment have drawn less notice. Thankfully, several articles in the New York Times have recently called attention to the ways abusive scheduling practices exploit many workers, especially low-wage service workers.
Even if the minimum wage is increased, such legislation would be of little help to those workers who cannot work enough hours to benefit significantly from the increased wages. Many industries, particularly retail, have moved towards relying primarily on part-time workers, and the number of “involuntary part-timers” who would prefer to be working full-time doubled from 2006 to 2012 (Bureau of Labor Statistics). But a particularly insidious development has been the rise of two employment practices that especially affect part-timers: “just-in-time” and on-call scheduling.
“Just-in-time” scheduling refers to the use of software programs like Dayforce and Kronos to predict an employer’s staffing needs based on a range of factors, from past sales history to recent trends to the latest weather forecast. Under pressure to cut costs, employers want to be sure they don’t have any more workers on duty at a given time than they need. So the software programs generate suggested schedules down to the quarter-hour or even the minute. The result has been a move away from full-day shifts and towards two or three-hour shifts, such as a shift from, say, 11:10am to 1:55 pm to cover the lunch rush at a sandwich shop. Employers can enter sales data in real time, and may be prompted to send employees home early if things look slow. The software offers obvious advantages for employers and sometimes for employees – if the users wish, the programs can incorporate information such as workers’ availability or even preferences. And Walmart has even used some similar software to allow workers that want more hours to claim open shifts – a boon for those part-timers trying to boost their income. But fundamentally, this type of software is about trying to keep payroll costs as low as possible. As Dayforce’s website notes, “labor costs… are among the most controllable costs facing employers today.” Efficiency is the name of the game, and this kind of careful cost-cutting is now the norm at your local grocery store or clothing chain. When I polled a classroom of my students recently, nearly all of them said they had worked at a job where they had “odd hours” like those generated by this type of software.
The consequence of this new scheduling trend is that many workers, especially in retail, now have highly variable schedules from week to week, and thus a highly unpredictable paycheck. Employers have little incentive to plan ahead, as the software works most efficiently when used with up-to-the-minute data. And so the Huffington Post has reported that “In a recent survey of more than 400 New York City retail workers, researchers with the City University of New York and an advocacy group called the Retail Action Project found that only 17 percent of workers had a set schedule; 70 percent said they were apprised of their schedules no more than a week ahead of time.” For anyone trying to manage family responsibilities, college classes, or other commitments, this presents a real challenge. The New York Times recently profiled a young mother working at Starbucks and vividly showed how the chaotic scheduling undermined her parenting, created conflict with family and other supporters in her life, and ultimately led to a breakup with a boyfriend who had been a major source of support to both her and her son. The article was so damning that Starbucks immediately announced a change in policy.
One commenter on the New York Times website described the way this system of scheduling creates a sense that workers are merely cogs, to be dispensed with when they are not needed:
My daughter worked for Coldstone Creamery ice cream store and jumped through hoops to keep herself on the schedule. She went to work one day to find out they had called her, while she was en route to her shift, to cancel her. They sent her home. No reimbursement for her time and travel expense and no sentiment to her feelings of being nothing more than a number. They use that computer system that generates how many workers to staff the store. My daughter was a smart, reliable and hard worker just getting into the workforce at 17 yrs. old. I was dumb founded [sic] when I learned of these tactics that are ‘legal game’ for businesses in Massachusetts….What exactly are we supposed to tell our children to expect and what should they aspire to be like in this workforce we have now? I, for one, am not so sure anymore.
Though this practice astonished that Massachusetts parent, it is proving increasingly common, and remains completely legal. Indeed, this young woman is just a number, or just a resource to be utilized. And as one retail manager at a Jamba Juice store noted, workers are a resource to be used at the manager’s sole discretion: “You don’t want to work your team members for eight-hour shifts,” she said. “By the time they get to the second half of their shift, they don’t have the same energy and enthusiasm. We like to schedule people around four- to five-hour shifts so you can get the best out of them during that time.” But four to five hours at minimum wage is a far cry from a livable income.
Another, related practice is “on-call” scheduling in which an employer requires employees to be available for certain shifts, but may or may not ask them to work. Employees do not have to be paid unless they are actually called in to work. One week they may work 30 hours, the next, perhaps only 8. But employees who are not happy with just 8 hours and need to earn more may not be able to get a second job, because they are required to be on call for the first job and may be fired if they cannot come when called in. And the widely varying wages make any kind of budgeting nearly impossible and planning for day care or other family responsibilities becomes utterly chaotic. The New York Times described the experience of one man:
A middle-aged New Yorker who lost his teaching job of two decades because of a budget squeeze in his school district said he had applied for retail jobs and was shocked by what he found. ‘You had to be available every minute of every day, knowing you would be scheduled for no more than 29 hours per week and knowing there would be no normalcy to your schedule,’ he wrote. ‘I told the person I would like to be scheduled for the same days every week so I could try to get another job to try to make ends meet. She immediately said, “Well, that will end our conversation right here. You have to be available every day for us.” ‘I asked, “Even though I’m trying to get another job?” “Yes.” Then she just stared at me and asked me to leave. What kind of company does this? What kind of company will not even let you get another job?’
In the midst of a sluggish economic recovery and a climate of cutthroat competition, it is not surprising that employers face pressures to cut costs wherever possible. Yet these pressures are not new. Even in 1891, Rerum Novarum was warning about the temptation to increase profits at the expense of the average worker: “the rich must religiously refrain from cutting down the workmen’s earnings, whether by force, by fraud, or by usurious dealing; and with all the greater reason because the laboring man is, as a rule, weak and unprotected, and because his slender means should in proportion to their scantiness be accounted sacred” (# 20). And many part-timers today have “slender means”, indeed.
There have been some recent legislative proposals on the state level designed to give workers (especially part-time workers) more regular hours and more predictability about their schedules. Naturally, industry leaders oppose such measures. David French, a senior vice president of the National Retail Federation, explained, “These proposals may sound reasonable,” he said, “but if you unpack them, they could be very harmful….Where employers and employees now work together to solve scheduling problems, you’ll have a very bureaucratic environment where rigid rules would be introduced.”
The idea that employers and employees could work together to solve scheduling problems sounds very nice. And in theory, flexible schedules can serve the needs of workers who have responsibilities to family, are working more than one job, or are pursuing education. But Mr. French’s statement is simply naïve about the power disparity at work here, and about the ways that “scheduling problems” are all too frequently resolved in ways that merely hurt workers. Pope Francis dispenses easily with the idea that the labor market, if left to itself and freed from “rigid rules”, will work things out. He refers to such a view as “crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system” (Evangelii Gaudium #54).
And indeed, Mr. French appears quite naïve about how “scheduling problems” are creating major injustices for today’s workers. In some ways, though, Mr. French is correct. Introducing “rigid rules” is never sufficient to ensure that workers are not unjustly exploited, because new modes of exploitation will continue to be invented. This is why, fundamentally, unions are needed, to bring a greater balance of power and to respond far more quickly than legislators can to the desperate needs of workers.
Rerum Novarum warned many years ago that even employment practices that appear fair and legal on the surface can, in fact, disguise deep injustice. Pope Leo XIII explicitly rejected the logic of the unfettered market:
Wages, as we are told, are regulated by free consent, and therefore the employer, when he pays what was agreed upon, has done his part and seemingly is not called upon to do anything beyond. The only way, it is said, in which injustice might occur would be if the master refused to pay the whole of the wages, or if the workman should not complete the work undertaken; in such cases the public authority should intervene, to see that each obtains his due, but not under any other circumstances. To this kind of argument a fair-minded man will not easily or entirely assent; it is not complete, for there are important considerations which it leaves out of account altogether…. Let the working man and the employer make free agreements, and in particular let them agree freely as to the wages; nevertheless, there underlies a dictate of natural justice more imperious and ancient than any bargain between man and man, namely, that wages ought not to be insufficient to support a frugal and well-behaved wage-earner (#43).
A living wage is not an impossible thing for corporations to provide in today’s economy; the recent Market Basket debacle in New England has shown, for instance, that even in an industry with razor-thin profit margins, it is possible to provide workers with a decent wage, annual bonuses, and a retirement plan. But if powerful corporate shareholders decide that theirs are the only interests worth considering, there is little besides the power of a union that can offer any hope to the workers whose livelihoods hang in the balance.
Laurie Johnston is Assistant Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Emmanuel College in Boston, Massachusetts. Her scholarship and teaching focuses on Christian social ethics, particularly question of war and peacemaking. She has been published in Political Theology, as well as the Journal of Catholic Social Thought, the Journal of Catholic Moral Theology, and Asian Horizons: Dharmaram Joural of Theology.