theguardian.com, August 17, 2015
by RL Stephens II
As the movement for a $15 minimum wage grows, low-wage workers know the problem isn’t just the hourly pay rate. It’s also the number of hours scheduled. I’ve worked at Gap in multiple locations since October 2014. I’d like to earn a living wage – but a raise alone won’t help me pay the bills if exploitative schedules aren’t fixed too.
I spent most of 2014 unemployed while applying to dozens of jobs. Then, in October, I finally got a job at Gap. Our schedule comes out less than a week in advance. Some of the shifts leave workers “on-call,” meaning we don’t know if we’re going to be working at all that day. The earliest we find out is two hours before the shift is scheduled to start. At my first store, I had 18 hours of penciled-in shifts with only nine guaranteed hours some weeks. This is not uncommon in the industry.
The volatility of on-call scheduling, in combination with the low pay, meant my life at Gap wasn’t all that different from when I was unemployed. Though I was working, I still had to go to a food pantry for groceries. In winter, I had to choose between racking up heat bills I couldn’t afford and freezing in my apartment. My landlord would ask me when I’d have the rent money, but I couldn’t give her an answer because I never knew how many hours I’d actually work in a given week. I couldn’t afford to live in the city where I worked, so I had to transfer to a Gap store back home.
I’m not the only one struggling. Retail workers have the second-lowest average weekly earnings of workers in any sector in the US economy: $444 per week. We also have the second-lowest average weekly working hours. From 2006 to 2010, the number of people working part-time for economic reasons and not by choice, grew from 4 to 9 million. It’s called involuntary part-time work, meaning we want full-time employment but a lack of opportunities prevents us from doing so.
Unpredictable last-minute scheduling makes it difficult to budget and turns even the most basic decisions into headaches. Will we need babysitters for our children? Will we be able to make a doctor’s appointment? Will we have to rush to Gap from our second jobs?
One of my co-workers, started working at Gap as she was transitioning out of homelessness, but she wasn’t making enough to get stable housing on her own. Most so-called middle class jobs lost in the recession have been replaced by low-wage work like retail jobs. I’m thankful to be working, but gratitude born of desperation is no comfort and it certainly doesn’t pay the rent.
As the involuntary part-time worker population has drastically grown, so too has Gap’s executive compensation. Since 2010, total executive compensation packages exploded from $19m to over $42m by 2014. Former CEO Glenn Murphy’s compensation increased from $5.9m in 2010 to $16m in 2014. So-called ‘on-call scheduling’ creates a cheap on-demand workforce, enabling the Gap to pad its bottom line. The gains don’t go to us; they flow to the top-earners in the company. We make the sacrifices, they reap the rewards.
Another co-worker began working at Gap, in addition to a second retail job, as a way to escape the illicit drug trade. My colleague once told me: “everybody wants a job, no one wants to really be out hustling in the streets.” But the on-call shifts became unbearable, and he struggled to pay rent. For him, the trade-off between street money and regular employment was costly. This structural combination of low wages and unfair scheduling pressures workers into the underground economy, and is a hidden pipeline to the prison system.
I do, however, feel hope. Here in Minnesota, lawmakers are considering new legislation, supported by workers and community groups like Neighborhoods Organizing for Change, that would require three weeks’ advance notice of work schedules. Across the country, low-wage workers are fighting for fair scheduling and the tide is turning. Just this summer, Victoria’s Secret and Abercrombie & Fitch have announced an end to their on-call shifts. The Gap can be part of this rising tide.