The New York Times: When Bosses Schedule Hours That Just Don’t Work

The New York Times, September 1, 2015

Gap announced last week that it would soon end the practice of on-call scheduling, which requires workers to call in before a shift to see if they are needed. By the beginning of next year, the company’s five brands — Athleta, Banana Republic, Gap, Intermix and Old Navy — will give employees at least 10 to 14 days’ notice of their schedules.

Gap follows Abercrombie & Fitch, Starbucks and Victoria’s Secret in promising to end on-call scheduling. It took strong public and regulatory pressure to get the companies to change, but change they have.

Unfortunately, unpredictable scheduling is still widespread. According to federal data, 66 percent of food service workers, 52 percent of retail workers and 40 percent of janitors and house cleaners have at most a week’s notice of their schedules.

On-call scheduling is but one of many dubious pay and scheduling practices. Workers who show up for a scheduled shift may be sent home without pay if business is slow. Schedules can fluctuate from week to week, making it hard to manage family life or calculate a budget.

Victoria’s Secret engages in still another questionable practice. Salespeople are offered a bonus based on a formula that takes into account sales per hour. But the calculation includes hours when the store is closed — hours spent tidying up, for instance, when there is obviously no chance to make sales. By reducing the sales-per-hour number, this formula can put a bonus out of reach. Victoria’s Secret would not comment on its bonus policy.

The fundamental problem is that as scheduling has become a tool for higher profits, it has also generated unfair practices. Software lets employers calibrate maximum profit at minimum labor cost. Managers are often compensated on the efficiency of their staff. A retail manager’s best employee would not necessarily be the top seller, but rather the one who sells the most at the lowest pay.

Then, too, there is abuse of overtime, in which a company shifts work from hourly workers eligible for time-and-a-half pay to salaried workers who are ineligible for overtime pay. A former salaried executive assistant manager at Walgreens, Caleb Sneeringer, said his hours ballooned to up to 70 a week when the chain stopped scheduling most hourly workers for overtime around 2010. Walgreens says it does not have a no-overtime policy and tries to manage “overtime hours efficiently while providing a high level of customer service.”

A rule recently proposed by the Labor Department would be both fair and efficient. It would make salaried employees eligible for overtime if they make less than $50,440 a year. (The current threshold, which has barely budged since 1975, is $23,660.) Retailers and other low-wage employers strongly oppose the proposal. Meanwhile, bills in Congress and some states would curb some of the most disruptive scheduling practices, including on-call shifts or sending workers home early without pay. Approving these bills will require lawmakers to put the interests of workers ahead of their corporate contributors.