The Chicago Tribune: Illinois attorney general looking into retailers' on-call shift scheduling

The Chicago Tribune, by Lauren Zumbach

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and eight other state attorneys general are taking a closer look at how national retailers including Aeropostale, American Eagle Outfitters and Zumiez set workers' schedules. 

They sent 15 companies letters seeking information on the use of on-call shifts, where workers must contact employers an hour or two before they're scheduled to begin work to find out whether or not they will work that day, according to a statement from Madigan's office.

"Learning just hours before a scheduled shift whether you are going to work or not is an unacceptable and challenging business practice," Madigan said in the statement. "Workers — no matter where they work — should not be subject to that type of unpredictability and uncertainty in their lives."

Other retailers coming under scrutiny include: BCBG Max Azria, Carter's, Coach, David's Tea, Forever 21, Justice, Pacific Sunwear of California, Payless ShoeSource, Tilly's, Vans, Uniqlo and Walt Disney Co. 

Letters to the companies dated Tuesday said unpredictable work schedules "take a toll on employees," making it tough to arrange for child care, pursue an education or find alternative work opportunities. Companies were asked to respond to the questions and requests for documentation by April 25.

Coach, Forever 21 and Vans said they do not use on-call scheduling. Uniqlo also denied the practice, according to The Wall Street Journal. Pacific Sunwear declined to comment, and some companies could not immediately be reached for comment.

Last year, Abercrombie & Fitch, Gap, J. Crew, Urban Outfitters, Pier 1 Imports and L Brands — the parent company of Bath & Body Works and Victoria's Secret — all agreed to drop the practice of using on-call shifts after an inquiry led by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, according to a statement from the New York attorney general's office announcing its participation in the latest on-call shift probe on Wednesday.

It's not clear how prevalent on-call scheduling is, but University of Chicago researchers estimated 41 percent of 26- to 32-year-olds with hourly work in the U.S. received their work schedule a week or less in advance, according to a 2014 report.

Jennifer Jackowski, who said she worked as a sales associate at Forever 21 locations in the Chicago suburbs during two college summers in 2012 and 2013, said she typically received her schedule about a week ahead. As a student on break, she didn't mind that her schedule changed a lot week to week, but she found the lack of hours frustrating. Although she'd said she was available for a full-time job, she worked at most 24 hours in a week, she said.

Thomas Khongmaly said he never had on-call shifts at Uniqlo's Chicago store, where he worked from its opening last fall through the end of 2015, but still found the lack of notice frustrating. Khongmaly said he and his fellow sales associates often received schedules on Sunday for workweeks starting the following day. On one or two occasions he received a call saying he wouldn't be needed to work on a day he'd been scheduled, though he said the fact that the store had only recently opened could have played a role.

"It was tougher for people who were students or had a second job," he said.

A 2015 survey of hourly workers in Washington, D.C., from DC Jobs With Justice found about 30 percent of retail employees surveyed said they had less than three days' notice of their work schedule.

"It is great that attorneys general from across the country have taken the initiative to get involved in the issue of on-call scheduling. This issue is a part of a broader conversation around workers rights, paid sick days, as well as a fight for a living wage. We look forward to next steps in making it easier for workers in our communities to have reliable schedules that allows for them to plan their daily lives," said Katelyn Johnson, executive director of Chicago-based Action Now Institute, an advocacy group for low-income communities, in an email.

Rob Karr, president of the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, said scheduling in the retail service sector is "dynamic and constantly evolving."

"While no system is perfect, there are a number of technologies emerging to help employers and employees establish a scheduling process that works in the best interests of both. A one-size fits all approach will ultimately work against the best interests of both — and quite possibly the consumers they serve," Karr said in an email.