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On-Call Scheduling



One of the worst things about many American employers is on-call scheduling. Mercifully, several chains have backed away from it under pressure over the increased exploitation of department store workers.

J. Crew recently joined a group of several other top retail chains in dropping on-call scheduling—the system that requires workers to make themselves available for a shift with no guarantee of actually getting any clocked hours. Under on-call scheduling, workers generally must be ready to be called in for a shift just a few hours beforehand, and often that meant wasting valuable time by not being called in at all. In addition to J. Crew, Urban Outfitters, Gap, Bath & Body Works, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Victoria’s Secret, and various affiliated brands, have announced that they’re phasing out on-call nationwide.

The abandonment of on-call at these high-profile chains—affecting roughly 239,000 retail sales workers, according to the Fair Workweek Initiative (FWI)—represents growing backlash against the erosion of workers’ autonomy in low-wage service sectors. The pressure for reform has been stoked by media scrutiny, labor protests, and litigation, and an investigation into on-call scheduling in New York retail stores by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

This is only a nice first step. The exploitation of these workers can morph into one of any number of forms:

 But the fight for fair labor practices isn’t over in retail. Carrie Gleason, director of the FWI, a project of the advocacy group Center for Popular Democracy, says nominally phasing out on-call at a workplace may simply lead to a “whack-a-mole situation,” pushing managers to find other ways to drive workers into erratic and unstable schedules. Your supervisor might not call you in two hours before a shift starts, but might still abruptly cancel your pre-scheduled shift, or text on an “off” day to pressure you to sub for a coworker. Some workplaces might have a set start time for shifts, but then pile on on-call extended hours, so the workday expands unexpectedly. Across the service sectors, Gleason says, “there’s not a real commitment around standards around what workers experience as a predictable schedule.”

The entire system of unstable scheduling in the service sector is totally unacceptable and means that workers, many of whom are juggling multiple jobs and children, can have no stability in their lives. Fighting against this needs to be a major progressive goal. We are seeing a few victories here. There’s a long way to go. We need legislative solutions to this problem. Voluntary programs won’t work because they never work without a stick of enforcement. Moreover, there’s no actual reason for this form of scheduling to exist except that corporations simply don’t value their workers as people who deserve basic dignity.

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  • Atrios

    When I was a food service worker for a major chain that rhymes with pizza butt a million years ago, “send people home early” was the strategy. This was before cell phones and mercifully only managers were required to have beepers, but it was still somewhat of an issue. At least people got to clock in and I think there was some minimum time once you did. Managers of franchise-type places can’t control much, but they can control labor costs to some extent, so if they were having a crap business day all they could really do was try to cut hours.

    Back then it wasn’t that big of a deal. Often there were people who were happy to go home early. But, again, pre cell phones…

    • Denverite

      One of my first jobs was a busboy/dishwasher/prep cook/whatever else they needed at a franchise steak restaurant. The issue with “send them home early” is that between the waitstaff (which was essentially free to the restaurant) and the minimum necessary kitchen staff that you needed to close down the restaurant at the end of the evening, there really wasn’t a lot of people that you could send home to save money. Maybe a couple of line cooks and a hostess. Maybe a busboy (but you needed at least one to help with the kitchen clean-up, and it was rare to have more than two working except on insanely busy nights).

      That was a great job. On Saturdays I’d work until 1:00 AM or so helping clean up the kitchen. The manager would usually buy us a case of beer to drink. I was 17.

    • ploeg

      Even back in the day, they kept records of how many customers they had and what events were going on in town so that they had a good idea about how many warm bodies they needed and when they needed them. If they were really in a bind, which wasn’t often, it was easier to hold onto somebody who was already there but scheduled to go off duty (though you still didn’t want to hold onto people that much because of overtime).

    • NonyNony

      I worked a few years for the burger chain with the evil clown mascot. Sending people home early was how they handled things, and it worked pretty well for the most part. I suspect that this was because there was a mix of High School kids and folks who were no longer in High School working there and the unstated assumption was that the non-High School people would only be asked to go home early if they expressed an interest in it. Most of the non-students working at this particular outlet had families to support on their minimum wage burger job, so cutting into their hours hurt them a lot more than it hurt me, the teenager who was trying to save up some money for college expenses.

    • brugroffil

      The airline a relative of mine does this for their call centers, but at least in their case it is completely voluntary and many are happy to cut out a little early when its offered. Mandatory “send people home early” is bullshit.

    • TribalistMeathead

      edit: wrong place

    • Fortunado

      I worked for one of these retail companies over a decade ago and there was constant cancellation of shifts within 24 hours before and also there were also people sent home early.

      Part of me thinks that the “call in advance” thing was started because people didn’t get the message that they were called off and accidentally came in. Talk about awkward.

      The other thing that always seemed shocking to me was that the wages were so pitiful. How could they possibly be saving that much money by doing this?

  • Denverite

    If only there was some way to provide companies with a financial disincentive to requiring their employees to be available for work without actually guaranteeing that they’ll get any hours.

    (Seriously, I’ve always wondered why this isn’t a law. If you required employers to pay half time or similar to “on call” employees, I bet you’d see them figure out their staffing needs in advance pretty damn quickly.)

    • sparks

      My father could figure this stuff out in his head. He ran a restaurant and bar which are notorious for slack periods.

      • Denverite

        I mean, Erik’s always making fun of Supply Chain Management degrees. If those can’t be used to figure this out, what good are they?

        • DrDick

          what good are they?

          Why none, none at all, just like most business degrees.

        • NonyNony

          The problem is that a supply chain management degree probably helps you quite a bit if you want to work for a Wal*Mart or an Amazon. But nothing beats 10 years of experience working as a manager in the same restaurant for knowing what your staffing needs are going to be on a particular week.

          (I do honestly wonder if management turnover at retail stores isn’t a problem as well. Store manager turnover is going to play hell with the “institutional memory” to understand how scheduling for your particular store is going to go, but my understanding is that corporate generally doesn’t want to believe that store managers are anything but replaceable cogs.)

          • Brett

            It might be a problem with chain restaurants. I remember the Pizza Huts and Dominoes nearby had pretty high turnover on assistant managers (and even turned over general managers every few years). My brother worked as a delivery driver at a pizza chain place, and they went through two different assistant managers in about eight months.

  • CrunchyFrog

    Back in the bad old days when we had enforced labor laws, I worked at a number of food places from MikeyDs to Long John Silvers to a local pizza place. Instead of the on-call model each of these places dealt with slow times by having a set of mini-projects that were necessary but not urgent (such as replacing the labels on all of the dining room ketchup bottles to make them look new) that would be taken up during lulls. I also recall sometimes people would volunteer to leave early when business was slow, because the end-of-night cleanup tasks were the worst, but never someone being told to leave early.

    I realize that this is going to be harder for a larger outfit, like a big box retailer, but I do think there are alternative approaches that aren’t being tried because the laws allow them to avoid extra management effort by effectively schedule workers without paying them.

    • mini-projects that were necessary but not urgent

      Those are for the unpaid interns.

  • DrDick

    I think part of this is that worker insecurity and the inability to work more than one job are seen as pluses by management since it makes workers more pliable and subservient.

    • Derelict

      It’s not just making them pliable and subservient, it’s making them 1.) unable to hold a second job because the schedules will eventually conflict, and 2.) unable to apply for better jobs because being on-call all the time means you really can’t schedule an interview or even set aside time to fill out an application at MegaBurger, and 3.) dehumanized to the extent that the employee really isn’t a human any more–they’re just a piece of extra-mobile machinery that can be summoned when needed, then shut off when not needed (and you don’t even have to store it when it’s not in use!).

      • Lee Rudolph

        (and you don’t even have to store it when it’s not in use!)

        Not to mention that maintenance, such as it is, is paid for by [not-you].

    • Rudolph Schnaubelt

      Well they are not workers you see, they are just factors of labour. Economic plug-ins completely fungible.

  • nominally phasing out on-call at a workplace may simply lead to a “whack-a-mole situation,” pushing managers to find other ways to drive workers into erratic and unstable schedules.

    Yes, because giving people normal, predictable schedules is posolutely, absatively out of the question. Gotta meet the quarterly projections for human misery!

  • gorillagogo

    One thing I really hated back in my restaurant workin days was split shift scheduling. You’d come in for the lunch crowd, leave around 1:30, and be due back by 4 for the dinner rush. I’d rather just work one or the other and have either the day or evening off.

    • Denverite

      The issue is that lunch isn’t very profitable for waitstaff (because no alcohol, smaller food orders, and shorter window of service), so if you gave people the option of lunch-only or dinner-only, you’d have a tough time staffing lunches.

      • yet_another_lawyer

        The solution to this and other problems is to encourage day-drinking.

        • sparks

          I don’t think this was a problem in my dad’s era, when the three martini lunch still held sway.

      • Richard Gadsden

        So pay higher hourly rates for working at lunch?

  • LeeEsq

    J. Crew is no more of department store than Starbucks is bar. A department store is a big store that sells a variety of goods from different companies and their own house brands and is organized into different department’s like women, men, children, food hall, bedding, etc. Bloomindales or Macy’s are department stores. J. Crew is a chain clothing store. Stores are of varying size but they only sell one type of good and only from themselves. You can’t get non-J.Crew clothing at J.Crew.

  • TribalistMeathead

    Reminds me of the time about ten years ago I was a litigation paralegal, working on the Trial From Hell. Since the case was actually being heard by an arbitration panel of an NGO, and the panel consisted mainly of academics, the trial had to wrap up by a particular date, which meant trial was in session seven days a week towards then end. One Sunday, when trial was in session, the partners and senior attorneys who were running the case on behalf of their clients made an announcement that that night would be a late night for the firm, and that they would need a lot of help. A whole lot of people (junior attorneys, paralegals, secretaries, word processors, librarians) were asked to come in and help out. Food was ordered and delivered. Copy vendors were on standby.

    At the end of the day, the partners and senior associates came back to the office, dropped their briefcases off, and went to dinner, never to return to the office (or work on the case) that night.

    • CrunchyFrog

      Reminds me of a project I was given about 10 years ago. Huge deal is sold to a large wireless carrier. The technically-oriented managers look at what was sold and realize immediately it’s going to be a big problem because the SVP of Sales basically promised everything (including rewriting the product to work on AIX instead of Linux, at no extra cost or time), and the new CEO was counting on this deal to make his big splash with wall street. Fast forward 6 months, the project has gone as badly as the technical managers figured it would, numerous on-site program managers have been blamed and fired, the company has already recognized half the revenue although no payments received, and customer threatens to cancel.

      The solution was to work the staff 70 hour weeks on site to recover, with me as the new program manager. The execs and those who were cashing the commission checks couldn’t be bothered. They’d have a big dinner at an expensive steakhouse then drop by at 11 pm on the way to the strip club hotel just to make sure that we weren’t shirking our work hours give us moral support.

      In the end, we figured we’d at least get great bonuses. Nope. Because people on the project had forgone personal self-training to get the project done by the new deadline they were all knocked down in the performance ratings. As for me? The exec job I’d been offered was taken away because, although the project delivered and the customer was thrilled I’d let one of the SVPs know I wasn’t happy with the customer during a private moment – not in an unprofessional manner, but he concluded I wasn’t customer-oriented.

      At that point I finally realized that you never work hard now and assume that you’ll be rewarded later. Maybe there was a time when that was a good strategy. But with the modern business ethics doing so is just being a useful idiot.

  • quercus

    There is one other way of eliminating these kind of abuses: give employees good enough other options that they leave rather that put up with the BS (or get paid well enough to put up with it).

    Now, I think we’d love to see both of the solutions happen, so I’m not arguing against regulation, particularly given how difficult and long-term a project the other one is.

  • Richard Gadsden

    In the UK, they’re referred to as zero-hours contracts, which is the best bit of framing the left has pulled off in labour in years.

    So successful has it been that a law was passed (by the centre-right coalition in March 2015, not the current right-wing Conservative government) that holds that an exclusivity clause cannot be enforced on a zero-hours contract, and that zero-hours employees can’t be fired for refusing a shift when they’re working at another job.

    It’s not a perfect piece of law (employers could offer a one-hour contract), but it’s a real gain for worker’s rights, obtained from a centre-right government, as a result of activism and campaigning.

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