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Surprise Scheduling


One of the many indignities low wage workers suffer is with their schedules. Whether the constant shift of their schedules week to week, reporting to work and being sent home after an hour if business is slow, and surprise scheduling are all practices that should be banned. They seriously interfere with the ability of an individual to live a dignified life. New York City at least is moving in the right direction on this issue.

The text message came as Flavia Cabral walked to a McDonald’s restaurant in Manhattan for her 6 p.m. shift on a May evening. It was from her manager. Business was slow and she was not needed.

Cabral said she was not too surprised. Her work hours fluctuate almost weekly, though losing an entire shift at the last minute happens only once every few months. This time the canceled shift took a $63 bite out of her average $350 gross weekly earnings from two part-time jobs.

“Every week you’re guessing how much money you’re going to get and how many days you’re going to work,” said Cabral, 53, who has been employed at McDonald’s for four years.But a measure of relief is coming for Cabral and 65,000 other New York City fast-food workers whose schedules and incomes often change with little or no notice.

New York recently became the largest U.S. city to require fast-food restaurants to schedule workers at least two weeks in advance, or pay them extra for changes.

The law, which the restaurant industry vigorously opposed, also requires employers to allow 11-hour breaks between shifts, offer part-time staff additional work before hiring new employees, and pay retail workers to be “on call.” It takes effect late this year.

Great work by SEIU on this, which continues to support the fast food workers movement even if they don’t get dues money from new members.

This sort of thing should be a central part in a Democratic Party’s new agenda of basic rights for workers. By itself, advocating for such a federal law would not be all that compelling in terms of GOTV, but as part of a larger package that included the $15 minimum wage, a new law placing the Obama overtime regulatory standards into the legal code, a federally guaranteed job, and other pro-worker planks that would reset corporate power in this country, they would go far to rejuvenating their appeal among the working classes of all races.

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  • efgoldman

    Erik, OT but interesting: I was hospitalized in Providence this weekend. One of the interns was a dead ringer for the governor – her niece. Nice kid, nowhere near old enough to be a doctor

    • Erik Loomis

      Everyone is related, so it probably is. I routinely saw Raimondo around the neighborhood. She once commented on my Oregon hat.

    • Dennis Orphen

      Noticed your absence, glad you’re back, hope you’re okay.

  • Hogan
    • Cheap Wino

      Jesus. Fuck.

  • Sharon1W

    One of the companies that sells software for this type of scheduling was a big underwriter on Morning Edition last year. I’m not sure why they thought that ad buy was worth their while.

    • Cheap Wino

      Because Morning Edition listeners typically are completely ignorant about the plight of minimum wage workers and they’re searching for people to buy their stock?

  • Gareth

    This is one problem that the tech-bros actually could solve. The employers don’t do this out of malice, but because managing workflows and staffing is expensive. So they just change schedules as required and save money. You can even see it as pushing the burden of computation from the employer to the employee. But drawing up schedules to give everyone reliable hours is something that computers can make much easier. They could even predict which 6pm shift in May won’t need as many workers, weeks in advance.

    • Paul Thomas

      I tend to think of “regarding other people as worthless pond scum wholly unworthy of consideration or respect” as a form of malice… as does the law, I might add. See, e.g., depraved-heart murder.

      (I would also add that the scheduling software you reference will be, if anything, even MORE valuable in a world where schedules have to be set based on advance analytics rather than last-minute managerial BS.)

      • Gareth

        Sure, there’s no conflict between using the software and the city law.

    • Cheap Wino

      Providing work piecemeal with irregular hours is not a feature of fast food, minimum wage work because it’s complex to do otherwise, “whattya gonna do?” It’s part of the industry standard because it helps capture those workers in the cycle of minimum wage hell.

      • firefall

        AND because it gives middle managers a feeling of power and control, which for many is all the reason that’s needed.

    • jmwallach

      Complex scheduling is probably beyond what is deliverable in an affordable manner. But a schedule given in month increments with requests (weighed with seniority) can be done by a person.

    • djw

      This already exists; there’s several widely used workforce management packages on the market. While I don’t have systematic evidence to this effect, people I know who’ve gone over to this system (employees, and one franchise restaurant manager who was forced by the regional manager to start using it) report a significant increase in unpredictability and irregularity in the schedules of individual employees.

      • djw

        …and it’s easy to see why. Say you’ve got a full time employee who works breakfast and lunch, say, 6-2 for five days a week. The computer discovers that Tuesday lunches are a bit slow and could do with one less, but they get busier at dinner. So now she’s 6-2 4 days, 6-11 and 5-8 one day. Screws up childcare, second job, whatever, but the restaurant is marginally more efficient.

  • NeonTrotsky

    Oregon banned this last legislative session, but they wrote all kinds of exceptions into the law. Like the entire manufacturing sector is exempt, and it only applies to pretty large firms, but I suppose its a start.

  • Cheap Wino

    Thumbs up to New York! Curious what the genesis of this legislation was. I know, I know, read the article, google is my friend. But I’m lazy and kind of multi-tasking right now (lousy multi-tasker to boot).

  • DonN

    30 years ago I worked all kinds of jobs like this. You knew a week ahead what your schedule was and it really didn’t often change. I worked at Jack-in-the-Box for a year and I don’t remember any changes. Now, it is a crap shoot. I feel like everything has gotten worse as I got older. How did that happen?

    • TheBrett

      Same here when I worked at a Big Box Retailer about 10+ years ago. You got your schedule about a week in advance, but it was pretty fixed – I don’t remember them ever actually telling anyone to go home, and rarely even offering it even if it wasn’t busy. They just hired fewer people overall and worked you harder.

      I wonder if it’s a fast food thing. That’s where I usually hear about it happening, along with temp job agencies (there was one temp job agency that was notorious about that).

      • M Lister

        The first place where I heard of this happening was at Abercrombie Stores in malls – including the irregular changing schedule and the “go home” and the “call one hour before to see if you’re needed stuff. At least some warehouse work is like this, too – each day, get up at 5am, see if there are shifts, and try to get them, competing with many others. (That might be worse, but I’m not sure.)

    • jmwallach

      I have no idea how it happened. I have a few friends with retail or food jobs to support their other work and this is incredibly destructive.

      What I do know is that it went from the way you described up until the late 2000s to nearly every chain having this sort of scheduling by 2013.

      • cs

        I only heard about this a few years ago when my wife (unemployed and a little desperate) got a retail job at a chain store. At first, I didn’t believe her, I though there must be some way to find out your work hours, she must have misunderstood something.

  • TheBrett

    This sort of thing should be a central part in a Democratic Party’s new agenda of basic rights for workers.

    Seconded, along with a commitment to hire far more people to inspect and enforce federal labor laws (including this and wage theft). I have a relative who had a job where they started frequently abusing this, and she ended up having to quit (she worked from home, and they were doing stuff like telling her to log off for 20 minutes, get back on for 10, get back off for 30 minutes – only paying for the times she was logged in even though they were occupying her entire block of time).

    • jmwallach

      Especially harmful in places where transit sucks or sucks more at off peak hours…

  • NobodySpecial

    I hate to be that guy, given I work small retail, but scheduling is also hard because so much retail and service spending is an impulse buy. You can have years of data going back on typical sales for a day and have that completely upset by people suddenly deciding to go or not go for no one particular reason. There have been lots of times where two people on shift was too much and times when we could really have used a third person.

    Clock abuses and workplace shenanigans, sure, hammer those bastards. Sometimes, though, the schedule will not be as inflexible as a white collar job.

    • jmwallach

      At a certain size a business can afford to have an extra person around or pay a differential to someone called in.

    • Cheap Wino

      Yes, but it’s the business owner who is responsible for taking the risk, not the employee. You can’t pawn off the problems of your business model on the employee. This is like individualize the profits socialize the risk for the big banks writ small.

    • JKTH

      Sure but if they’re impulse buys, how would anyone know how busy things will be at any point? That would seem to lend itself to ensuring that there are enough people there, not sending people home based on the traffic beforehand.

    • Aaron Morrow

      “There have been lots of times where two people on shift was too much and times when we could really have used a third person.”

      This was literally a decision made by your employer to go cheap on labor costs. Much like they did after maximum work week laws were passed and enforced, businesses will adapt by employing more people.

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