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On-Call Scheduling

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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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