A Part-Time World

While we talk about jobs as part of the economic recovery, one thing that often goes undiscussed is the deeper specifics of those jobs and what they actually mean for workers. There’s an ‘any job is a good job’ implication that goes along with how jobs are talked about, and that ignores the fact that no, actually, there are bad jobs out there.

A growing number of employers are turning to part-time workers and other nefarious scheduling schemes to meet their labour needs, raising questions about whether we’re really experiencing economic improvement. With workers forced into multiple jobs to make ends meet and struggling with questionable scheduling and employment practices, a casual glance at employment numbers might make it seem like things are getting better, when that’s not actually the case.

Disappointingly, it’s a lot of ‘socially progressive’ companies who are leading the charge when it comes to abusing workers with sneakily-produced part-time schedules and, even more appallingly, on-call scheduling. These abuses of workers leave people vulnerable, limit access to employment-related benefits, and create limited opportunities for social advancement. For all that people claim it’s possible to transition through social classes, there’s a system designed to keep workers down, and that system is deeply entrenched.

For those who haven’t worked in retail and related fields, the specifics of these scheduling issues might be difficult to understand, so here’s a rundown. Part time scheduling allows employers to get labour when they need it without having to pay out any promised benefits. Many companies require people to work at least 30 hours a week to get health care, retirement benefits, and related offerings. It’s only possible to work that many hours a week when you’re given that many, so of course companies will schedule you for, say, 29 hours. That allows them to advertise benefits, without actually providing them to more than a handful of ‘key’ staff.

Part-time scheduling allows companies to pay less for the same labour. They may need more employees to meet their staffing needs, but at least they don’t have to cover expensive benefits, and by keeping staff frustrated in part-time positions, they also experience high turnover. This might seem like a problem, but it can actually be a benefit when you consider the fact that personnel typically expect raises linked to their time at a company. If no one’s staying long enough for a raise, the employer is keeping salaries close to starting level, which helps it cut bottom line expenses. Part-time scheduling can be a great way to cut the costs associated with payroll, which can be one of the bigger operating expenses of a business.

On-call scheduling is brilliantly evil, an invention only capitalism could develop, let alone love. In on-call scheduling, people are expected to call in before a projected shift to determine if they need to come into work. They’re expected to be available for work whether or not they’re called in, which means they can’t schedule hours at another job, errands, or other activities during an on-call shift. If they call in and find out they aren’t needed, they receive no compensation or offer of another shift. They’re simply left hanging out to dry.

Protest, and your employer can always inform you that you won’t be needed for any shifts in the future, on-call or otherwise. On-call scheduling is theoretically designed to allow companies to meet flexible labour needs; if you have people available in the event of a rush, it’s easier than scrambling to get personnel in. When companies shift primarily to on-call scheduling, though, it creates a system where employees have very unreliable hours and have no way of projecting their income from a given employer. Furthermore, they can’t act to schedule hours elsewhere or take any measures to compensate for potentially lost income.

Using part-time scheduling to avoid paying benefits should be considered abusive. Likewise with uses of on-call scheduling like those the Retail Action Project is working to address. Yet, they’re not; they’re considered a standard part of doing business, and they don’t seem to raise eyebrows in the slightest. This is what capitalism has wrought; a world where we say that the job market is looking better when workers are actually facing more abuses than ever before. This kind of ‘creative’ scheduling is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the abuse of retail workers, let alone people in other sectors.

In analysing jobs numbers and the economy, we do look at detailed breakdowns of job growth in various sectors and we consider hours of employment, but it can be difficult to drill down deeply into these numbers to see what’s really going on. Especially in the case of companies that want to brand themselves as progressive, there’s a concerted effort to present a rosy picture of employment conditions; as workers are applying for government assistance, seeking extra jobs, struggling to find child care, and having difficulty with even the most basic needs of their lives, they’re being told the economy is getting better. And they’re hearing their employers position themselves as places for socially conscious, progressive people to shop.

Which is tough to swallow when you’re looking at your schedule, which, by the way, you get only a few days in advance. Last-minute scheduling may be convenient for your employer, but it’s rather hard on you if you want to be able to plan ahead and balance your life; particularly if you are juggling multiple jobs and a life that includes people you need to care for and things you need to do beyond the workplace. Are workers supposed to be automatons at the beck and call of their employers? Evidently, for the sake of capitalism, yes they are.