The evils of on-call scheduling

Companies in the US are always coming up with new and creative ways to torment their workers and circumvent the law to avoid accountability for it. In recent years, they’ve undergone a forced shift, as critics of abusive corporate policies have called firms to heel for a growing number of violations, with minimum wage in particular being a high popularised social cause. Workers are taking to the street to defend their rights and it’s causing a ripple effect through organisers, politicians, and legislative bodies. This could be a revival of the labour movement that transformed North America during the Industrial Revolution, when workers rightly identified new technologies as a serious threat to their welfare and fought against child labour, unreasonably long workdays, dangerous working conditions, and more.

One particular issue has been evolving very rapidly in recent months: On-call scheduling. The subject went from being something that most people knew almost nothing about to being a front page labour issue, and almost as quickly, firms that used it found themselves under tremendous social pressure to stop, with some folding fairly quickly under the public eye. It was a fantastic example of how sometimes consciousness-raising campaigns do work, as workers drove an angry public to improve their working conditions in a matter of months—though the issue is not shelved, as some companies continue to use the tactic in their employee management practices.

For those who are unfamiliar, on-call scheduling requires employees to check the night before or sometimes just hours before a shift to see if they’re needed. If they are, they must come in to work—sometimes for only a few hours—and if they aren’t, they’re released. It’s most common in retail environments, where companies claim it’s needed to manage workflow. When things are busy, they can add staffers to ensure that customers are helped while stores keep running, with employees restocking, helping with customer questions, keeping an eye on merchandise to make sure it doesn’t wander, and more. When things are not busy, companies can avoid paying employees to stand around.

It’s presented as a sound and compelling business strategy, which is why so many employers picked it up in recent years. On-call scheduling also carries another advantage for companies, in that they can usually set up shifts so that employees remain below half-time hours. If a company offers benefits starting at part-time status, it can cleverly avoid paying those benefits by ensuring that most employees don’t even work for them part time, even if those employees are effectively locked into work schedules that may or may not pan out.

Imagine being scheduled on Monday and Wednesday for two six hour shifts, but being told that you’ll need to call in on Tuesday and Saturday to see if you’re needed for a four to six hour shift. Those days are blocked off. You can’t work for another employer in case you’re needed, as on-call workers may be fired for being unable to show up, especially on multiple occasions. You also can’t make plans like doctor’s appointments, nor can you conduct other appointments and errands, because you’re working on short notice. Do you line up childcare and then cancel at the last minute if you don’t need it, even if that also makes your childcare provider’s life harder? Do you need a petsitter? Are you supposed to be providing care for a family member who will need backup from someone else if you are not available?

On-call scheduling is incredibly destructive to the lives of employees who are forced into this kind of shift scheduling, as they’re effectively forced to work much longer hours than they really do, it’s just that they can’t bill for the hours they’re not physically in a store working. It puts workers in an intensely unfair position, and employers are well aware that they can get away with continuing to use on-call scheduling because of the employment crunch and the fact that people cannot afford to be choosy about jobs and working conditions.

That’s changing, though, and for one simple reason: Retailers are buckling under pressure from members of the public, unions, and labour activists who are all infuriated about on-call scheduling. A growing number of potential workers have an option, choosing between companies that require on-call availability and those that do not. With that choice on the table, many know exactly where they’re going to go if they can get hired, and that leaves companies that still use the archaic and abusive practice hanging high and dry, which is exactly where they should be. Companies in this sense are effectively forcing each other to reform their habits or lose workers and market share.

This could spell the end of on-call scheduling in an informal sense, which would bring us to the next logical step: Outlawing it outright, to ensure that it can’t come back. Legislators have a strong incentive to ban the practice while they’re making other key reforms to labour law, as long as they remember that voluntary compliance doesn’t mean an issue has been resolved. Just because the number of companies using on-call scheduling has declined isn’t an indicator the problem is over, and without strong legislation to ban on-call scheduling, it’s going to appear again in the future, likely in some new, exciting, and awful permutation.

Image: Apple Retail Store, NYC, Mark Sebastian, Flickr