The pitfalls of just-in-time-scheduling

Part-time and low-wage employees today are increasingly at the mercy of “just-in-time scheduling,” which uses a computer algorithm to create an employee schedule based on predicting customer demand, driven by factors such as time of day, season, weather, or even a nearby sporting event. Retail and service industries are the most avid users of just-in-time scheduling—the very industries in which workers already face a lack of benefits, poor working conditions, and insufficient pay.

This use of “workplace optimization systems” ensures that stores have a correct number of workers on an hourly basis, yet wreaks havoc on workers, who have no control over their erratic schedule. Workers’ “just-in-time” schedules change from day to day, and they typically receive only three days’ notice of their schedule for the coming week. Employees are often obliged to be “on call,” seeing their shift canceled only a couple hours before it is meant to begin. Workers may arrive at work only to be sent home, which is particularly burdensome for the working poor, who commit more time and a greater portion of their income to commuting.

Such a situation is especially untenable for parents, who already struggle to patch together a system of childcare. In many instances, they must resort to poor quality options when left in a bind, with implications for our children’s development and future productivity.

Joan C. Williams, a Distinguished Professor and Founding Director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of Law—as well as a 2014 Equitable Growth grantee—is conducting research to address these issues. Working alongside Susan Lambert, a University of Chicago professor who has pioneered work on scheduling issues, Williams has created a pilot program to test new ways to stabilize worker schedules in ways that benefit employers, employees, and taxpayers alike.

Yes, taxpayers, too, because just-in-time schedules can create sky-high levels of absenteeism, and managers’ response often is to cut workers’ hours to ensure a sufficient pool of people to call as replacements when a worker doesn’t show up. But workers who work too few hours to support themselves may end up turning to government benefits for help.

Furthermore, these workers’ earnings may fluctuate depending on how many hours they work in any given month. This not only affects these workers’ ability to put food on the table, but also more generally, deprives our economy of much-needed demand for products and services to power sustained economic growth.

There are companies out there that are beginning to take their employees’ well-being seriously. After The New York Times published an article chronicling the hardship imposed on a Starbucks barista and her family by the company’s scheduling practices, the company vowed to change. Indeed, The Gap, Inc. has agreed to take part in William’s research, allowing her team to work directly with 30 Gap store managers in the San Francisco Bay Area and Miami, Florida.  Williams, through her partnership with The Gap, will compare stores with and without her scheduling pilot program to uncover the effectiveness of a more stable scheduling program for employees and employers’ bottom lines alike.

Research indicates that unstable schedules lead to high annual turnover, possibly because a worker quits or doesn’t show up to work because they can’t balance their work and life schedules. Companies, therefore, must invest in increased re-hiring and training costs, and may suffer from poor customer service because, as Williams says, “new employees do not have a strong grasp of the product and a high level commitment to the organization.”

Investing in company profit and employee well-being may not be a zero sum situation. Instead, providing scheduling stability to workers may allow them to realize their full economic potential.  Williams’ research involving The Gap should provide some telling answers.

January 27, 2015

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