Schedules that work for families and the U.S. economy

Anyone who has a job knows that the key feature of work is giving someone else control of your time. For some of us, this is a straightforward process. The boss says our hours are nine-to-five, five days a week—end of story. But for millions of workers, selling their time to employers isn’t so simple. Many people have unpredictable schedules, both in terms of when they work and for how long.

About four in ten young workers ages 26 to 32 know their schedule a week or less in advance, according to data from the University of Chicago’s psychology professor Susan J. Lambert, sociologist Peter J. Fugiel, and psychologist Julia R. Henly. For many workers, it’s not just not knowing their schedule, but also being available on short notice—and, if not, then quite possibly having no job at all.

This used to be the case uniformly at the giant clothing retailer The Gap, Inc. Last week, however, the company announced it is changing the way it schedules its employees in stores for all five of their brands: Athleta, Banana Republic, Gap, Intermix, and Old Navy. Employees will no longer have to be available for last-minute shifts. Instead, employees will get their schedule at least 10 days—and in some cases, 14 days—in advance of their shifts.

The Gap made its decision to eliminate on-call scheduling and to give a 10- to 14-day notice of schedules based on a number of factors. But one telling reason was this—The Gap has been working with two of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth’s 2014 grantees, Joan Williams at the Center for WorkLife Law and UC Hastings College of The Law and The University of Chicago’s Lambert. The two scholars are leading the Stable Schedules for Hourly Workers Pilot at The Gap, which began with a Preliminary Pilot that tested out two weeks’ advance notice, elimination of on calls, and several other changes to existing scheduling practices in three GAP stores in the San Francisco area.

Equitable Growth provided funding for this expanded pilot work in our 2015 grantgiving cycle. Over the next 18 months Williams and Lambert will conduct a full pilot study in roughly 30 Gap stores, implementing additional scheduling changes designed to provide more schedule stability for workers while meeting business goals of the company.

The Gap, like many retailers, had been using “just-in-time” scheduling because they thought it was saving them money. Today’s advanced computer technology allows firms to craft sophisticated software algorithms that monitor store traffic. A decade or two ago, store managers had little more than basic insights into customer traffic—whether it’s snowing outside or whether it’s the 4th of July—but now they can program in much wider array of factors. This means store managers can schedule employees to be at work only when they have sufficient customers—or so the theory goes.

There are two problems with this theory. First, just-in-time schedules create havoc in the lives of employees and their families. And second, there’s emerging evidence that it doesn’t even boost the bottom line of businesses.

First the workers and their families. Lack of notice limits the rest of life. Too many workers never know their schedules and cannot afford to turn down work when offered to them. It’s not just that they cannot live without the income from that shift; their bosses may not give them shifts, or possibly even fire them if they complain.

But it seems that just-in-time scheduling isn’t good for firms, either. We won’t know for a while the results of the study by Williams and Lambert, but The Gap apparently finds the early evidence compelling. And we know that other firms are taking a second look at their scheduling practices as well. To take just one example: In 2007, Wal-Mart was one of the first retailers to implement just-in-time scheduling. But, in February 2015, they announced a change in policy. Come 2016, employees will know their schedule two-and-a-half weeks in advance, and they will be able to have some input on when they work. Some employees will even get a fixed schedule.

Maybe the days of just-in-time scheduling are numbered. There’s lots of evidence that schedules that work for employees can be very good for firms—and for the economy more generally—and maybe this is something U.S. businesses are finally seeing for themselves.


September 2, 2015


Schedule Stability

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