The unpredictable schedules of retail and fast-food workers is a big issue in workers rights campaigns. Now, the New York attorney general is investigating the way some of the country's biggest retailers handle scheduling.
In New York, if a worker shows up for a shift that he doesn't end up being needed for, the law says he still is due four hours of pay. State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman says retailers, especially, rely heavily on systems that require workers to be ready to work a shift — regardless of whether they end up working. It's called on-call work.
"And that's something that really blocks the day out for a worker," Schneiderman says. "They can't schedule another job; they can't schedule child care. This is something that we have to deal with. It's a growing problem."
New York is among eight states and the District of Columbia that have what are called "reporting time" laws on the books. But, Schneiderman says, "A lot of times, workers are not aware of these regulations, so they don't report a breach of them."
Last week, Schneiderman's office requested detailed staffing and scheduling information from 13 big retail chains, including Target, Ann Taylor, Gap, J.C. Penney and Abercrombie & Fitch.
J.C. Penney and Ann Taylor say they do not use on-call scheduling. Gap says it is establishing "sustainable scheduling practices."
The New York law was written at a time when some workers physically showed up to find out whether they were needed for a shift. Nowadays, employees are often notified by email or text message, but Schneiderman says the principle of the law remains the same.
"In situations where there are new business models developing based on new technology, we have to be vigilant," he says. "The New York regulations here date back to the 1950s and there have been a lot of changes since then."
Neil Trautwein, a vice president at the National Retail Federation, calls the inquiry politically motivated. "It's a little bit of the flavor of the moment. And where there is flavor in the air, there are politics sure to follow," he says.
He says demands on businesses are changing — requiring more of a balancing act between employers and workers.
"Retailers are trying to adjust to sometimes be open 24 hours a day or seven days a week and trying to figure out how best to meet customer needs and expectations," Trautwein says.
Lisa Horn, director of congressional affairs for the Society for Human Resource Management, says employers recognize the value of providing certainty when it comes to staffing — not just for the workers, but for the businesses themselves.
"That type of predictable scheduling is an effective workplace strategy that can ultimately contribute to employee retention, improved employee morale, better customer service, and even increased productivity," she says.
But, she says, business is dynamic these days. And employers sometimes need the flexibility to adjust staffing on a slow day.