Retailers Trifling With Employees' Lives

Let's consider what an economy is about – the efficient arrangement of resources, including human ones, to serve people fairly toward worthy ends. That's our view, at least, of what an economy is about. In the context of fairness, efficiency doesn't include treating employees as thumbtacks, even those brightly colored stylish ones. 

This, however, doesn't seem to be the view of a group of big retailers who are being investigated by New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman for using "on-call scheduling" to summon employees to work, based on "real time sales and traffic information". The quote is from a Wall Street Journal story* describing one of the most thankless scheduling systems we could imagine.

"Some employers , the Journal reports, "require on-call workers to check in by phone or text shortly before their shift, Mr. Schneiderman's office said.

"If the store is expected to be busy, they must come in; if things are slow, they are told not to report for work, and aren't paid. These systems have been criticized by worker advocates, who say on-call scheduling makes workers' lives and pay unpredictable."

Indeed.

We thought employment has to do with furthering the interests of both the employer and employee. If an employee is hired, it's because he or she can contribute to the firm's prosperity over time, even if there are business lulls. What business doesn't have slow days? When they occur, you don't get told to stay home, and forget about being paid for the interruption.  

When workers show up at a hiring hall, that's one thing. They know what they're in for as day laborers. But when they're hired by a retailer, it's as a valued staff member, or so we thought.  

A warning letter sent to the New York retailers by Attorney General Schneiderman and referenced by The Journal, "alleges that on-call systems leave 'too little time to make arrangements for family needs, let alone to find an alternative source of income to compensate for the lost pay" on days they aren't summoned to work."

In all fairness, who could view this situation otherwise? Being called to retailing is one thing. Being on-call for tomorrow is another. 

* We would have linked to The Journal's story, but you have to subscribe to read it. We don't think that's fair, either. Some papers allow five or 10 free reads a month. To us, that's fair as you're surfing the web.