The New York Times' Jodi Kantor has authored a poignant photo-essay describing the painful personal and family dilemmas part-time employees face as a result of companies' use of scheduling software to "efficiently" set work schedules without regard to the real-world concerns of ordinary people, particularly those with children. From the race-to-the-bottom hiring practices of employers seeking the biggest return for the lowest payout, to the cold intersection of technology and capitalism, the article illustrates everything that is wrong with working conditions in this country.
Kantor traces the experience of Jannette Navarro, a 22-year old single mother employed, archetypically, at Starbucks and earning 9 dollars an hour, part-time. The problem is that her hours are so irregular and unstable that she doesn't know whether--and more importantly when-- she's working until the software her company uses spits out her schedule. Designed, of course to maximize efficiency (and profits) the schedule "waits" to alert her until about three days before she is supposed to work. For anyone who has tried to arrange child care under those circumstances, this is a recipe for anxiety and chaos. For a single parent with no built-in family support the additional stress of providing for her son and seeing that he gets adequate care while she's working is practically unbearable.
"You’re waiting on your job to control your life,” she said, with the scheduling software used by her employer dictating everything from “how much sleep Gavin will get to what groceries I’ll be able to buy this month.”This is the "new normal" of modern work for those who can only find employment in service and retail industries, where unfortunately most of the jobs created since the Great Recession are to be found.
Like increasing numbers of low-income mothers and fathers, Ms. Navarro is at the center of a new collision that pits sophisticated workplace technology against some fundamental requirements of parenting, with particularly harsh consequences for poor single mothers. Along with virtually every major retail and restaurant chain, Starbucks relies on software that choreographs workers in precise, intricate ballets, using sales patterns and other data to determine which of its 130,000 baristas are needed in its thousands of locations and exactly when. Big-box retailers or mall clothing chains are now capable of bringing in more hands in anticipation of a delivery truck pulling in or the weather changing, and sending workers home when real-time analyses show sales are slowing. Managers are often compensated based on the efficiency of their staffing.Navarro doesn't ask for a more stable schedule out of fear that the hours the company graciously deigns to "allot" to her will be cut. So while the focus of the article is on the personal havoc this type of calculated, computerized software brings to families (and in particular to women), the fear of being fired due solely to one's inability to conform to this new work paradigm is the constant undercurrent that sustains it. Fear of losing one's ability to support one's children, fear of unemployment, while corporations spin new ways to "redistribute the uncertainties of doing business" to their workers, rather than to themselves and their shareholders.
Scheduling is now a powerful tool to bolster profits, allowing businesses to cut labor costs with a few keystrokes.
The practical effects of these corporate "solutions" are to force young women to rely on friends and family, if they are available, to compensate for the instability in their schedules. Most day cares won't accommodate children on weekends. And most friends and family members, except the elderly, tend to have jobs of their own. The strain on interpersonal relationships caused by this type of endless "juggling" is brought out well in the article, which describes the problems Navarro has in obtaining care for her little son, who must endure an ever-shifting universe of caregivers, family members and boyfriends.
Child care and policy experts worry that the entire apparatus for helping poor families is being strained by unpredictable work schedules, preventing parents from committing to regular drop-off times or answering standard questions on subsidy forms and applications for aid: “How many hours do you work?” and “What do you earn?”Starbucks described the situation of Ms. Navarro as an anomaly, claiming its workers were nearly always provided with a week's notice of upcoming schedules. However, the Times interviewed workers at 17 area Starbucks and found only two workers who said they were afforded a week's notice. Some were given as little as one day's notice.
The article illustrates the type of problems that can arise for people on these schedules, from lack of day care to strained relations with relatives and fear that one misstep will cause the entire delicate framework of survival to come crashing down. Being poor--and making $9.00 an hour is quite close to that--means that if bad things can happen, they usually do. A kid can get sick and you have to stay home. You can get hurt because you're not paying attention, because you're stressed. Your safety net can shred instantly. If you have a car, it's probably not a good one and it can break down. Appliances. Rent. School. All of these things can intrude and alter your life in an instant.
Jannette Navarro's story is one that is repeated hundreds of thousands of times a day as low-wage workers struggle to survive in an economy that our parents would not recognize:
“Over the past two decades, many major retailers went from a quotient of 70 to 80 percent full-time to at least 70 percent part-time across the industry,” said Burt P. Flickinger III, managing director of the Strategic Resource Group, a retail consulting firm.The software keeps track of who is available, their skills and their sales performance. Like any computer program, it takes no account of the actual human lives it "assesses." There is no doubt of its efficacy and efficiency as a determinant of corporate profit. There is also no doubt that the primary motive underlying its use has been profit:
Retailers and restaurants use so many part-timers not only because it gives them more flexibility, but because it significantly cuts payroll costs.(statistics are from 2012)
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, part-time workers in service jobs received average compensation of $10.92 an hour in June, which includes $8.90 in wages plus benefits of $2.02. Full-time workers in that sector averaged 57 percent more in total compensation — $17.18 an hour, made up of $12.25 in wages and $4.93 in benefits. Benefit costs are far lower for part-timers because, for example, just 21 percent of them are in employer-backed retirement plans, compared with 65 percent of full-timers.
For better or for worse the part-time economy is something that millions of Americans must now contend with as their sole means of existence. For all the touted "improvements to our lives" that digital technology has brought about, this is (yet) another example of how its effects can be applied for the worse. In essence, the course of Ms Navarro's life and that of her child are being determined by a computer, without regard to the devastating impacts on the quality of their existence. It is they who must adapt to the whims of the software.
If that is the course we choose to go down, employment becomes a kind of zero-sum game for the corporation. There is always a way to squeeze more profit out of the system by firing and hiring workers who "fit" into the profit model. By this logic, no matter how efficient or timely you are, there is always an opportunity to hire a more efficient worker than you. If decisions about hiring are left solely to computer algorithms in the name of profit all workers are endangered. But that is exactly where these practices are leading, even as highly compensated employees, officers and management all become more reliant on these systems. Tools like software scheduling simply serve to distance higher level employees from the realities faced by part-time workers. Where there is such a distance, the desire to increase profits becomes the sole motivation.
But there is a solution. It's called a union.
“We’re seeing more and more that the burden of market fluctuations is being shifted onto the workers, as opposed to the companies absorbing it themselves,” said Carrie Gleason, executive director of the Retail Action Project, an advocate for retail workers that helped conduct the survey and is financed by foundations and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.
That union wants more labor deals like the one it has at Macy’s flagship store in Herald Square in Manhattan. Although that store has many part-timers, the more senior workers can reserve days off and learn their schedule six months in advance.That would be the same type of union that established something called the "weekend."
NOTE: Starbucks responded to the NYTimes article by ending this practice with respect to their baristas (h/t Murphy in the comments):
In what may be the fastest response to a piece of public-service journalism in recent memory, Starbucks (SBUX) announced it would change its policies surrounding the schedules of its workers in reaction to an article that appeared in the New York Times.More on what Starbucks is--and isn't--doing here.