The Perils of Part-Time

In the wake of high-profile criticism of some companies' scheduling practices, employers and activists push to make part-time work more stable and predictable.

Thursday, November 6, 2014
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As economic indicators continue to improve, concerns about the real drivers behind the declining U.S. unemployment rate remain a point of contention. In particular, Republican pundits claim far fewer Americans have found full-time work than the White House would have the nation believe, instead settling for one or more part-time jobs to make ends meet. 

Indeed, shifts in the American economy have led to a significant rise in the number of people accepting part-time employment. Currently, 26.5 million Americans work part-time, up from 23.0 million in 2000 and 20.1 million in 1990, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Nearly 2 million are working two part-time jobs, while 3.6 million are working full-time and moonlighting part-time. 

Along with the rise in the number of part-time workers has come a chorus of complaints about a number of scheduling practices commonly employed by companies with a large number of part-timers. Specifically, these employees express frustration with the erratic nature of their work hours, which can vary wildly from week to week, and the fact that schedules are often posted less than a week in advance. Many part-time workers say they are expected to be on call 24/7 and suffer repercussions if they refuse to report to work when asked to.

Adding insult to injury, some employees report being called in, only to be sent home early because business is slower than expected. Not only do they lose the opportunity to earn additional income, they may lose money in the form of child-care and transportation costs. Critics charge such practices make it difficult, if not impossible, for part-time workers to achieve any semblance of work/life balance, manage child-care or elder-care responsibilities, continue their education or work a second job.

"Part-time workers have other things going on in their lives," says Carrie Gleason, director of the Fair Workweek Initiative, a collaborative effort anchored by the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Center for Popular Democracy. "They have second jobs. They take care of their kids. They go to school. The kind of variation in hours they are expected to endure is really tough on workers and their families."

Granted, such practices aren't necessarily new, but they have landed under the microscope in recent years, in large part due to the changing composition of the part-time workforce, according to Susan Lambert, associate professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago. Once the bastion of students and housewives, part-time jobs are now frequently held by displaced professionals, single moms and others who would rather be working full-time, but have essentially been forced into part-time work to pay the rent, put food on the table or hire a babysitter.

In 2013, nearly one-quarter of part-time workers worked this type of job involuntarily because they couldn't obtain full-time work, according to calculations by the Washington-based National Women's Law Center based on data from the BLS Current Population Survey 2013 and the U.S. Census Bureau's Current Population Survey, 2013 Annual Social and Economic Supplement.

With so many people flocking to part-time work, human resource professionals are increasingly being challenged to re-evaluate their company's scheduling practices and balance the labor demands of the business with part-time workers' demands for a more stable, predictable schedule. But just how much flexibility in scheduling is reasonable? How much input should part-time employees have into the hours they get scheduled and how much advance notice should they expect? Lastly, are employers relying too heavily on automated-scheduling software or does technology actually have a bigger role to play in solving the problem?

Caffeinated Controversy

The controversy reached fever pitch this summer when the New York Times published a front-page feature on the plight of the part-time worker. The article, aptly titled "Working Anything but 9 to 5," chronicled the struggles of Jannette Navarro, a 22-year-old Starbucks barista and single mother. Frustrated with fluctuating work hours, along with the Seattle-based coffee chain's late posting of schedules and penchant for "clopening" -- scheduling an employee to close one night, then open the very next morning -- Navarro found it next to impossible to arrange childcare for her 4-year-old son, much less commit to taking the classes she needed to complete her associate's degree in business.

The article set off a firestorm of debate about the scheduling practices of retailers, restaurants and other businesses that rely heavily on part-time workers. Words like "callous," "problematic" and "mistreatment" were used to describe part-time-scheduling practices. Calls for reform became rampant.

"Today's part-time workers are almost day laborers," says Gleason. "Their schedules change constantly; they have absolutely no input into their work hours; and they have little chance of achieving any real balance between their work lives and their family lives."

Within days of the article's publication, Starbucks COO Troy Alstead issued a memo promising to "transform the U.S. partner experience" for the company's 130,000 baristas. Included was a pledge to retool its scheduling practices, putting an end to clopening, posting work hours at least one week in advance, respecting workers' "preferred availabilities," and making it easier to request time off. Yet, Starbuck's pledge was met with widespread derision. One group of baristas went so far as to post a marked-up version of Alstead's memo, grading it a C- and adding their own list of demands, including "stable hours with steady shifts," "regular input into our schedules," and "predictable schedules with three weeks advance notice."

Some disgruntled Starbucks baristas are working with the Center for Popular Democracy, which has openly criticized the scheduling practices of numerous employers. Referring to Alstead's memo, Gleason called the company's promise of one-week notice of working hours "a low-road standard" and posted a petition for Starbucks' workers, demanding better work policies. (Starbucks declined to comment for this article.)

Despite Gleason's negative characterization of Starbuck's single-week notice, the practice appears better than many. Forty-seven percent of part-time workers between the ages of 26 and 32 receive a week or less advance notice of their schedule, according to the BLS. That finding came as a surprise to Lambert, who engaged in an extensive analysis of BLS data on U.S. employers' scheduling practices, along with fellow University of Chicago professors Peter Fugiel and Julia Henly. The resulting report, Schedule Unpredictability Among Early Career Workers in the U.S. Labor Market: A National Snapshot, paints a picture of a part-time workforce plagued by "precarious work schedules" consisting of "short advance notice, large fluctuations in work hours and little or no input into the timing of work."

"We were surprised to learn how widespread these practices are in the labor market," says Lambert. "In certain industries, such as the retail sector, the majority of the workforce are in these frontline jobs where they have very little stability, predictability or input into their hours."

Hidden Stability

Some employers and industry groups argue a certain amount of unpredictability in part-time scheduling is necessary, due to the natural ebbs and flows of business. While predictability is certainly desirable, Katharine Parker, partner in the labor and employment law department at New York-based Proskauer, says flexibility in scheduling is unavoidable as businesses must ensure profitability at all times, even in the face of seasonal fluctuations, variations in sales volume and unexpected absences due to illness or vacation. She bristles at the assertion that companies commonly employ callous scheduling practices with their part-time workers.

"Employers are not setting schedules willy-nilly to wreak havoc on peoples' lives," says Parker, co-head of Proskauer's employment-law counseling and training, and government-contractor compliance and relations groups. "They try to maintain predictable schedules as much as possible, but sometimes they have to balance that against business needs."

On the other hand, Lambert says, every business has embedded in it a "hidden stability" that gives management the ability to better predict labor needs and avoid the kind of harried scheduling practices that define so many retail-oriented businesses today. Take a company such as Starbucks, for example. From week to week, Lambert says, there really isn't much variance in business. Seasonal fluctuations, like a surge in business during the Christmas shopping season or the arrival of autumn, can easily be predicted, giving store managers keen insight into staffing needs. 

Even when such stability is recognized, however, Lambert says few businesses use this information to influence their scheduling. As a result, workers continue to be plagued by unpredictable, fluctuating schedules, reflecting none of that stability. 

"They can predict demand and variation pretty darn well these days, yet there's a gap between that and how schedules are implemented in everyday practice," says Lambert. "There has to be a way to fill that gap and pass that stability and predictability on to workers."

Likewise, Gleason disagrees with the notion that wildly unpredictable schedules are simply part-and-parcel of keeping up with changes in demand. She says today's generation of workforce predictive analytics makes it possible for employers to more accurately predict their labor needs, thus eliminating the questionable scheduling practices currently under fire.

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"Employers have invested in these incredibly sophisticated workforce-management technologies," says Gleason. "They have more data than ever before to predict their labor needs, track their profit-making and actually produce a schedule that balances the needs of workers, as well as the company's needs."

According to Carolyn Duvall, group vice president for store human resources for Cincinnati-based Macy's Inc., "analytics has everything to do with" the iconic chain's ability to provide more predictable schedules to the 150,000 employees working in its 800 stores. "When you know how your business operates, then you can remove that unpredictability," she says.

The ability to accurately forecast labor needs enables Macy's to give employees their schedules in two-week blocks -- the first week begins nine days after the schedule is received, while the second week begins 16 days later. During the peak holiday season, employees receive schedules that cover six weeks at a time. They're also given a great deal of input into the scheduling process, as they are allowed to tell management which days they will not be available to work. With the exception of so-called "all-hands-on-deck" days, such as Black Friday, those preferences are respected.

Naturally, times will arise when other commitments prevent employees from working the hours they are scheduled. In those instances, they are encouraged to utilize the scheduling page on Macy's intranet, where they can swap shifts, advertise shifts they need covered or pick up additional hours. In addition, they're allowed to make changes to their schedules up to two hours before their shifts begin.

While part-time workers at some companies complain about being sent home early, Macy's has pledged never to involuntarily send an associate home before his or her shift is completed. If business is slow, workers may ask to end their shifts early, and management tries its best to oblige, particularly when the weather is bad and the employees would obviously be more comfortable at home. Typically, however, a lull in business provides an opportunity for employees to restock shelves, fulfill online orders or attend to other duties their manager assigns.

Should an employee call in last-minute due to illness or another justifiable reason, Macy's maintains a fleet of "flex associates" who are essentially on-call at all times. Other than all-hands-on-deck days, these individuals "don't own a schedule option," according to Duvall. "Everything else is 100 percent pick-up." In other words, they are not scheduled like regular employees. Rather, they come in when called upon and pick up shifts other employees need covered.

Checks and Balances

At Beaumont, Texas-based Jason's Deli, the vast majority of the company's 5,000 part-time employees enjoy a consistent schedule that rarely changes from week to week -- unless they change their availability. The trendy fast casual restaurant chain relies on MenuLink, scheduling software that gives store managers the ability to input projected sales and the number of hours desired by each employee to come up with a remarkably accurate schedule, according to Michele Kemplay, director of human resources.

 "Our managers look at past trends, current trends, weather, special events," says Kemplay. "All those factors play into writing a schedule, along with getting input from our employees as to any special requests they may have, which we ask them to submit a week in advance."

Store managers are required to complete the coming week's schedule by Thursday of the previous week, after which it's forwarded to the district manager for approval. Each Saturday, the finished schedule is posted and it begins the next Tuesday. According to Kemplay, this system of checks and balances helps ensure the company's employee-centric approach to scheduling is followed consistently throughout its 240 locations across 28 states.

While some critics lay much of the blame for unpredictable part-time schedules at the feet of automated scheduling systems, John Orr, senior vice president of retail strategy and execution for Minneapolis-based Ceridian, says that problem only exists with older, legacy workforce-management systems. Such systems were designed solely to optimize supply and demand, Orr says, while the new generation focuses on intelligent labor forecasting, such as that used by Jason's Deli. The result is a more balanced approach that takes the needs of the business and the individual into consideration.

No matter how sophisticated the technology, however, there's no resolving the issue if an employer clings to the outdated notion that employees are "disposable resources," says Orr.

"If the company doesn't have the right culture and commitment to employee engagement and holistic human capital management," he adds, "it doesn't matter what systems you put in place."

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