Retail Workers Protest Part-Time Work And Erratic Schedules

Workers in at least 100 Walmart stores will confront their managers today over the company’s scheduling system. As Josh Eidelson reports, today’s showdown could rival November’s Black Friday strikes against the store:

If organizers’ estimates hold, Wednesday’s coordinated worker delegations will represent the largest mobilization of OUR Walmart members since last November’s Black Friday strikes, in which organizers say some 400 workers walked off the job. In some stores, workers will go together to talk to management before or after their shifts; in others, workers will do so during the work day.

Confrontations over scheduling aren’t unique to Walmart: Workers at the high-end clothing retailer Juicy Couture in New York have begun a campaign to protest what they claim is the practice of making full-time employees part-time to avoid paying benefits. And the number of workers who are in part-time positions who want to get full-time work has been rising lately, clocking in at 7.6 million in March, up by three million since the beginning of the recession. The trend has been occurring for two decades now in the retail sector, however, as many retailers have gone from a majority of full-time staff to a majority of part-time workers. Thirteen percent of retail workers are working part time involuntarily.

Part-time work not only often means fewer hours, making it harder to earn enough to get by, but also tends to come with lower pay and few benefits. While full-time wages for hourly workers can reach over $14 an hour, the high end of wages for part-time workers is just over $9. Only about a quarter of part-time employees get health care benefits, compared to 86 percent of full-time workers. Many employers are also using “just-in-time” scheduling that seeks to match workers with demand, but it can mean unpredictable schedules, creating challenges for employees who need to schedule things like child care.

Beyond making life difficult for workers, these practices can also harm the companies themselves. Walmart has lately been criticized for struggling to stock its shelves because it doesn’t have enough employees working enough hours to get enough merchandise on the floor. It’s also led to long lines and customer dissatisfaction. That may mean losing business to other chains that have higher staffing levels. The company ranked last among department and discount stores in the American Customer Satisfaction Index in February.

Other discount retailers have taken a different approach. Costco, for example, offers a starting hourly wage of $11.50, predictable schedules, and good benefits. That has led to higher productivity and a lower rate of turnover. While it has a lower profit margin than Walmart, it gets much more revenue and profit per employee and generates a higher return for its investors.