How Unpredictable Hours Are Screwing Up People’s Lives


Nearly 40 percent of retail workers report that they don’t get a set minimum of hours that they will work each week, and a quarter are scheduled for on-call shifts, often finding out just two hours in advance that they’ll be needed, according to a new survey from the Retail Action Project (RAP).

The findings come from a survey of more than 200 people working in retail in New York City, mostly at large, national apparel stores. While it’s not a scientifically representative sample, it exposes a snapshot of the conditions many people in the industry work under. Almost all of the workers the group interviewed have to deal with unpredictable schedules and other scheduling practices that wreak havoc on their lives. Other data has found that nearly half of part-time workers across the workforce and just under 40 percent of full-time workers don’t find out their schedules until a week out or less.

One retail employee named Heath (some names in the report were changed) recounted working a shift from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m., only to be told he had to come in the next morning for a 6 a.m. shift, getting less than 24 hours notice and leaving him with just nine hours off between the shifts. Many other workers said their schedules are posted on Saturdays even though their workweeks start on Sunday. Others said that their schedules often change during the week after they’re posted. Many stores also expect employees to be available to come into work at any time, on any day.

Technology has also played a big role in unreliable schedules. Stores rely on algorithms that tell them that they have too many employees compared to sales volume, so they send workers home before the end of their shifts. Workers at McDonald’s have actually launched lawsuits against the company for its reliance on computers that calculate labor costs and prompt managers to have people unexpectedly clock out. Retailers also may have a cap on total employee hours for the month, and after employees hit that amount will cut down on hours. On top of this, “Employers are able to change shifts at the last minute but if the employee does not know about the updated schedule and comes in late to work, they will get penalized,” the report says.


Other workers struggle not just to know their schedules, but to fill them out. Modesta has to hold two part-time retail jobs to get by, and in the post-holiday seasons she sometimes gets just two or three hours a week at one of them. “Managers often send us home early, wasting our time,” she told RAP. “With such short shifts, sometimes I feel embarrassed to ask if I can stay and work a couple more hours.”

Ulysses, who works part-time at Levi’s, said things are particularly slow in the summer, with his schedule getting as low as eight hours a week. “Sixteen hours in two weeks — that’s nothing,” he said. “You can’t live like that. You don’t even have money to get around.”

Getting more hours is also treated like a prize or a favor, while taking them away works as a punishment. Tasha recounted that at her store, Forever 21, her hours changed based on “how they thought my performance was,” given “how you close, if you come in on time, etc. Say you missed work one day last week, even if it’s because of an emergency, they’ll cut your hours the next week.” Her store also had a sales contest: “Whoever makes top sales to pick their own schedule,” she said. Ashely said she called out for the first time in 11 months and “they took away my Monday shift.” At Uniqlo, if an employee is the top seller of a certain item in a given week, they might get more hours and a better schedule.  The retail workforce is also overwhelmingly part time, as less than half has full-time status. But that’s not what many want. The number of people working part time who would rather be full time has more than tripled since 2003 across the economy, with 7.3 million people currently in that situation, and that trend is prevalent in retail. A number of workers told RAP that although they consistently ask to be full time or to get more hours, they are refused while their stores keep hiring more part-time employees. At Forever 21, one worker said that the store dropped her schedule to two days per week while hiring six new employees. She quit because she didn’t have enough hours.

Some are even working full time but not getting the rewards. “My manager informed me that I could work 40 hours a week, but that I couldn’t be made full-time,” a worker named Lily said. “I think they wanted to cut my hours to avoid paying me benefits. I’ve never been able to pay the rent with this job because of the changing hours and low pay.” Another named Christina, who is part time but picks up as many extra shifts as she can, doesn’t get benefits, and recounted, “If I’m at 39.75 [hours] on Saturday, they’ll send me home, even if it’s in the middle of my scheduled shift.”

The interviewees also reported rampant wage theft — being made to work without pay or not being paid for the full hours worked — but it’s hard to even know when it’s happening with all these scheduling complications. “[W]hen shifts and schedules change so frequently, it is not always easy to know how much you should be paid,” the report notes. “Changes may result in discrepancies between workers’ own records, the written schedule, and the automated program that tracks schedules.”


The report notes that while retail workers have been pushing for a higher minimum wage, “without full-time hours, a higher minimum wage is not enough to lift a worker out of poverty,” adding, “Campaigns for higher wages must be tied to a vision for a fair workweek.” And while things may be particularly chaotic in retail, these scheduling practices are becoming more widespread. “Just-in-time scheduling can now be found beyond retail in fast food and full-service restaurants, hotels, entertainment, construction, and information sectors,” the report notes. “Therefore, trends in retail may represent the frontier of new employer practices that have major implications for workers in a range of industries.”

Some policy changes have been floated that could help make life more stable for the retail workforce, who number more than 4.6 million, and others. In July, Reps. George Miller (D-CA) and Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) introduced the Schedules that Work Act, which would require employers to give out schedules at least two weeks in advance and pay workers an hour’s pay for each shift that gets changed within 24 hours. Employers would also have to pay workers something for sending them home before their shifts end or if they call in but aren’t given a shift. Workers would also be given the right to request their own schedules.

California lawmakers are also working on legislation that would require large retail chains to give current employees more hours if they want them before hiring more workers, and similar laws are being pushed in places cities like Milwaukee, New York, and Santa Clara, CA.