Attorneys General: On-Call Shifts are Not a Business Necessity

By Liz Ben-Ishai

“On-call shifts are not a business necessity,” declared New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman this week, pointing to, “the many retailers that no longer use this unjust method of scheduling work hours.” The statement—and the growing body of evidence supporting it—poked a hole in the all-too-common claim that lack of stability and economic security for working families is an unfortunate but necessary cost of doing business.

This week, attorneys general from nine states, including California, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, and Rhode Island, joined together to inquire into retailers’ scheduling practices, particularly the use of on-call shifts. On-call shifts require workers to contact their employers at a designated time or await a call or text in order to find out whether or not they will be working that day; the result is an inability for workers to plan for and around work, and uncertainty about whether or how much they will be paid each week. An earlier inquiry by Attorney General Schneiderman, who has been leading the fight on this issue for more than a year, resulted in more than half a dozen major retailers declaring that they would no longer engage in the practice of putting workers “on call” and pledging to make other improvements to their scheduling practices.

The laudable action of these attorneys general to inquire into—and ultimately curtail—on-call scheduling challenges a narrative about volatile scheduling that has become increasingly prevalent as volatile scheduling practices in low-wage jobs have moved into the public eye in recent years. Too often, news coverage of the issue pits workers and employers against one another. On one side, workers, facing unpredictable and erratic schedules, are calling on employers to provide a modicum of stability so that they can pay their bills and care for their families. On the other side, employers argue that in order to stay in the red they need to have a flexible workforce that’s “nimble” enough to respond to shifts in consumer demand by coming into work at the drop of a hat. But as Schneiderman notes, employers are demonstrating that such scheduling practices are often unnecessary—and, as some employers are acknowledging, eliminating them may actually be the best approach for the bottom line.

Last year, Harvard Business School Professor Ethan Bernstein wrote in an op-ed,  “[scheduling] solutions favoring employers and those that meet employees’ needs may be closer than you think.” According to Bernstein, scheduling software, which can be used to forecast demand and adjust schedules to meet it, is often cited as one of the reasons for the rise of erratic scheduling. However, Bernstein argues that scheduling software can be used to comply with legislation that would bring about more stability for workers—and such legislation could nudge employers to use scheduling software in a way that would not only create better working conditions for employees, but also be more profitable for employers, creating a happier, more effective workforce. Meanwhile, the CEO of scheduling software company Workplace Systems, David Farquhar, says that his company’s product provides more than enough forecasting accuracy to eliminate the need for on-call scheduling.

These inquiries from nine states, including two of the most populous (California and New York), are important steps in making the case for a service economy that provides higher-quality jobs for its workers. But given the pressing need for schedules that are both just and fair within retail and other industries—and taking into account the compelling evidence that better schedules won’t be a drain on business—legislators should also move forward with public policies to ensure such fair schedules. High road employers recognize the importance of addressing scheduling through legislation. For example, Tony Lucca, owner of two successful restaurants in the District of Columbia explains, “Fair scheduling just makes sense. It not only helps our workers; it also makes life easier for me and my managers…we have relatively low turnover and employees are satisfied with their jobs.” Adds Lucca, “We need public policies to create a minimum standard for workers’ schedules.”

In addition to the federal Schedules that Work Act, cities and states across the country are considering fair scheduling legislation.

To learn more about the attorneys general inquiry, see the press release and the letters issued.

To learn more about fair scheduling and see where laws have been proposed, visit CLASP’s national repository of scheduling policy resources