Will Retailers Have to Rethink Their On-Call Scheduling Practices?

New York's attorney general is looking into retailers including Gap, Target and Abercrombie & Fitch for requiring "on-call" shifts from their employees. So what does that mean?
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Eliza Brooke
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New York's attorney general is looking into retailers including Gap, Target and Abercrombie & Fitch for requiring "on-call" shifts from their employees. So what does that mean?
A Gap store. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A Gap store. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

On Friday, New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman sent letters (published here by the WSJ) to 13 major retailers including Gap, Target and Abercrombie & Fitch requesting information about their scheduling practices for employees. Schneiderman's office had been getting reports that a "growing number of employers" have been requiring on-call shifts for their hourly workers, meaning they would only be notified the night before or a few hours in advance whether they needed to come in. 

The problem is that on-call shifts are difficult to work around; employees don't know if they'll need a babysitter that day, for instance, and it complicates holding down a second job. And it could come into conflict with a New York rule mandating that if a worker is scheduled for a four hour shift and shows up, he or she has to be paid for four hours regardless of whether they're actually needed that day.

As it stands, the attorney general is just soliciting information from the companies about their on-call scheduling practices; the retailers at hand will be expected to pass along their answers by May 4. 

The near-term consequence of calling out 13 big-name retailers is that the bad press might make them and other companies sit up and reevaluate the way they conduct their employee scheduling, which they otherwise may not have felt was necessary. As Fordham Law professor Susan Scafidi points out, retail employees aren't historically a very well-protected group. 

"In retail, particularly in inexpensive, big box stores, employees are very easily replaced," she says, "There isn't a big concern about living wages, vacation time and other compassionate leave, so employers have not been under pressure to offer amenities in the workplace the way they might if they were competing for tech workers in Silicon Valley."

In Scafidi's view, the trend of on-call scheduling can also be seen as a downside to technology that retailers use to determine how many employees are needed at any given time. "Essentially, it's another example of technology evolving faster than human beings and causing tension in the workplace," she says. "Employers can have near perfect information on customer demand, and they want to snap their fingers and not be paying excess employees or have too few employees at a given point. However, we're humans. We can't disappear and reappear continuously." 

Reached for comment on Monday, a Target rep said that the company does not currently use on-call shifts, and provides its team members their schedules 10 days in advance. A spokesperson for Gap said that it is "committed to establishing sustainable scheduling practices that will improve stability for our employees, while helping to effectively manage our business."

So we'll be watching to see how this one shakes out. Retail employees might be replaceable, but as Scafidi notes, it's entirely to the company's benefit to keep their team members happy. Happy employees are motivated employees. And, of course, it keeps the bad publicity at bay.