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Wal-Mart Pushing Flexibile Worker Shifts

Ezra Klein has an interesting discussion of a subscriber-only WSJ piece on a growing trend of major retailers including Wal-Mart, Payless ShoeSource, RadioShack, and possibly Target (which is mentioned in the WSJ subhead but not in Klein’s post, so I’m not sure if they are following or bucking the trend) toward flexible scheduling in retail.

Klein’s summary:

[S]oftware tracks customer habits over seven week periods, and reschedules workers for each one. Moreover, it also creates a range of daily possibilities, allowing Wal-Mart to schedule workers to be on-call during surges, or send them home during lulls, or implement a variety of other strategies to create a more flexible, adaptive, workforce. All sounds routine enough, right?

But pity the workforce. The new software will make advance scheduling and reliable paychecks a thing of the past. According to The Journal, “experts say [the program] can saddle workers with unpredictable schedules. In some cases, they may be asked to be “on call” to meet customer surges, or sent home because of a lull, resulting in less pay. The new systems also alert managers when a worker is approaching full-time status or overtime, which would require higher wages and benefits, so they can scale back that person’s schedule…That means workers may not know when or if they will need a babysitter or whether they will work enough hours to pay that month’s bills. Rather than work three eight-hour days, someone might now be plugged into six four-hour days, mornings one week and evenings.

Other potential drawbacks mentioned by Klein or his commenters include pushing out older workers and making holding a second job more difficult. Ditto, presumably, going back to school to improve one’s employability so as to move beyond having to work for an hourly wage.

On the other hand, as Adam Herman observes, “the service economy has to give, um, service. If schedules are inflexible, customer service will suffer.” It’s quite annoying to have to stand in a long line to check out because the manager did a lousy job of scheduling cashiers.

Not having access to the whole article, I’m not sure exactly how Wal-Mart and the others are implementing the system. It strikes me that the software would allow for advanced scheduling. By combining trend analysis from past years at the same store with the seven week numbers, managers should be able to predict scheduling needs with some accuracy weeks and even months into the future. That would be good for customers and employees alike. Conversely, if the idea is simply to have workers “on call,” with the ability to send them home if the store isn’t busy and to make them come in on short notice to handle surges, there’s no need for software at all.

Presumably, advanced scheduling could still be fair to workers. One would think evening and weekend hours would be more attractive to younger workers, especially students, whereas daytime hours would be best for those with kids in school. There would still be need for people to be flexible in handling holiday and weekend surges, of course, but it could be managed reasonably.

Still, if one needs to work only regular hours and simply can not work nights and weekends, they should seek employment in something other than the retail sector. My dad spent a few years as a retail manager for a regional drug store chain and a local home electronics chain after he retired from the Army. The hours were ridiculous and he needed to be flexible in working at different stores as much as an hour further away from home. He routinely worked 60 hours a week and sometimes as many as 90, not including commuting time.

That’s simply the nature of a low margin, high volume, customer oriented business. After four years or so, he got out of retail and found a job more conducive to the lifestyle he wanted.

UPDATE: Frequent commenter Triumph provides a link to a free version of the article at the Pueblo Chieftain. It sheds some light on my questions:

In the past, store managers for Wal-Mart and other huge retailers, including Sears Holdings Corp.’s Kmart, Payless and J. Crew, scheduled workers based on store promotions and weekly sales figures from the previous year. By comparison, the software systems created by workforce-management software companies such as Workbrain Inc., Kronos and CyberShift Inc. rely on real-time data feeds, such as sales rung up at the cash register and customer traffic.

The systems can boost productivity by freeing up managers. While it can take managers an entire day to create schedules for several hundred workers at a single big-box store, staffing can now be drawn up across an entire company in a few hours. Workbrain says it generates schedules for Target Corp.’s 350,000 U.S. employees at 1,500 locations in less than six hours. Target declined to comment on its scheduling system.

Store chains spent $55 million on licensing fees for work-force-management software in 2005, up from $44 million in 2004, according to AMR Research Inc. in Boston. AMR analyst Robert Garf estimates revenue for these systems grew by 15 percent to 20 percent in 2006. ‘‘We’re really at this tipping point today,’’ he says.

Wal-Mart is rolling out the new ‘‘optimizer’’ system from an outside vendor in all its stores and for all employees this year. Wal-Mart asks hourly employees to fill out the hours they can work on ‘‘personal availability’’ forms. A copy provided by WakeUpWalMart states that all full-time cashiers and customer-service workers are encouraged to consider including ‘‘if at all possible’’ a weekend shift every week. ‘‘Limiting your personal availability may restrict the number of hours you are scheduled,’’ the form reads.

It looks like a mixed bag: Workers are under more pressure to be flexible but are at least given the option of setting their availability times.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Then again, in the context of the subset of workers who would be impacted by a change in the minimum wage, Will’s word choice is close enough to be defensible. (Indeed, I used that term this morning in a discussion of the contretemps over Wal-Mart’s use of flexible scheduling of its employees.) The lower the skill level of the worker, the more easily replaceable he is. People who work on assembly lines or flipping burgers at McDonald’s are essentially undifferentiated from the perspective their firm. If your job can be

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  2. Triumph says:

    FYI, The article is reposted at the Pueblo, CO Chieftain: http://www.chieftain.com/business/1167894238/3

    It is pretty clear from the article that they are instituting the “on call” system. The idea is basically to manage labor in the same way as they have been managing inventory for years: through a just-in-time approach.

    The other thing that the software does is recognize the cumulative number of hours worked by employees. Once an employee is getting close to meeting overtime/full time requirements in a week they are put at the bottom of the list in favor of someone who hasnt worked as many hours, saving the company money.

    The major problem is that workers have absolutely no prediction over their schedule in the long term. Making transportation, child care, etc… arrangements becomes impossible. Even just planning to spend time with your family and loved ones is difficult because it obviates a person’s ability to plan.

    This will undoubtedly hurt the quality of life for many workers–but I guess since the rest of us can get shampoo for 89 cents, its worth it.

    Still, if one needs to work only regular hours and simply can not work nights and weekends, they should seek employment in something other than the retail sector.

    Yes! Brilliant. The Wal Mart worker can schedule a job interview for next Thursday morning. Wednesday night, however, their manager says you have to come in tomorrow. The worker can do one of two things: go to work or get fired without a replacement job.

    MOst WalMart workers don’t have the money to have a six-month nest egg with which they can live off of as they try to find another job.

    Please read Ehrenreich’s “Nickeled and Dimed”–or do a similar experiment yourself.

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  3. legion says:

    I’ll second Triumph on that… James, I’m curious as to how you can reconcile things like this:

    Other potential drawbacks mentioned by Klein or his commenters include pushing out older workers and making holding a second job more difficult. Ditto, presumably, going back to school to improve one’s employability so as to move beyond having to work for an hourly wage.

    With this:

    Still, if one needs to work only regular hours and simply can not work nights and weekends, they should seek employment in something other than the retail sector.

    ‘Cause I don’t see how they’re anything other than mutually exclusive.

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  4. James Joyner says:

    Triumph: Even at Wal-Mart, people call in sick without losing their jobs. Or take vacation days.

    Legion: I’m not suggesting that it’s not difficult. There are, however, other entry level or low skill jobs out there outside the retail sector. It’s a hell of a lot easier to find another $8/hour job than another $75,000/year job.

    My point is that this is simply the nature of retail work. The customer is a higher priority than the worker, especially workers who are essentially commodities. That’s not a happy situation for the workers, to be sure, but a fact of life.

    As I note in the post, though, managers should be doing a better job of forecasting needs.

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  5. Bandit says:

    Thank the anti Walmart forces who want to force them to change their compensation model. This is completely the inevitable result of market regulation.

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  6. JimT says:

    My wife is a manager at a retailer where this software is used. She does not schedule blindly based on its suggestions, but uses it as it is intended – a tool. Also – if you believe that retail managers do not recognize the value of a good employee (emphasis on ‘good’) and will work within their schedule, then I think you are too far removed for a valid opinion.

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  7. Triumph says:

    Even at Wal-Mart, people call in sick without losing their jobs. Or take vacation days.

    Give me a break! At Wal-Mart you are disciplined if you take 3 unauthorized sick days–fired if you take 7. You don’t get paid for those days, of course. Vacation days are non-existent for their majority part-time labor force.

    If you have ever experienced looking for a job–especially in the low-skill levels of the labor market–it is EXTREMELY time consuming. If Wal Mart is asking their employees to be essentially “on call” 24/7, being a responsible job seeker is next to impossible. Taking a few sick days is not going to necessarily help you.

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  8. Bandit says:

    If you have ever experienced looking for a job—especially in the low-skill levels of the labor market—it is EXTREMELY time consuming.

    That must account for the 4.5% US unemployment rate.

    Too bad more people can’t convince everyone that the world owes them not just a living, but in the lifestyle they desire.

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  9. djneylon says:

    Following getting out of the military, I worked in retail for 3 years before going to work in a hospital setting. I worked counter sales for a brickyard, where “in season” we worked 70 hour weeks; if you asked, you might get a day off. Off season, we worked a 40 hour week. The season — it started when the ground thawed, and ended when the ground froze — roughly April to October. From there I went to furniture sales, working 50+ hours a week, getting a 5% commission and $5 a day for showing up. It was nearly impossible to take a weekend off (plus, that’s when you made money)and there were no sick days or vacations days — just days you didn’t work. Then I went to a major department store: forty hours a week, sick days, vacation days, one weekend in four off. In the hospital I work a forty hour week, alternate weekends, three holidays. I get sick days; vacation days pile up, but no more than three people can take time off at once in the department (there are 12 of us). Way back when, I was a sportswriter and worked every Friday and Saturday night from the start of high school football season to the end of the basketball season (September to March). The point. Work is work. Employers don’t hire you to work at your convenience but theirs. We can’t all work lovely jobs where they pay you good money to work only between 8 and 4:30 Monday through Friday, with plenty of sick and vacation days and great benefits. There will always be jobs (often with poor pay) that have crummy hours; you work them and move on, or you spend the rest of your life crying about how bad you have it.

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  10. just the messenger says:

    The new systems also alert managers when a worker is approaching full-time status or overtime, which would require higher wages and benefits, so they can scale back that person’s schedule.

    Blame regulators for creating perverse managerial incentives.

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  11. just me says:

    I worked fast food through high school and college-I never new my schedule more than a week ahead, although I could set day/hour preferences, they weren’t guaranteed other than blocks when I knew I was unavailable.

    My husband managed a grocery store while he was in college and grad school. He also never knew his schedule more than a week ahead-although as a manager his shift time was mostly set outsdie of vacations of other managers.

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  12. Wal-Mart Going to Flexible Scheduling…

    The end of set schedules for Wal-Mart employees may be the latest technological advantage for the retail giant. Flexible employee scheduling using software and past sales data will allow Wal-Mart to better staff its stores. Ezra Klein complains:
    But pi…

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  13. Bandit says:

    This just in

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  14. Alycia says:

    I would like to say something about the calling of sick. Even if you have a medical excuse from the doctors because you are sick and have medical problems you still get yelled at for not being there! I feel that the only time that wal-mart actually cares about someones health is when they are practically dying! Its sorry to say but its the truth!

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