July 20, 2014

WHAT PART-TIME WORKERS NEED MOST: MORE WORK.

The plight of low-wage retail workers has generated much talk in recent years. As I’ve written before, I don’t find problematic the existence of jobs that do not pay enough to support a family. Retail jobs have never paid well, because retail margins tend to be pretty slim. The problem is not that retail is a low-wage job, but that an increasing number of people can’t find any other sort of job.

The natural response of many people is to say, well, these are the jobs we have now, so they should pay what factory jobs used to. Yet like the manufacturing jobs that went away, many of those low-wage retail jobs also face competition — from higher-productivity firms such as Amazon and Stouffer’s. Forcing up the wages might destroy even more jobs, leaving a lot of workers even worse off.

All this is old territory. A less reported side effect of all this, however, is labor-market slack: retail scheduling practices that make it functionally impossible for a lot of people to support themselves.

After all, even low wages left workers some options, however unpalatable, such as stringing together multiple jobs to make ends meet. Unfortunately, the weakness in the labor market has coincided with yet another market development: scheduling software and technology that allows retailers to manage their workforce as another just-in-time input.

Workers are asked to input blocks of hours when they will be available; the software then crunches through everyone’s availability and spits out a schedule that takes account of everything from weather forecasts to the danger that a worker will go over the maximum number of hours to still be considered part time. Obviously, you can’t string together multiple jobs this way, because each job requires that you block out many more available hours than you will actually work. Meanwhile, Steve Greenhouse reports on even worse practices that I hadn’t heard of: requiring workers to be “on call” at short notice or scheduling them for shifts and then sending them home if business looks light.

In this situation, no matter how hard you are willing to work, stringing together anything approaching a minimum income becomes impossible. That makes it much more deeply troubling than low pay.

I’m sure another layer of regulation will make everything just fine.