Individual Responsibility, Group Responsibility, and Erratic Scheduling
Oscar Gordon’s thread of minimum wage thoughts contained a mini-thread on unpredictable hours and why they exist.
Gillian White has more thoughts on unpredictable schedules at City Lab. 17 percent of American workers live on erratic scheduling according to White’s article. New York’s Attorney General is trying to wage a campaign against the practice because “such practices take a toll on workers and prevent employees from securing childcare or pursuing other job and educational opportunities.” There are a variety of local and state ordinances which seek to help employees but they seem to be few and far between. White also points out the Unionized shops are less likely to have erractic schedules. Macy’s employees in and around NYC have their schedules set months in advance according to White.
We briefly discussed why these erratic schedules exist in Oscar’s thread and before when discussing Clopening and Starbucks. In a rare bit of journalism and populist outrage working, Starbucks ended the practice. Other employers seem to lag behind. Alan Scott pointed out that really big retailers like Wal-Mart, the Gap, larger food chains, supermarkets, etc. probably get some benefit from computer algorithms that shows peak business times. He also theorized that smaller businesses probably try and emulate this practice but don’t have enough scale to pull it off successfully.
This raises the question of whether slack times should be a burden on the employer or the employee.
My general view is that the burden should be on the employer especially larger employers because they are able to bear the burden the most. Wikipedia tells me that Wal-Mart has nearly 486 billion dollars in revenue. I don’t think giving their workers 8 hour consecutive shifts will do much to hurt their bottom line.
The real issue seems to be the American obsession with individual responsibility taking to an extreme. I suspect that erratic scheduling exists because we see it as a right of business owners and management to set the terms and conditions of employment as they please. If an employee doesn’t like it, he or she can negotiate or leave and get a new job (but only on an individual level). A person who does not have the skills to get a job with the desired schedule or a decent one is just supposed to put up and deal.
I was on BART from SF to Berkeley yesterday afternoon. Weekend trips to Berkeley require a timed transfer. This normally happens without a hitch but yesterday there was an incident on my BART which caused the train to be held up and the transfer was missed even though the conductor promised we would catch it. A guy on the train was very distressed and picked up the white service phone and began screaming at the BART employee on the other end. He went on about how he relied on the conductor’s promise that we would make the transfer and told his boss that he would be at work on time. Now the guy was going to get fired. The phone conversation ended with the guy banging the phone down several times. I wonder if he broke it.
The guy might have a history of being tardy or other work-related issues and he could have been on his last warning. He was clearly under a lot of stress based on his reaction to the delay. The guy was not wrong though. We have at-will employment in most of the United States (exception: Montana) and he could have been fired even though the delay was beyond his control and maybe he left on time.
Train delays are a fact of life even in hyper-efficient countries like Japan. When I lived in Japan and there was a train delay, the train station/line would hand out delay certificates even if the delay was only five minutes. I wonder why we can’t have those in the United States. What sort of cultural norm would a delay certificate go against?
Individual responsibility is important but it is not the be all and end all. There should be a realization and acceptance that a person can do all the planning in the world and get delayed or caught up by events beyond their control like a traffic accident or a train delay or sudden illness. There should also be a realization that erratic scheduling really does take a toll on the lives of workers and employers should take the burden for slack time instead of individual employees who can handle it financially the least.