The retail business boils down to two metrics: time and money. Tightly clocked logistics schemes ensure that every shipment zips seamlessly between factories, ports and giant warehouses and into massive big-box retail inventories, stocked minutes before flying off the shelf and through checkout. The so-called Just In Time system ensures not a nanosecond is wasted, nor a cent in profits forgone. This drives companies to squeeze as much labor out of as few workers in as little time as possible. Perhaps “cost-efficiency” helps explain why half of Walmart workers are part-time.
Walmart’s recent announcement of a wage hike, to $10 an hour for its lowest-paid workers, only addresses one of the problems facing their underpaid workforce: income is a function of wages and working hours, so your pay stays dismal if you don’t have a schedule that makes your job pay off. Walmart workers have been protesting about both wages and inadequate schedules, calling on the retail giant to provide more full-time positions and “commit to making scheduling more predictable and dependable.
The rapid-fire retail economy drives precarious workers increasingly to work too many hours for too little, or not enough hours to survive, or they just never know how much or whether they’ll have any work. Using sophisticated scheduling technology to manipulate workers’ hours gives corporations outsized power to configure their labor flow to fit companies’ hour-to-hour needs, and workers’ lives tend to grow more precarious as schedules are whiplashed to match market fluctuations.
Many retail workers are stuck in a segment of the labor force known as “involuntary part-time”: those forced to work fewer than thirty-five hours a week and who would generally otherwise work full-time, but can’t, due to a lack of available jobs.
Unstable scheduling has gained attention lately as research has emerged showing the damage wrought by irregular schedules—for example, being “on call” for a last-minute night shift can leave parents unable to secure childcare services, or to stay on track with their school schedules. A 2012 survey by the New York–based Retail Action Project found that “Only 10 percent of survey respondents who were part-time had a set schedule.”
Another problem with unstable hours is that there are often too few of them, since many part-time workers just aren’t able to earn enough to live on their erratic schedules. A Uniqlo sales worker interviewed in the study explained how coerced “flexibility” minimizes stability: “I have been scheduled for as few as six hours in a week, and as many as 40, so my paycheck is always different. How is anyone—a student or parent—supposed to plan their budget with such erratic schedules?”