Field Notes: Uncertainty by the Hour

The Center for Popular Democracy argues that technology can enhance labor conditions for hourly workers instead of undermining them.


In a recent position paper released by The Future of Work Project, Carrie Gleason and Susan J. Lambert argue that technology can actually make labor practices more fair for hourly workers, rather than less. They explain that businesses now have the ability to map labor needs far in advance and to a great degree of accuracy. Businesses have too often used this understanding of hour-by-hour labor needs without regard for worker scheduling preferences, or the income needs of individual employees. Instead, businesses can use the sophisticated technology available to create better scheduling systems with more stable hours and workweeks, improving labor conditions and overall quality of life. The authors argue that better systems would ultimately save businesses money, in addition to making workplaces more ethical. The main points are summarized below:

Flip the script. Frontline managers should be held accountable for managing around the stability in the business, not the variability. They should be rewarded for anticipating stability in demand using workforce technology and delivering it to workers through predictable, stable schedules. Staffing could be ‘optimized’ over a longer period of time, (a week, month, or quarter), which would reduce pressures on managers to make last-minute adjustments to workers’ schedules. 

Enough hours for everyone. Scheduling technology can allow workers to schedule themselves and directly input scheduling changes. Yet, employee-driven labor scheduling only works if companies make adequate hours available. Otherwise, employees will simply be competing with one another for scraps of hours, while employers enjoy credit for implementing a more responsive scheduling system. At Costco and unionized Macy’s, even part-time workers receive core minimum hours. 

Workers need input. Scheduling software can create work schedules that balance the needs of business with the availability and scheduling requests of workers more accurately than ever. Managers expect maximum flexibility by preferencing workers with open availability, workers who have limitations on their schedules – who are more often women and workers of color – pay a price in their paychecks and fewer opportunities to advance. Despite today’s technologies, it remains an employer’s responsibility to ensure that human resource systems do not buttress structural racism and sexism. 

Functional flexibility. Labor flexibility can be achieved through functional flexibility, which is realized through the internal reallocation of workers from one job function to another, rather than numeric flexibility, which is accomplished through adjustments to headcount and workers’ hours. For example, Costco cross-trains a large proportion of its employees so that managers have flexibility within their warehouses, and has said that good labor practices like this cost less, not more. 

Workers need a voice. If workers have an organized voice, whether through a union or another organizational form, they can help guide the use of the technologies in their workplace. All employees are entitled to form Occupational Health and Safety Committees to “provide a method by which employees can utilize their knowledge of workplace operations to assist agency management to improve policies, conditions, and practices.” Through such committees, workers should have access to data analytics that will enable them to propose credible alternatives to just-in-time scheduling that can lead to healthier work schedules.

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This post was prepared by Robert Ryan Halas

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