Worker Abuse is a Fashion DON'T

The retail sector is one of the areas of the economy where actual job growth is occurring, and around 10% of people in the US work in retail. That makes abusive employment practices a pretty big deal.
Publish date:
November 9, 2012
labor, unions, workers, retail

Imagine this scenario: You’ve been looking for work and you finally find a retail job, but it quickly turns into a nightmare. First, your bosses start whittling your hours down until you’re lucky to pick up a couple shifts a week. Then, you get put on on-call shifts, where you have to call in to see if you’re needed an hour before your shift is supposed to start. If you aren’t, you won’t get any compensation.

Oh, and your schedule comes out only a few days in advance, giving you virtually no time to plan ahead –- or arrange hours with that second job you’ll be needing since your first turned out to be such a crapper.

Well, you don’t have to imagine this scenario! All you have to do is work for Abercrombie and Fitch, which provides real-time reenactments free of charge to its employees. I know, lucky, right?

The Retail Action Project is spearheading a Sustainable Scheduling Campaign to pressure A&F into cleaning up their act and doing right by workers. In the words of employee Bintou Kamara:

I like working at A&F, but the company's scheduling policies require us to be on-call instead of having predictable hours. This leaves most of us struggling with hardly any hours to pay our bills -- making getting a second job nearly impossible. I’ve connected with other A&F employees through the Retail Action Project because we need your help.

She points out that Abercrombie is not the only offender here. Numerous corporate retailers use the same kind of abusive scheduling practices. They keep workers to a minimal number of hours a week, even if it means hiring more personnel to fill gaps, abuse on-call scheduling (originally designed for days when customer traffic might be higher and having an on-call employee could be convenient for beefing up staff quickly), and changing schedules at the last minute.

The retail sector is one of the areas of the economy where actual job growth is occurring, and around 10% of people in the US work in retail. That makes abusive employment practices a pretty big deal, especially since corporate employers like A&F occupy such an outsized role. And have the lobbying power to insulate themselves against accusations of unfair labor practices.

Like on-call scheduling. It’s a sneaky practice and it doesn’t just happen in retail; it’s also popular with spas and similar businesses. Here’s what sucks about being on-call: you’re supposed to block a set number of hours out of your schedule to be available. You can’t do anything else during that time or plan anything, because you might be working; you can’t schedule hours at another job, or time with your kids, or errands you need to run, for example. Then you call in an hour before your shift, and boom, you don’t have any work.

Usually, you’re just released at that point, but not always. You may be expected to remain near a phone in case they need you to come in. Employees are not paid for on-call shifts unless they actually show up for work, and those who protest can find that their employers stop scheduling them for any shifts at all. Unlike doctors, who also tend to have very demanding on-call schedules, retail employees aren’t scheduled regularly enough and making enough when they are on duty and at work to make up for the hours spent on-call.

But it sure saves a lot of money for their employers, who get to cherry pick staff as needed depending on conditions at the store. Having worked in spas in my day, I’ve seen on-call scheduling at work, as the person who had to tell massage therapists whether they had any work when they called in. And I hated doing it, because it felt so wrong to me to be telling people, “Nope, sorry, I know we blocked out a chunk of your schedule, but there are no massages for you!”

At the turn of the last century, labor brought us the 40-hour workweek, fighting brutal schedules in harsh conditions and limiting work hours to a more sustainable level. Now, labor’s having to do the opposite, and push hours back up to 40 a week, or at least 20 for people who genuinely want to work part-time.

Predictable hours should be a very basic thing in retail. After all, it’s not like the store’s operating hours are at all unpredictable. The only thing that might vary is the amount of customer traffic, and even this is something a store should be able to plan for in advance with adequate staffing, except for those handful of days each year when you might want to have people available on-call, but not on the floor, just in case they’re not needed.

The Sustainable Scheduling Campaign, like the Retail Action Project’s other campaigns, is drawing attention to abuses in retail in the hopes of getting consumers to support labor organizers, much as UNITE HERE is working to expose mistreatment of housekeepers at Hyatt to put public pressure on the corporation. These campaigns are also a reminder that we need unions now more than ever, and organized labor still has an important role to play in society.

A&F doesn’t seem so carefree when you find out about its dirty staffing secrets, does it?

Last night on Twitter, I asked my followers to play assigning editor for a day, and got two requests for #classwar (sorry, everyone who wanted Star Wars, but I am so not qualified to touch that one). Follow @sesmithwrites if you want a chance to play along next time!

Image credits: Aimee Rose, cri Cristophe