In New York and several other states, laws in place require that employers provide their workers with advance notice of their schedules and pay them for a minimum of four hours, even if they send those workers home to limit their labor costs. But did you know that? It seems that few employees are aware of the rules, such that many employers might not be complying with the mandates. In noting this potential problem, the New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman issued cautionary letters to dozens of large retailers, asking for more information about how they handle their on-call staffing practices.

The issue has become more prominent with the expansion of immediate connectivity. It is easy for managers to send quick text messages to an employee, moments before he or she is scheduled to start a shift, and tell that worker that his or her labor is not needed for the day. Other companies establish an on-call system that requires workers to initiate the contact, shortly before their scheduled shift, to find out if they are needed or not. Such moves can benefit the company, because if business is slow or the schedule is overstaffed, it can reduce its labor costs by telling some workers to stay home.

Young woman, owner of gift shop, talking on mobile phone behind checkout counter, holding clipboardFor the workers though, these last minute changes are expensive and frustrating. Especially for workers with families, who have arranged for childcare or other logistics, the loss of a shift means that they have wasted efforts. In addition, it means the loss of that day’s wages, which may be severely detrimental for many retailer workers.

The retail companies that received the warning letters were well-known names: Target, Gap, Abercrombie & Fitch, Ann, Burlington, Crocs, JCPenney, J. Crew, L Brands, Sears, TJX, Urban Outfitters, and Williams-Sonoma. Several of the companies responded immediately to the letters, asserting that they do not require workers to function on-call, nor do they cancel shifts at the last minute. For example, Target noted that it uploads workers’ schedules to the company website at least 10 days prior to each shift.

Although the attorney general has not brought any charges against any of these companies, the letters also requested that they provide information about their staffing practices. After collecting this information, Schneiderman’s office is likely to make the determination about whether any retail employers should be prosecuted.

These questions are particularly prominent for retailers because of their vast reliance on less skilled, hourly workers, whose efforts can be limited or extended relatively easily. They also have gained some salience in the modern labor framework, where critics increasingly are demanding improved working conditions. The drive for an increase in the minimum wage is closely related to questions about scheduling. In both cases, the goal must be to find a way to compensate employees fairly for their work, without putting the retailer at a competitive disadvantage.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What has the New York attorney general done with regard to retailer staffing practices?
  2. On which side would you be, the retailers or the employees? Defend your position.


Source: Lauren Weber, The Wall Street Journal, April 12, 2015