The growing use of on-call staffing is being scrutinized for undermining employees’ economic security and work-life fit.

Attorny_General_Eric_T_SchneidermanThe latest probe comes from New York’s Attorney General Eric Schneiderman whose office sent letters to 13 large retailers saying that the practice may not be complying with state laws.

This from the letter, via a Wall Street Journal article published today:

Unpredictable work schedules take a toll on all employees, especially those in low-wage sectors. Without the security of a definite work schedule, workers who must be “on call” have difficulty making reliable childcare and elder-care arrangements, encounter obstacles in pursuing their education, and in general experience adverse financial and health effects, as well as overall stress and strain on family life. The requirement of being on call also interferes with such employees’ ability to obtain supplemental employment in order to ensure financial security for their families.

According the the Journal article, letters were sent to Target Corp., Gap Inc., Abercrombie & Fitch Co.; Ann Inc.; Burlington Stores Inc.; Crocs Inc.; J.C. Penney Co.; J. Crew Group Inc.; L Brands Inc.; Sears Holdings Corp.; TJX Cos.; Urban Outfitters Inc.; and Williams-Sonoma Inc.

It’s too early to know how the Attorney General’s effort will impact this practice, but the rise of the on-demand workforce, made possible in part because of software systems that automate the process, is probably not the best way to create an effective and flexible workplace.

“Communications and scheduling technologies open up a wide frontier of possibilities for greater efficiency,” said Kenneth Matos, Senior Director of Research at Families and Work Institute.

“Yet,” he continued, “with great power comes greater responsibility and a need to see the effects of that power in context. Systems that treat people as tools, without ongoing needs or reactions to how they are used, are extremely efficient, but potentially ineffective.”

Clearly, such technologies can maximize certain aspects of an organization’s resources, including its human resources. “But,” added Matos, “technology cannot independently consider how schedule unpredictability can lead to absenteeism, turnover or lowered engagement—all of which can reduce the benefits of the system (such as a short-notice employee who can’t show up in time) or reduce employee engagement (and discourage the extra effort needed to get a hard sale).”

Indeed, the Attorney General’s letter addresses how such on-call systems have been impacting employees directly:

Our office has received reports that a growing number of employers, particularly in the retail industry, require their hourly workers to work what are sometimes known as “on call shifts” – that is, requiring their employees to call in to work just a few hours in advance, or the night before, to determine whether the worker needs to appear for work that day or the next. If the employee is told that his or her services are not needed, the employee will receive no pay for that day, despite being required to be available to appear on the job site the next day or even just a few hours later on the same day. For many workers, that is too little time to make arrangements for family needs, let alone to find an alternative source of income to compensate for the lost pay.

The answer is probably not just ridding the workplace of such processes, explained Matos.

“It is possible for people to add guidelines into the systems that ensure employees have suitable advance notice or that shifts are not scheduled back-to-back,” he said, “but, to use these tools properly, we need to remember that scheduling software is the tool that needs to be re-calibrated, not the people it was built to serve.”

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