Abercrombie & Fitch's flagship store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.
Abercrombie & Fitch's flagship store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. - 
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When Russell Miller worked at Abercrombie, one of his days each week had to be an on-call day.  He wouldn’t know if he’d have to show up to work until an hour in advance.

“You had to block out that time period as if you were working,” he says. One store he worked at was 45 minutes from his house. “We had to be ready to be there on time. With all the regulations about what we wear, how we look and how we present ourselves, I had to get fully ready for my shift and ready to walk out the door at the time I made the phone call to find out if they were even going to need me or not.”

For Miller,  this was more than an inconvenience.

“Having a second job wouldn’t work at a time when I was scheduled for an on-call shift. If they scheduled me for an on-call shift and they didn’t call me, that was real money lost and real time opportunity lost.”

On-call scheduling “means you have to put your life on hold,” says Rachel Laforest, director of the Retail Action Project, a division of the Retail Wholesale and Department Stores Union. “It becomes very difficult to lead full lives, so for example, if I’m a parent and I have to figure out arranging for child care, it’s impossible for me to do that” with such short notice, she says.

There isn’t good national data on the prevalence of on-call scheduling, but regional surveys suggest it’s widespread and not limited to retail, says Stephanie Luce, professor of labor studies at CUNY.  “We see it in fast food, airlines, beauty services,  domestic services, child care services," she says. "Smaller studies seem to suggest this practice really picked up after the recession, however, over the past couple of years, there’s been a real push back.”

After New York’s attorney general suggested Abercrombie and 12 other companies were potentially violating New York law through the practice, Abercrombie announced it would work to discontinue the practice.

The company responded on August fifth “...we understand – and share – the attorney general’s concerns about call-in shift scheduling. The attorney general’s letter helped focus our ongoing internal discussions about how to create a stable and predictable work environment as possible for our employees.”

Gap Inc. told Marketplace: “Each of our brands have made a commitment to evaluate their practices and determine where we may be able to improve scheduling stability for our employees, while continuing to drive productivity in stores.”

Gap also says it’s working on a pilot project with University of California, Hastings College of the Law “to examine workplace scheduling and productivity. Led by recognized expert professor Joan Williams, the goal of the Gap Hourly Scheduling Initiative is to use research and data to create solutions that will be sustainable and can be implemented across our company’s entire footprint and fleet."

Under pressure from a lawsuit, Victoria’s Secret discontinued on-call scheduling earlier this year. 

To the extent firms are reconsidering the practice, the reasons are both technological and monetary.  

On-call scheduling resulted from pressure to restrict the ratio of hours to sales and an attempt to more nimbly adapt to changes in demand, says University of Chicago associate professor Susan Lambert. It also results in companies “overhiring,” using many part time workers instead of fewer full time workers.  But Lambert says “the costs of managing this way do not enter the balance sheets of firms.”  Employees who work irregularly, for example, may not always be up to speed with the latest changes to the store or the layout, she says. 

“From a very engineering standpoint,...[on-call scheduling]  may look efficient but when you look on front lines of firms, you see all the opportunities costs there are in terms of people walking out because they can’t find something or can’t get help.”  

Another factor is technology. 

“New technologies give us now the ability to predict very well variations in demand,” Lambert says.

Companies don’t need to keep workers on hold; they can figure out pretty well whether they need to have someone show up to work far in advance of two hours before the shift starts, she says. Companies are so good at predicting demand that they tried to "overoptimize" down to the minute, keeping workers on call to cover even slight changes in demand.   

“You don’t need to do that micro-management,” she says. “Retailers are learning that."

So it may be, she says, that workers and firms are finding on-call scheduling is a headache for everyone.

Here are the responses from the 13 companies the New York attorney general wrote warnings to:

  • Ann Inc.: "Staffing guidelines do not include the practice of on-call shifts." 
  • Gap Inc.:  "Each of our brands have made a commitment to evaluate their practices and determine where we may be able to improve scheduling stability for our employees, while continuing to drive productivity in stores.  As part of our commitment to more sustainable scheduling practices, we are working on a pilot project with Gap Brand and UC Hastings College of Law to examine workplace scheduling and productivity."
  • J.C. Penney Co: "We do not utilize on-call scheduling, and JCPenney has always maintained a policy against the practice."
  • Sears Holdings Corp: "Sears Holdings does not use on-call scheduling for store associates. That said, we will fully cooperate with the New York Attorney General’s office’s requests."
  • Target Corp: "Target does not use on-call scheduling."
  • TJX Cos: "We don’t use on-call shifts at TJX and it hasn’t been our practice, i.e. nothing new since April." 
  • Williams-Sonoma Inc: "We actually discontinued [on-call scheduling] for the entire country."

Burlington Stores Inc., Crocs Inc., J. Crew Group Inc. and Urban Outfitters Inc. did not return requests for comment.