The big economic news on Thursday was Walmart's decision to raise the minimum wage for all its hourly employees to $9 an hour by April, and to $10 by February of 2016. For a company that's long insisted higher pay is incompatible with its business model, that's quite a concession.
But as Shane Ferro reported at Business Insider, something else was buried under that headline: the retail giant intends to increase the number of its workers who enjoy fixed and predictable schedules. The language only says "some associates," but starting in 2016 the affected workers will get fixed schedules every week, and they'll know their schedules at least two weeks in advance.
It's a big practical win for workers. But it's also a lesson in how free markets can grind down families and tear up communities.
Usually when people talk about the social fabric in American politics, they worry about degrading cultural values, or about government aid dissolving families by weakening people's dependency on one another. A classic example of this is a piece by Yuval Levin, a reform conservative, that suggests government aid and transfers are used to "free" people from the bonds of family and communal obligations — to "atomize and pulverize society's institutions."
First off, on the evidence, this is just wrong. Government welfare programs often help families and friends stay together, rather than being forced to break apart out of desperation for income. And experiments with no-strings-attached cash aid show that it actually strengthens families and improves communities, rather then degrading them.
But it also reveals a profound blind spot in how we talk about human relations and the social fabric: namely, how market forces threaten them far more than government. And the rise of just-in-time scheduling is a prime example.
Two decades or more ago, when big retailers, chain stores, and other employers still relied on old-school methods to organize schedules, workers got standard shifts whether business was up or down. But now technology has given those employers sophisticated algorithms to schedule workers in coordination with customer activity. At the same time, these businesses have moved away from employing people full-time to taking on more part-time workers and mixing and matching their schedules as the algorithms dictate.
This, of course, cuts costs for these firms, as they're paying fewer people to take on slow business hours. But the results for everyday workers are not so pretty: they're forced to be on call at all times, they rarely know their schedule in advance, and they don't know how much they'll be making from week to week. These erratic schedules make it far harder for workers to hold down a second job and thus improve their income, and can force them to rely on debt and payday lenders to keep themselves afloat.
But they also pull workers away from family commitments and other obligations outside the workplace. As a 2011 paper by Demos pointed out, shifting schedules keep parents away from children and spouses away from one another; they increase transportation difficulties and costs, which are most acute for these very same low-income workers; they force families to put together ad hoc child care arrangements with friends and extended family, shuttling the kids from one place to another; and they place additional stress and heartache on both parents and children.
When people worry about the rise of broken families and the collapse of marriage amongst the working class, much less their declining incomes, keep business practices like this in mind.
Research from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that 39 percent of full-time workers report getting their schedules one week or less before hand, a statistic that jumps to 47 percent for part-time workers. One survey of retail workers in New York City suggests only 17 percent enjoyed a set schedule, over half only knew their schedule a week in advance, and about 20 percent only received three days' notice. Another found that 40 percent of those workers had a set minimum of hours, one quarter were scheduled for on-call shifts, and the “vast majority” were only told they were needed two hours in advance.
The practice extends across all manner of major chains: big-box retailers, grocery stores, consumer electronics, clothing stores, and more. It's also common amongst hotels, caterers, restaurants, airlines, package delivery companies, banking, and other service industries.
The share of workers who are involuntarily part-time — they want full-time work, but can't find it — shot up after the recession, from 3 percent to about 6.5 percent. It's now just under 5 percent, or fewer than 7 million people. And retail stores, along with the food service and construction sectors, account for about 40 percent of involuntary part-time work.
Now, Walmart is only one company in a very big economy that's still very bad for lots of people. But it's also the nation's largest private employer, with 1.4 million people, or 10 percent of the retail workforce. So if "some associates" turns out to be "most associates," Walmart's announcement would be a significant initial foothold in rolling just-in-time scheduling back.
While it could be the falling unemployment rate that inspired Walmart to make these moves, there's still scant evidence the labor market is noticeably tightening in workers' favor. The other big possibility is that Walmart has been feeling the heat from the ongoing protests and labor movements around the country, over its low pay and its poor treatment of workers.
Neither Walmart nor any other employer gives workers good pay and decent conditions out of the goodness of its heart. In fact, as just-in-time scheduling shows, the incentives of profit-making and cost-cutting push in the opposite direction. Rather, employers give those things up when workers accumulate enough bargaining power to force them to.