The Struggles of Working in Retail

If you think you have it tough balancing the demands of child care, housekeeping and–maybe–night classes with a 9-to-5 office job, then try working in retail. A recently published study based on interviews with 463 employees at retail stores throughout New York City found that more than half learned their work schedules a week or less prior to the actual work week. Two in five said the number of hours they worked each week always or often varied, while one in five said they always or often had to be available for call-in shifts. The report, entitled “Discounted Jobs: How Retailers Sell Workers Short,” notes that “guaranteed work hours are no longer the normal and just ‘getting on the schedule’ has become the reward for job performance.”

So just imagine dealing with such unpredictability while trying to attend classes and/or raise a family. It should be noted that this study was financed by the Retail Action Project, a pro-union organization, and conducted by the City University of New York’s Murphy Institute, which also appears to have a union affiliation. Yet the rise of “just-in-time” scheduling at many stores, further enabled by technology, has been noted elsewhere for the negative effect it can have on workers’ lives.  A team of researchers from the University of Chicago examined workforce data and surveyed workers and managers at a nationwide women’s apparel chain (with the company’s full cooperation).  The report, published in fall 2010, noted that just-in-time scheduling makes it difficult for workers to count on reliable earnings or plan for family responsibilities.

By comparison, the researchers discovered that the more hours employees at the apparel chain worked and the less their hours fluctuated, the longer they remained employed at the firm, regardless of age and job status. Stores with smaller staff size and more hours per employee have lower turnover and higher retention, the report found, while employee survey findings indicate that more-predictable work schedules led to less work/family conflict and lower stress levels for the workers. Sounds like a recipe for improved workforce health and greater productivity, no?

Of course, retail by its very nature is less predictable than other industries. Yet the researchers found that “overall store hours fluctuate much less than is commonly believed.” They suggest that managers can add some stability to employees’ work hours by using “predictable unpredictability”–keeping employees’ work hours the same for 80 percent of the week while telling them to expect that 20 percent of their hours may vary week to week.” Not a perfect solution, but one that may enable stores to remain profitable while giving employees a chance for some balance.

 

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