Just-in-time or on-call work schedules: is it time to make some changes?

Imagine having to schedule your week around being available for work at an hour’s notice, or just about as bad, having your shift cancelled at the very last minute of your day – and this for a minimum wage job with limited hours. Yet it’s happening. The practice, often called “on-call scheduling” in Canada, has become widespread among retailers and restaurants in both Canada and the United States. It preys on the vulnerabilities of young people, desperate for work.

On-call work scheduling makes it hard for employees to plan their financial lives. One week they make get 15 hours, the next 30 or occasionally more. These are often minimum or just above wages and it is hard to make a weekly $150-$300 pay cheque (minus deductions) stretch to cover rent and food for the month when rents range upwards of $500.

“I just want more hours,” wailed a distraught Holly Burke, who had to quit a second job when she couldn’t make her schedules mesh due to employer unpredictability. Now she is trying to fit in some university courses to give her the credits needed so she can go back to school full-time for a technical job and she is finding the conflict between classes and her work hours even more stressful.

This erratic scheduling means is that it is almost impossible to go to school and it is certainly impossible to have a second job – you are always at the mercy of that last-minute call. If you want to keep your primary, “permanent” job, then you must respond when they call.

In addition to saving money for labour during slow periods, employers save on benefits. Many group insurance plans, for example, require at least a regular 20-hour-work week for eligibility.

The typical response to the hardships this imposes is for governments is to increase minimum wages, but this just squeezes the worker harder as companies turn to automated scheduling algorithms to reduce costs with ever tighter schedules. This causes more stress on the worker, not less, as hours shrink or become ever more irregular.

Reforms being considered in the U.S. include requiring a two-week notice of schedule, a penalty of four hours pay to the scheduled worker if they are sent home after reporting for scheduled work and extra pay if changes are made less than 24 hours before a shift.

Just-in-time work schedules are in force at many large retailers, including the Hudson Bay Company, but some others are in the midst of changing; The Gap will end the practice at the end of September. Victoria’s Secret has already done so in the U.S. These measures are being taken because employers are beginning to see the negative effects: poorly trained, unmotivated workers, being at the top of the list.

Here is the current law regarding on-call scheduling in Manitoba:

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