January 03, 2007
The Wal-Mart Way
Wal-Mart is moving towards widespread implementation of new employee scheduling software. Sounds innocent enough -- the software tracks customer habits over seven week periods, and reschedules workers for each one. Moreover, it also creates a range of daily possibilities, allowing Wal-Mart to schedule workers to be on-call during surges, or send them home during lulls, or implement a variety of other strategies to create a more flexible, adaptive, workforce. All sounds routine enough, right?
But pity the workforce. The new software will make advance scheduling and reliable paychecks a thing of the past. According to The Journal, "experts say [the program] can saddle workers with unpredictable schedules. In some cases, they may be asked to be "on call" to meet customer surges, or sent home because of a lull, resulting in less pay. The new systems also alert managers when a worker is approaching full-time status or overtime, which would require higher wages and benefits, so they can scale back that person's schedule...That means workers may not know when or if they will need a babysitter or whether they will work enough hours to pay that month's bills. Rather than work three eight-hour days, someone might now be plugged into six four-hour days, mornings one week and evenings the next."
Brave new world. And one that can be used to push out older, more experienced, better-paid workers. "Some longtime workers," the Journal reports, "also say they believe managers use the system to pressure them to quit. After working 16 years at a Wal-Mart in Hastings, Minn., Karen Nelson says managers told her she had to be open to working nights and weekends. After she refused, her hours were trimmed, though they have been restored in recent months. 'The store manager said he could get two people for what he pays me,' says Ms. Nelson, who earns about $14.50 an hour." Take a highly-paid veteran and begin shaking up their shifts, demanding nights and weekends, and scheduling erratically, and soon you'll have a former highly-paid veteran.
This isn't, it should be said, an initiative unique to Wal-Mart. Other retailers, from Radioshack to Payless, have given the system a shot, though with varying degrees of ferocity. But Wal-Mart's adoption will make it standard. The whole enterprise underscores the dangers of the service economy, with its relentless focus on efficiency and terrifying absence of concern towards its workers. Given that service jobs are slated to be the fastest-growing over the next decade or so, a central focus for progressives will have to be endowing those workers with the bargaining power and voice to demand -- and receive -- better treatment. We talk about the need for better wages and benefits a lot, but workplace treatment is a critical component as well. The import of regular scheduling and predictable paychecks should not to be taken for granted.
At Tapped, too.
THIS is the most disturbing thing Wal-Mart has ever done. Where are all the "family values" voters when you need them?
Posted by: Robert P. | Jan 3, 2007 2:30:13 PM
The Walmart management has now proven that the equation "Walmart = Evil" is true.
How about an amendment to the Fair Labor Standards Act to provide that for any person employed less than full time (40 hours/week), in a corporation with more than 500 employees, that they be paid for 8 full hours if they are required to work for any number of hours less than 8 hours in a 24 period?
The Dems could call this the Walmart Restoration of Worker Fairness Act.
Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Jan 3, 2007 2:41:13 PM
Huh. Don't see how this is a new thing. Starbucks has a highly automated system for scheduling. It suggests that minimum and maximum hours be entered for each employee. It keeps track of labor costs for each hour, so that managers can cut the most expensive workers. Any overtime sends an automatic message to District Managers so that managers can get a quick and personal ass-reaming.
Barnes & Noble has a similar system. They also are much more likely to schedule people knowing that some will be sent home. These hours are marked as being "on call," but they count for the workers' total hours for the week.
It's not that I want to defend Wal-Mart or anything. Rather, the service industry as a whole is a horrible place to work.
Posted by: Stephen | Jan 3, 2007 2:42:22 PM
I should have said: if they are required to work for any number of hours less than 8 hours continuous in a 24 period.
And I should have added: and if the worker is required to work more than one work appearance during a 24 hour period, they will be paid double time for the seoond required shift.
Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Jan 3, 2007 2:44:53 PM
"Huh. Don't see how this is a new thing. Starbucks has a highly automated system for scheduling. It suggests that minimum and maximum hours be entered for each employee. It keeps track of labor costs for each hour, so that managers can cut the most expensive workers. Any overtime sends an automatic message to District Managers so that managers can get a quick and personal ass-reaming.
Barnes & Noble has a similar system. They also are much more likely to schedule people knowing that some will be sent home. These hours are marked as being "on call," but they count for the workers' total hours for the week."
There are two things this poster is overlooking.
1) Wal-Mart is a 24 X 7 operation in which Starbucks and B & N are not.
2) While it's important to have more people working when there are more customers, I didn't see anything as whether or not this had been beta tested, or it had, for how long it had been studied for patterns. The story says "just last year." It should not be based on week to week patterns or daily patterns, but monthly or even 2 months of data, and to give workers an opportunity to get some elder care or child care planning input ahead with managers.
Sam Walton is probably turning in his grave. He would have wanted to see patterns first and wanted his workers to be treated humanely. Perhaps the CEO of Wal-Mart hasn't discovered that satisified employees = satisified customers. It's not all about low prices.
Posted by: benny05 | Jan 3, 2007 3:05:49 PM
I think the question is really whether this is going to work or not - and I suspect that it's going to make it harder for Wal Mart to fill some positions, because the inconsistency of scheduling and the variability of pay will push some people out of working for them. From a service standpoint, unfortunately, it makes sense, but only if they have the people in place to make it work. This also goes back to a broader point that no one really likes to face: Wal-Mart type work (i.e. discount store service staff) was really never meant to be a full time job for supporting a family, but more part time work for students and others with spare time but not dependent on a full time income. Yes, Wal Mart should face some realities about its workforce, but the bigger challenge is finding better jobs for people who need better incomes than a Wal Mart job can provide. And I don't see a lot of good solutions on that front...
Posted by: weboy | Jan 3, 2007 3:11:11 PM
1) Wal-Mart is a 24 X 7 operation in which Starbucks and B & N are not.
Nope. The vast majority of Wal-Marts are not open 24/7. I live in Kansas City, a metro of a couple million, and the Wal-Marts around here close at 10pm. Anyway, it's not like this matters.
My point is that working in the service industry pretty much sucks. Whether employees get plenty of advance notice for shifts, regular hours, enough hours, etc. or not is dependent upon the store manager. Even when the manager is trying to be fair - and I have been on both sides of this - things get messed up and people get screwed. There were a couple of times when I was working for Starbucks that I came very close to causing an employee to lose their benefits, because I wasn't scheduling them for enough hours. We were able to make it work, but I still feel rotten about it all. What about those managers who just don't care?
I agree that Sam Walton's company is no longer around. I agree that Wal-Mart is a crappy place to work. And I agree that this type of scheduling is not good for the workers. But the problem is actually larger than Wal-Mart, and since our employment rates are increasingly dependent upon the service sector, it's not going to go away any time soon.
Posted by: Stephen | Jan 3, 2007 3:18:08 PM
The difference is also that starbucks provides benefits, and walmart does not. Starbucks is a part time employee company specifically for people who want part time work. The problematica aspect of the description of this program is that it is not part time, but rather on call. On call is typically associated with higher pay and benefits because its assume that the employee's time is money, and that if you expect someone to be on call for you- you pay them a premium for that requirement. This, at least, is how it works when one can negotiate one's contract. Here, it's not likely to happen because they lack a union.
Posted by: akaison | Jan 3, 2007 3:36:38 PM
The "on call" thing (and the flipside "go home, it's dead in here") is what strikes me as the worst aspect of this. It's bullshit to not know your schedule a week in advance, with the exception of emergency workers (and who are handsomely paid for their troubles).
When you think about it, why do they even need software to figure out when the surges are? I can tell you right now they are 4-7 PM on the weekdays, right after work. I worked a grocery store for a few years, and never fail, that's the busiest time.
Posted by: verplanck colvin | Jan 3, 2007 3:39:13 PM
great minds, etc. etc.
Posted by: verplanck colvin | Jan 3, 2007 3:39:54 PM
What you are going to get, after all of this poking and prodding and outright stupid behavior by WalMart managers are Service Employee Unions. And contracts that say that this type of behavior is NOT ALLOWED. And if the rest of the retail community follows WalMart's lead, they'll end up dealing with unions too. The service sector is a shitty place to work, and the shittier the employers make it, the more attractive paying a small portion of your wages to a union becomes to the workers.
This is how you take people who don't want to be in a union and turn them into lifetime union supporters - be an employer who plays these types of games and shafts them again and again. And unlike manufacturing, service industry jobs are a helluva lot harder to offshore or outsource.
Posted by: NonyNony | Jan 3, 2007 3:49:20 PM
I suspect and hope that NonyNony is correct. And when it comes to pass that WalMart and those that follow their lead are dealing with unions and have contracts that restrict what they can do with their workers they'll wish they'd taken their eye off the bottom line once in awhile and considered the quality of life of those who worked for them. I was a manager and later a company labor rep in a union environment for more than a dozen years and there wasn't a single restrictive overtime, penalty overtime, and work hour limitation provision in the collective bargaining agreements that wasn't placed there to protect workers from the inhuman treatment of their managers.
Posted by: mrgumby2u | Jan 3, 2007 4:19:22 PM
While the 'service sector' of the economy is growing, retail sales is not, the reverse is true their actually, so I highly suspect all the worry about this being the 'new wave' is hugely overstated.
I have done quite a bit of work with call centers, also service sector, and of course one that can be quite easily outsource. This sort of thing has been going on for years there, and in fact I have written software to aid in both the analysis and the scheduling of employees, from both a predictive to a on the spot perspective.
In some ways this does suck for employees. On the other hand, generally speaking more stable and/or greater choice in scheduling is typically partially at least based upon performanence. This certainly rewards productive employees.
At the end of the day, if these methods to reduce costs are not taken, the company won't be competive and the jobs will go away either to another company (which does these things) or another place.
I think liberals time would be much better spent worrying about how to make employees more valuable then trying to artificially limit competitive practices.
Posted by: Dave Justus | Jan 3, 2007 4:35:36 PM
Dave-- any thoughts on whether higher productivity ("more valuable workers") will = reduced employment? Why higher 5 workers when 4 have become as valuable as 5?
Posted by: RW | Jan 3, 2007 4:51:29 PM
"more stable and/or greater choice in scheduling is typically partially at least based upon performanence. This certainly rewards productive employees."
Knowing if you're working or not tomorrow is a privilege, not a right. Welcome, our new gilded age overlords
Posted by: verplanck colvin | Jan 3, 2007 5:32:44 PM
Few words make me laugh out loud as quickly as "I think liberals should..."
In terms of making money for its shareholders, Wal Mart is doing just fine. They don't need any major revamp to save their collective asses. New moves like this are just measures to push more of the profit towards the top of the chain. Nony may be right; eventually, workers simply can't afford to put up with these conditions, and Wal Mart will find it increasingly tough to find worthwhile workers.
Posted by: sprocket | Jan 3, 2007 5:33:41 PM
Don't get all hot and bothered over this. If they really do use this system, it's going to fail mightily and significantly harm Wal-Mart in the process, undermining the arguments in favor of a Wal-Mart economy writ large.
Just think of the reasons you are a liberal. You don't believe an economy where individual human beings are simply considered interchangeable factors of production works. And you're right. Wal-Mart is headed for disaster to the extent they implement this.
Posted by: Marshall | Jan 3, 2007 5:53:50 PM
On the other hand, generally speaking more stable and/or greater choice in scheduling is typically partially at least based upon performanence. This certainly rewards productive employees.
Not true in retail or any other setting that can apply this type of scheduling and has employees with varying rates of pay. The key here is to keep labor costs down as a percentage of volume. So you can schedule your more productive employees - and most likely the ones making more money - for fewer hours, but during busy times. Tweaking the schedule like this makes your labor efficiency higher and is starting to be used as the newest metric when determining bonuses.
And akaison, I'm not defending Wal-Mart. Indeed, my whole point is that yet again, Wal-Mart is just providing the clearest example of practices that are industry-wide.
Posted by: Stephen | Jan 3, 2007 5:59:57 PM
"So you can schedule your more productive employees - and most likely the ones making more money - for fewer hours, but during busy times."
And when you do this you're likely to lose these employees' discretionary effort, at least, or lose them altogether to an employer who respects them more and treats them better.
Posted by: mrgumby2u | Jan 3, 2007 6:34:39 PM
In the early-mid 1980's, I was an assistant manager at Express (a lowish-priced, trendy clothing chain owned by The Limited). We worked until a half-hour after the mall closed, as the more desirable morning-afternoon shift was given to managers with more seniority. There were no benefits, unless you count the employee discount on mass-produced clothing you were required to wear to work and were sick of looking at anyway. You'd recieve next week's schedule on the last day of that week (Thursday). There was also a requirement that on one of your two days off (which were never, ever a Saturday or Sunday unless the planets were aligned or something) you stayed near the phone so you could be called in if needed. Remember, cell phones back then cost around $500 and were the size of toaster ovens, so that particular requirement meant you were tethered to your house from 10am to dinner time.
In exchange for all this and an hourly rate that was pretty much the norm in the service sector, Express got a bilingual part-time model with B.S. degrees in advertising and English ed. It was Florida, and it was the 80's; such was the job market then. Some (my parents, for example) would call restaurant work less dignified. But after I left the retail scene, I found bartending and cocktail waitressing to be considerably better--at least it felt like I had a social life, and cash is always nice.
At the very least, companies who require employees to work "on call" should pay a premium wage for that, or figure out a way to schedule the right number of people during busy times. Regardless, people need to know when they're working and when they're not so they can plan their lives accordingly. The problem is, Express assumed that they were your life.
It's depressing to see that nothing has changed. Not even the minimum wage--not that much!
Posted by: litbrit | Jan 3, 2007 7:54:18 PM
stephen- I didn't think anyone defending Walmart. I am just pointing out what jumped out to me as the biggest problem I have with this- that not only are they scheduling time, which is fair, but in effect they are putting a demand on the time that the employee is not at work (the on call aspect) without paying for it. I know this exists in a white collar setting because one is being paid a higher wage for one's work in part for this reason, but I didn't think it was trickling down into the service industries. The thing is- where walmart goes other can follow. Why can't other employers decide that they can take up employees down time without paying a premium for it. certainly not negotiation if it becomes industry standard.
Posted by: akaison | Jan 3, 2007 8:11:07 PM
As another veteran of the retail world, both from the management and the wage-slave side, I just want to add that what's objectionable here is not really the scheduling methodology, which as has been pointed out, is not all that different from what Starbucks or other big retail companies do right now.
No, the objectionable part is the "on call" part. Your employer should not have the right to expect that you will sit at home, waiting for them to call you in, or not, yet only get paid if you actually do get called in.
Posted by: fiat lux | Jan 4, 2007 1:00:35 AM
And now pls remember that a Wal Mart employee can't sustain his family on his WM salary alone. How is he going to do a second job when he's supposed to be available for WM all the time?
This kind of exploitation has to stop. Dems should introduce legislation that requires companies to pay workers for hours they are on-call. Or else other retailers would be forced to follow WM's lead and workers would be on a downward spiral once more.
Posted by: Gray | Jan 4, 2007 4:01:54 AM
"At the end of the day, if these methods to reduce costs are not taken, the company won't be competive and the jobs will go away either to another company (which does these things) or another place."
Well, and that's why there has to be a legal framework that prevents companies from exploiting their workers in this and other ways, so that all companies on the market are playing by the same rules. Without such regulations, there will always be an enterprise that seeks an advantage by shifting burdens to the work force. And don't say workers can simply switch to a 'better' employer. Most of the jobs at WalMart are for unqualified workers, and those don't have much chances to get a better offer. Also, afaik there's still 4.6% unemployment in the US, and that's according to the euphemistic official statistics.
Posted by: Gray | Jan 4, 2007 4:15:02 AM
Also, afaik there's still 4.6% unemployment in the US, and that's according to the euphemistic official statistics.
Also, if unemployment were to drop below its current amount by any appreciable amount, the Federal Reserve would have a seizure. That level of unemployment is a deliberate policy of the US Federal Government. So let's keep the responsibility for the poor negotiating position of low- and non-skilled workers correctly distributed.
Unions. Unions. Unions. We need more and stronger unions.
Posted by: NBarnes | Jan 4, 2007 6:52:38 AM
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