Should employees get guaranteed minimum work hours?

Bad pay isn't the only issue facing low-wage workers -- another is the rise of so-called "scheduling to demand" strategies.

The practice gives retailers, restaurants and other industries the flexibility to schedule workers' hours at the last minute, based on how much business companies expect. If the weather forecast predicts snow, for instance, a smoothie store might cut back some employees' hours, given that fewer customers are likely to stop by.

While that benefits employers by saving on labor costs during slow periods, the impact on employees can be corrosive, leading to unpredictable earnings and hours, according to a new report from the Center for Law and Social Policy, the Retail Action Project and Women Employed. With the rise in part-time workers, more Americans are now finding themselves subject to seemingly whimsical work patterns.

"These practices disproportionately affect low-income workers who are already vulnerable financially," the report notes. "Just-in-time scheduling contributes to workers' income instability, making it difficult to make ends meet."

The shift to last-minute scheduling has been accelerated by technology. Software companies such as Dayforce and Kronos offer products that allow managers to schedule workers in smaller time increments, the groups notes.

"Many employers now schedule shifts as short as two or three hours, while historically they may have scheduled eight-hour shifts," Dayforce founder David Ossip told The New York Times in 2012.

"Flexible" scheduling also makes it hard for workers to maximize their wages, given that those employees are required to be available to work at any hour, or on weekends or holidays. While that's great for employers, workers are left to cope with lower wages, unpredictable schedules and stress.

The remedy? Public policy solutions, worker organization and consumer advocacy may be required since "voluntary employer action is unlikely," the report notes.

Still, not every work place is a bleak landscape of random hourly patterns. Some companies commit to providing their employees with a basic number of work hours. Take Costco (COST), which has won kudos not only for its stocked warehouses but for its employee relations.

Costco employees receive their hours at least two weeks in advance and are guaranteed 24 "core hours" each week, the report notes.

"We want people to work for us who consider us a career," Costco assistant vice president of human resources Mike Brosius told low-income advocacy group CLASP, according to the report. "Long-term employees are more productive and serve the needs of our customers better. So we give our employees what's fair and what they need to make a living."

  • Aimee Picchi

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