January 3rd, 2007


The Future Keeps Coming

It looks like one of my predictions is going to be put to the test. Marshall Brain's Manna portrayed a descent into dystopia for bottom rung workers. One of the steps on the way was workers losing control of their personal life as they were scheduled to meet the varying needs of retail employers. Now one of America's most-hated companies is trying that for real:
Wal-Mart Seeks New Flexibility In Worker Shifts

Early this year, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., using a new computerized scheduling system, will start moving many of its 1.3 million workers from predictable shifts to a system based on the number of customers in stores at any given time. The move promises greater productivity and customer satisfaction for the huge retailer but could be a major headache for employees.

A company using these fine-tuned programs might start the day with a few employees on hand at many stores, bring in a bunch more during busy midday hours, and gradually pare down through the day before bulking up for the evening rush.

But while the new systems are expected to benefit both retailers and customers, some experts say they 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.
I'm on the record as predicting the Manna dystopia can't come to pass for legal and cultural reasons. For this stage I see two legal objections. The scheduling Walmart is planning is legal for salaried workers, who still get paid if they're sent home early and have "on call" as part of the job. But hourly workers go by a different set of rules. What Walmart is doing is stealing time from workers and that should be illegal. Being "on call" is work time and should be compensated. For salaried workers it's part of the weekly paycheck, for hourly ones there should be at least a reduced rate of pay. Possibly a minimum wage for on call time should be part of the federal minimum wage rules Congress is planning on updating.

The other problem is sending people home early without pay when having a lull. If I buy a bottle of Coke at Walmart I can't drink half, decide I'm no longer thirsty, and return it for sixty cents in change. When someone reports to work the company is buying a specific chunk of time from them and shouldn't be allowed to renege half-way through the shift.

Scheduling weirdly timed shifts in advance probably falls into the category of obnoxious-but-legal, best remedied by the good employees going elsewhere and Walmart being left with the schlubs. That'd be a market punishment for their attempt to squeeze more pennies out of their employees.

One other aspect of this is caused by the government. Tweaking hours to keep employees from qualifying for benefits is another consquence of the Feds' weird insistance that we get our health insurance from our employers, instead of buying our own like we do with car insurance. Fixing that broad problem by making health insurance purchases tax deductible for everyone would have trickle-down benefits for part-timers who wouldn't mind the occasional 42 hour work week.

So there's my take on this new development. If Walmart does get to have an unlimited legal right to jerk around employees as it chooses we're a step closer to Manna's dystopia (though I think we're still unlikely to sentence people to life imprisonment for losing their jobs). If legal restrictions--or the competition for competent employees--forces them to back off we're in line with my more optimistic scenario.
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