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More Signs that Low-Wage Workers are Gaining Power

Gap joins other major retailer in giving workers more flexibility.

Gap joins other major retailer in giving workers more flexibility.

Worker’s rights are gaining steam in the U.S. economy.

In a huge win for workers, clothing retailer The Gap just announced that all five of its brands will stop the practice of on-call scheduling this fall — the third such announcement from a major company this summer.   The change indicates ongoing shifts in the dynamics between employers and their workers, as well as improvements in the U.S. economy more than 5 years following our rebound from the Great Recession.

Last week the Gap posted on its blog  that “each of our brands has committed to improving their scheduling policies to provide their store employees with at least 10 to 14 days notice” of their upcoming work shifts.

Gap joins the ranks of retailers like Victoria’s Secret and Abercrombie & Fitch, both of who issued similar announcements that they would eliminate on-call scheduling. Starbucks already did so last year.

Over the past decade, on-call scheduling has become widespread in the retail industry as technology made it possible for managers to identify the exact hours when specific stores needed more or fewer staff members on the floor. This policy required workers to remain “on call” for certain blocks of time each week, when they may or may not be asked to come into work. Yet while workers must give up a certain amount of freedom during those times, they are only paid for the hours they actually come into the store.

While the practice costs almost nothing for companies, it’s expensive for workers, who can’t schedule anything else during those on-call hours. It can pose significant challenges for taking classes, making childcare arrangement or working a second job, which is common among many low-wage workers trying to make ends meet.

The movement away from on-call scheduling is not just a big win for labor organizers (who’ve been calling for an end to the practice for years); it’s also a sign that the larger economic picture is looking brighter for workers, especially those at the bottom of the wage hierarchy.

These scheduling victories come on the heels of announcements earlier this year from companies like Walmart and McDonald’s that they are increasing pay for hourly workers. They also underscore big policy wins in cities across the U.S. (notably here in Seattle) for a $15 an hour minimum wage.

“The Gap announcement doesn’t come just because other folks in the industry stopped doing [on-call scheduling],” said Rachel Laforest, the director of the Retail Action Project, a community organizing project affiliated with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. “There’s an enormous amount of public and behind-the-scenes pressure.”

This issue of “total compensation” for low-wage employees is crucial, since many of them don’t have a say over the number of hours they can work each week. Instead, employers get to make that call. And while Gap’s new policy doesn’t mention the minimum number of hours employees will get, the move to more predictable schedules will at least make it easier to find a second job if needed.

“We often focus on the hourly wage, but there are other aspects [to compensation],” said Betsey Stevenson, an associate professor of economics and public policy at the University of Michigan. “Employers experimented with this in a very weak labor market, and as the labor market improved, they learned that that was not free to do.”

For hourly employees, the amount of time they actually work can be just as central as the wages they earn. As labor justice advocates explain: “Where companies were able to raise wages, it didn’t actually boost a worker’s paycheck at the end of the day, because many workers had their hours cut.” In other words, $10 an hour isn’t better than $8 if a worker’s hours get cut from 40 to 20 each week.

Because the retail industry is so huge, it may take a leading role in setting standards for other industries and have a significant impact throughout the economy.

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Emery Reddy