new underclass

The rise of robot scheduling is a nightmare for low-wage workers

August 15, 2014
August 15, 2014

“Automated scheduling software” has been touted as the wave of the future (paywall) for hip, forward-looking, data-driven workplaces. The company Kronos, for example, promises to help restaurants “provide outstanding customer service as you control labor costs.” Using the system, employees have variable hours, determined by data on customer flow, allowing managers to schedule more workers during busier times and fewer on slow days.

“Along with virtually every major retail and restaurant chain,” Jodi Kantor writes (paywall) in the New York Times, “Starbucks relies on software that choreographs workers in precise, intricate ballets, using sales patterns and other data to determine which of its 130,000 baristas are needed in its thousands of locations and exactly when.”

But, Kantor points out, for low-wage workers, especially parents, the system’s shifting work schedules can make life extremely difficult. For white collar workers, “flexible work” often means the ability to take a few hours or days a week spent working at home, and is the sign of a progressive and supportive employer. For low-wage service employees, however, there’s nothing particularly flexible about the variability of robot scheduling.

The Times story points at a larger truth: Advances in management and workplace technology all have essentially one goal, to get more out of employees at lower cost. And in the quest for efficiency, companies often forget they’re dealing with people.

Kantor offers as an example the heartbreaking chronicle of a woman named Janette Navarro, and her efforts to raise her young son while working at Starbucks under this scheduling system. She often found out about her work hours with only a few days notice, requiring panicked adjustments to take care of her son and the family’s finances. She was sometimes asked to “clopen” her store (work till closing at 11pm and return at 4am to open it). The job required constant scrambling and caused tension with family members she frequently needed to beg for help to keep an eye on her son.

She wasn’t alone. Starbucks told the Times that its policy is to give employees a week’s notice on hours. But Kantor’s interviews with several of the coffee chain’s workers across the country indicated that much shorter notice is common.

This kind of work is “flexible” only for the company. It means schedules and salaries vary to the point where it’s difficult for workers to make long-term plans. To save the company money, computer models often dismiss workers when sales are slow.

Many people in these kind of jobs don’t have the skills to get more consistent work, and their unreliable schedules make it even harder to pursue those skills. Navarro for instance, was a few credits short of a degree, but couldn’t commit to college classes because of her erratic schedule.

Cliff Burrows, the group president in charge of United States stores, responded to the story (paywall) with an email to staff announcing that it plans to change its policies, the Times reported:

Mr. Burrows told them the company would revise its software to allow more human input from managers into scheduling. It would banish the practice, much loathed by workers, of asking them to “clopen” — close the store late at night and return just a few hours later to reopen. He said all work hours must be posted at least one week in advance, a policy that has been only loosely followed in the past. And the company would try to move workers with more than an hour’s commute to more convenient locations, he said.

As for Navarro, after the Times inquired with Starbucks about her issues, she was given a more fixed schedule, with better shifts.

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