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CUNY Report Exposes Retail Companies’ Tactics

September 15, 2014
By Marc Bussanich

New York, NY—Last Monday The Murphy Institute revealed in a new report, Short Shifted, how major retailers such as H & M, Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works are using technology and scheduling practices that are keeping retail workers in part-time limbo, underemployed and ultimately underpaid.

As fast food workers have been staging walkouts to demand higher wages, as they did last week in Times Square, and to bring attention to their long hours but low pay, The Murphy Institute’s, in collaboration with the Retail Action Project and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, new report shows how retail workers in New York City are struggling to get by with erratic, week-to-week schedules that contributes to their underemployment and low pay.

In the accompanying video, we interviewed the lead author of the report, Stephanie Luce, associate professor of labor studies at The Murphy Institute, which is part of CUNY’s School of Professional Studies. She previously co-authored the 2012 report, Discounted Jobs, which detailed working conditions for retail workers in the city based on a survey of 436 workers working for major retailers.

We began by asking her what was the impetus for the new report.

“A couple of years ago we did a study and found that there are a lot of problems with scheduling. So this is a follow-up study to look at how do workers survive day-to-day, what do they do to make their lives work when they have so few hours and such low pay,” Luce said.

Some of the struggles that retail workers are facing daily in New York City include inconsistent scheduling and being penalized by employers when they can’t get to work on a moment’s notice.

“One of the big problems is that workers just can’t enough hours of work or stable hours of work. They get hired on probation, so that means for two months they are maybe guaranteed eight hours work a week. They’re sometimes penalized by getting fewer hours. These are multi-billion dollar companies and they’re treating workers like their disposable,” Luce said.

One significant way retail companies prevent workers from working full-time schedules is utilizing integrated workforce management software that measure sales and customer flow, according to the report.

Luce said the software is very sophisticated, allowing companies to track even weather patterns so they can decide how much staff they need on a daily basis.

“Workers are on call waiting to hear if there are enough customers that day. The problem is that workers aren’t being paid for the time they wait or not being paid for full shifts if they are sent home early.”

She noted, however, that the technology could be leveraged so that retail workers benefit from the sophisticated technology.

“Certain unionized companies let workers use technology to schedule out three weeks to a month in advance to have guaranteed hours and certain shifts or pick up extra shifts from other workers when they need a little extra cash.”

While the report highlights retail companies’ practices that keeping retail workers in the city underemployed, it also suggests a few solutions to make changes in the industry that would give workers more stability.

“We think that there’s a lot of possible solutions, [especially] in a very profitable industry. One thing to set in place is for employers to pay for a minimum hours of shifts, which is already a New York state law. But employers are violating that,” Luce said. “So enforcing existing law is [critical], but also increasing minimum hours of work per week, things like call-in pay, if workers have to sit by the phone they should be paid for that, and we also think that retail workers are better off with a union. Same kinds of stores can still operate and actually be quite competitive and functional with a union in place and still giving workers adequate hours and pay.”


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