Sharecroppers at the Mall

November 7th, 2012 by

As someone who equates shopping malls with one of the lower circles of hell in Dante’s Inferno, I avoid them whenever possible. I find myself suffering along with the retail sales force: understaffed, overworked and underpaid. Steven Greenhouse writes in the New York Times that not only are these workers underpaid, they can be the victims of sophisticated software scheduling programs (Kronos or Dayforce, to name just two) that can easily make the ordinary demands of personal life spin out of control.
There are about 18.6 million retail jobs, 70 percent of which used to be full time. In the relentless effort to reduce costs, 70 percent of retail jobs are now part time. Part-time workers often endure irregular schedules, with hours tied to customer flow. They may be called in for relatively short shifts – a couple of hours at peak times – and then sent home. If workers are unavailable to heed such calls, the work goes to someone else – and the hesitant worker falls further down the list of preferred staff.
Here’s one example of “just-in-time” staffing: Jamba Juice tracks the weather forecast. When hot weather is on the horizon, extra workers are called in. When the heat spell breaks, fewer workers are scheduled. Being on call for a relatively low paying job might wreak havoc on one’s personal life, but it sure helps the company’s bottom line: by scheduling the workforce in 15 minute micro intervals, companies might save as much as 4 to 5 percent in labor costs per year.
Profits in Numbers
While retailers have the option of increasing the hours of their part-timers, they would rather add more bodies to the workforce. They can pay these folks less ($10.80 average for part time versus $17.18 for full time) and they can avoid the issue of benefits. About 30 percent of part-timers would prefer to work full time, but few are given the opportunity. Scheduling programs can quickly scan available workers and pull in the ones with the lowest hourly rates. Isn’t that cool?! You could easily ensure that only one relatively senior worker is present at any given shift.
It may seem harsh to refer to this marginally employed workforce as sharecroppers, but the image comes from an industry consultant, who notes that companies benefit from using many part-timers as opposed to fewer full-timers.

It’s almost like sharecropping — if you have a lot of farmers with small plots of land, they work very hard to produce in that limited amount of land. Many part-time workers feel a real competition to work hard during their limited hours because they want to impress managers to give them more hours.

Of course, they rarely get those new hours, because their employers prefer to limit any given worker’s time on the job – rather like the greyhounds who chase the mechanical rabbit around the racetrack.
Keep ’em Fresh, Keep ’em Moving
A Jamba Juice district manager waxes poetically on the advantages of part-timers:
“You don’t want to work your team members for eight-hour shifts. By the time they get to the second half of their shift, they don’t have the same energy and enthusiasm. We like to schedule people around four- to five-hour shifts so you can get the best out of them during that time.”
During my increasingly infrequent mall visits, I find myself brooding on the difficult lives of these exploited workers. I have become infinitely more patient with them, no longer blaming them for not knowing the stock or being unable to answer a simple question. They are simply tilling the barren soil of their last-ditch employment, hoping that a better job, a career even, might be part of their murky future..