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Erratic Work Schedules, Made By Computer, Spark Calls for “Fair Scheduling”

Algorithms that assign work shifts at the last minute can upend employees’ lives. A conversation about solutions is just getting started.

Rapid, computerized decisionmaking is reshaping the world of work. Key business decisions that define the workplace experience — how much of a product to manufacture, how many clerks to have on hand in a store, or how many stops to put on a delivery driver’s route —  were once made by humans, on a human timeframe. Now they are made, and constantly revised, by computers.

For workers holding down shifts in the retail or food service industries, this revolution too often takes the form of an unmanageable schedule. Most major national chains now use automated scheduling software that can, depending on how it is configured, treat people like cogs. Some employees now get less than a day’s notice of when their next shift will be. Some are forced to linger unpaid but “on call” for work that may never arrive. Some are forced to clock out and go home before their shift is over. These practices can make it impossible to predict one’s income, schedule child care or night classes, or even plan an affordable commute.

A team of researchers at the University of Chicago studied “precarious scheduling practices” and found that more than 40 percent of early-career workers in hourly jobs are unable to predict their work schedules more than one week ahead. “Regardless of parenting status, race, gender, and occupation, large proportions of young adults in today’s labor market report unpredictable, fluctuating work hours. . . .  Low usual hours combined with wide fluctuations from week to week and limited advance notice highlight the challenges many part-time workers face in predicting how much they will work and earn.”

These realities are motivating a growing discussion about solutions. The best journalistic work we’ve seen — a gripping magazine essay in the New York Times about how Starbucks schedules its baristas — prompted the company to reconfigure its software to make schedules more predictable.

The problem is also spurring legislative reforms across cities and states. Late last year, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a “Fair Scheduling” ordinance that protects the employees of large retail chains. The bill aims to give workers a more reliable and predictable schedule by requiring employers to give employees at least fourteen days notice of their schedule for the next two weeks. The bill also creates a system called “predictability pay” that requires employers to pay employees a certain amount of their hourly wage if the employer changes a schedule on short notice. Legislative proposals that would extend similar protections are now pending in California, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, and Oregon.

And just today, five Congressional Democrats including Senator Elizabeth Warren introduced the Schedules that Work Act, which proposes similar reforms at the federal level. The legislation would require employers to accommodate an employee’s request for a scheduling change if their request is made “because of a health condition, child or elder care, a second job, continued education, or job training…unless a legitimate business reason precludes” the business from granting the request. The Schedules that Work Act would also impose a two-week scheduling notice requirement on employers, much like San Francisco’s Fair Scheduling Ordinance.

As algorithms continue to automate employee scheduling, there’s an important conversation about how to make those algorithms fair. The current crop of policy proposals — and voluntary steps by Starbucks and other firms — are all part of that emerging debate.

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