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The Financial Life of an Hourly Retail Worker

On call scheduling and similar practices often make it next to impossible for hourly retail workers to enjoy financial stability. You'll need to know your rights to advocate for yourself.

Woman completing paperwork at desk.

Budgeting for basics such as food, shelter and clothing are often difficult if you can't predict how much money you'll earn from week to week.

And saving? That can be virtually impossible.

Such is life for many retail workers who work on an hourly basis. Because their schedule often coincides with business demand, they have very little certainty with regard to income. Employers use a technique called "on call scheduling" to save money during slow business periods.

While this makes monetary sense for the business, it can lead to serious problems for hourly workers. Such scheduling can make basic life tasks such as budgeting, paying bills, saving for the future and securing childcare extraordinarily difficult. If you don't know when you'll have to work, you can't plan.

So how widespread is the problem? Let's take a deeper look.

The Perils of on Call Scheduling

Earlier this year the New York State Attorney General's office announced it would scrutinize 13 of the largest retailers in the U.S. over concerns about hourly workers being mistreated. On call scheduling and other similar practices form the core of the investigation.

On call scheduling allows employers to use sophisticated computer software to make real-time, analytical decisions about store staffing levels. By incorporating such forecasts into their scheduling system, employers can theoretically save money by ensuring stores aren't overstaffed. Conversely, it allows employers to bring in additional staff during busier periods, providing better and more efficient customer service.

Unfortunately, that flexibility often comes at the expense of workers, who must remain on call for extended periods of time. If a call never comes, the hourly worker misses out on the money that would have been made had a standard shift been scheduled.

This arrangement introduces a great deal of unpredictability into the lives of those affected by it. Along with the missed opportunity to make money, workers must often scramble to find child care or cope with family emergencies.

Even if a retail worker isn't employed by a business that uses on call scheduling, the high-variance nature of retail store traffic can still lead to inconsistent  income. Managers may send home workers at the beginning of a shift if things appear slow. Some states have laws mandating that workers be compensated for showing up for a shift -- New York, for example, requires four hours' pay even if a worker is sent home. Yet employers don't always follow the law -- and workers aren't always aware of the statutes that protect them.

The Takeaway

On call scheduling and similar practices often make it next to impossible for hourly retail workers to enjoy financial stability. If you're having a hard time budgeting, saving money or paying bills because of inconsistent income, make sure you're aware of your rights under the law.

Businesses want to maximize profits -- so it's up to you to be your own best advocate.