We have written in the past about some of the challenges of staffing retailer operations. Given competitive markets and an ample supply of labor, many firms have employed staffing models that may be kindly described as aggressive — although some might prefer to call them abusive (see, for example, here, here and here). In essences, firms want to avoid overstaffing but also don’t want customer service to suffer. Employees are caught in the middle of those goals as employers demand more and more flexibility from them.
But to some extent that has been changing. Labor markets have tightened and regulators have begun asking questions. Consequently, firms have backed off some of their more noxious practices (at least in some jurisdictions). Among the leaders here has been Starbucks. Last year it committed to posting worker’s schedules at least 10 days in advance and to giving workers more consistent schedules. Further it said it would no longer have workers doing “clopenings” — closing the story one night only to have to be there for the opening the following morning. As the New York Times tells it, the transition hasn’t been so smooth (Starbucks Falls Short After Pledging Better Labor Practices, Sep 23).
But Starbucks has fallen short on these promises, according to interviews with five current or recent workers at several locations across the country. Most complained that they often receive their schedules one week or less in advance, and that the schedules vary substantially every few weeks. Two said their stores still practiced clopenings.
This article draws on data from the Fair Workweek Initiative (who, I will acknowledge, are not a disinterested party). You can find their report here. In brief, their key complaints with Stabucks are:
- Nearly half of all surveyed partners reported that they received their schedule one week or less in advance, which makes it nearly impossible for workers to plan their lives, particularly when the timing of shifts and amount of hours varies from week to week.
- One in four surveyed partners still had to work clopening shifts or had coworkers in their stores that were assigned clopens, meaning that thousands of Starbucks workers are at risk of sleep deprivation and exhaustion.
- Partners across the country reported a host of additional and interrelated challenges related to their work hours, including widespread involuntary part-time employment and contending with managers that disregard their availability.
- Partners cannot earn sick days in the first year of employment. Forty percent reported facing barriers to taking sick days when they need them, and several reported that they face pressure from some managers to work while sick.
So why should this be so hard to do? If Starbucks at the corporate level is committed to kinder, gentler workforce scheduling, why isn’t that showing up in the stores? As is noted in the article, there is not too much lost in scheduling workers a few weeks out instead of just a week out (although you can find a different opinion on that here) so scheduling further out should not be too costly.
The culprit the Times fingers is the incentives of store managers.
But there has long been a central obstacle to change: the incentives of store managers, who are encouraged by company policies to err on the side of understaffing. This makes it more difficult to build continuity into workers’ schedules from week to week. It often turns peak hours into an exhausting frenzy that crimps morale and drives workers away. …
Mr. Haskins said that his store’s manager received an allotment of labor hours from her supervisor, and that the manager frequently exceeded it. But in the last month or so, she announced that she would make an effort to stay within the allotment. “From what I understand, probably someone higher up said, ‘You need to stick to that,’ ” Mr. Haskins said. “I know it’s got her stressed out, too.”
This is actually an argument that is frequently made in retail operations: managers are overly stingy in their staffing. And there is some logic to it. The corporate entity would like to have some measure on which to evaluate its store managers. Store profit is the natural candidate. The manager’s bonus can be tied to the store’s financial performance.
But what then does the manager actually control? A Starbucks manager cannot opt out of offering pumpkin spice lattes. Corporate dictates the assortment to be sold and may even dictate the quantity of baked goods and such sent to the store. The real levers available to the manager are all tied to people. If they can make it through the morning rush with one less person, that falls to the bottom line. If closing and opening are tricky processes that have to be done right, then only the most trusted workers are going to get those assignments; clopenings will ensue.
Is there any way out of this? In theory, yes. Incentive schemes can be redesigned. Managers can be lectured about following appropriately humane scheduling procedures. But at some point reality will set in. Numbers must be met! Belts must be tightened. At that point, being aggressive with staffing is very tempting.