Subject To Change Without Notice


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by Brian Halpin

As I walk up to the time clock to punch out for the day, I glance at the kitchen schedule posted next to the time clock. I notice that my shift times (as well as those of my coworkers) for all of the shifts for Friday through Sunday are missing actual times. Instead I see the word “event” or a question mark inserted as a placeholder. My coworker Josúe makes a comment as he punches his time card. “What the hell, it’s Wednesday. Michael [the kitchen manager] better fucking have my times up tomorrow [for the weekend] an’ he better not cut me on Sunday like he did last week.” As I look to see if I have any days scheduled for the following week, I notice the type in bold across the bottom of the schedule “SUBJECT TO CHANGE WITHOUT NOTICE.” Just-in-time scheduling, work hours irregularity, and cutting workers without notice are business as usual at California Catering where workers are subject to erratic and unpredictable scheduling manipulation.

Across the low-wage labor market unpredictable work hours, precarious jobs, and contingent employment have become increasingly normalized for many workers. These trends have been accompanied by the proliferation of wage theft, overtime violations, and a lack of paid breaks that deepen economic and social inequality. Sociologists, labor scholars, and journalists have documented many of the features and consequences of the bad-jobs economy. In my ethnographic research on low-wage, undocumented food-service workers (recently published in Social Problems), I highlight the micro processes and practices by which this employer institutionalizes many of the features of the bad-jobs economy. Building on Alvin Gouldner’s classic concept of the mock bureaucracy, I develop the concept of the mock calendar as a mechanism for controlling labor time on the job. The mock calendar communicates time and scheduling. It is “mock” because it is illusory: it changes according to managers’ daily manipulations. However, the mock calendar still conveys a sense of regularity and continuity because it claims to display the official weekly schedule. The mock calendar, which in this case was the actual physical schedule posted weekly, has four essential features: cutting workers without notice, over scheduling workers, redistributing shifts across employees, and withholding shift information.

Cutting workers without notice: Cutting workers shortly after they had clocked in for the day was an almost everyday occurrence. Managers constantly adjusted labor time and work hours by cutting workers as soon as work slowed and sometimes recalling them in the same day if work unexpectedly picked up. This problem was exacerbated at onsite events (this was a firm that catered many upscale weddings and events at offsite locations – wineries, offices, private homes, etc.). Kitchen workers, who had arrived via company vehicles, were often dismissed early (after food service had ended) effectively leaving them stranded until the event ended and the delivery trucks returned to the kitchen. Often workers were expected to work off the clock and refusing to do so put them in a vulnerable position with managers who would then be less likely to schedule them for future shifts.

Over scheduling workers: Another common practice was over scheduling workers for the week. Managers often intentionally scheduled workers more days than they thought were necessary. Therefore, workers often had the impression that they had adequate hours for the week. It also meant that if work suddenly picked up managers had workers on hand to cover the increased workload. If the week didn’t pick up, workers were dismissed from the schedule with little to no warning.

Redistributing shifts across workers: Coupled with cutting workers and over scheduling them, managers also redistributed shifts between workers. The fluctuating and highly variable nature of the workweek meant that managers needed to maintain an army of on-call workers. Managers often cut shifts from more permanent employees and gave them to the more peripheral ones. This practice runs counter to the widely held idea that peripheral employees buffer core employees from market irregularities and fluctuating business cycles. Because the employer needed on-call workers to rapidly expand their workforce (especially for weekend events) they had to ensure that they stayed in contact with peripheral workers. Managers also knew that the core workers, who were mostly undocumented Mexican men, had little bargaining power in the labor market. They had little choice but to accept being cut from the schedule.

Withholding shift information: As discussed recently in the New York Times, on-call and just-in-time scheduling have proliferated across service occupations and retail work. At California Catering on-call employment was the norm. While the weekly schedule posted in the kitchen often had start times for weekday shifts, no end times were ever posted. Workers did not question this practice. This put the full power of controlling time in managers’ hands. For weekend shifts workers were given even more ambiguous information. Only the word “event” or a question mark would be inserted as a placeholder. Both these placeholders obligated workers to remain available, even though the placeholder may be illusory. Shift times were usually updated by management at the end of the workday on Thursday, leaving cooks no choice but to leave their weekend schedules entirely open. For management, this meant they could make last-minute decisions about staffing needs and the allocation of labor time.

Initially, I was shocked by how little information cooks were given about their weekly schedules, but for workers at California Catering this was a taken-for-granted aspect of the job. Workers constantly discussed the need to “get the hours” and they were willing to put up with erratic and unpredictable schedules as long as they thought they would get them. Moreover, scheduling decisions happened behind the backs of workers. For the most part, they were unaware of how managers rationalized scheduling to minimize labor cost. However, there were times when the “mock” spirit of the calendar disappeared. When workers showed up late, wanted days off, or called in sick the schedule became a disciplinary mechanism. Managers could often be heard saying things like, “Why are you late – didn’t you see the schedule?” or “You can’t have that day off, you’re scheduled to work.” In this way the mock calendar was only mock when it served the interests of management. As in many contemporary workplaces, employment flexibility means flexibility for employers, not employees.

The mock calendar is part of a larger trend in the creation of just-in-time employment systems that rely on what we might call systems of time trickery, where workers are left powerless, disadvantaged, and with little ability to predict work hours or income streams. In response to erratic scheduling practices, progressive politicians and labor groups have pushed for legislation to alleviate these issues (AB 357: Employment: work hours: Fair Scheduling Act in California, which was recently shelved and HR 5159:The Schedules That Work Act in Congress) yet they have met with little success. In the new economy of precarity and insecurity it is increasingly important for sociologists to critically interrogate the multiple mechanisms that underpin these processes: not just in order to understand them but also to combat them. The bad-jobs economy is a social and political construction and not an inevitable outcome of iron economic laws. Erratic and unpredictable work hours reinforce the position of vulnerable and precarious workers in vulnerable and precarious jobs.

Brian W. Halpin is a PHD candidate in the department of Sociology at the University of California, Davis. His research focuses on low-wage work and workers, precarious employment relations, and inequality.

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