Is Just-in-Time Scheduling Good for Business?

Ten years ago, retail managers created schedules for hourly employees using a paper, pen, and a working knowledge of the store’s busy periods and their employees lives. Now, in many businesses, computers create employee schedules. Known as Just-in-Time (JIT) scheduling or “scheduling to demand,” JIT scheduling closely links labor supply to consumer demand by relying on data such as floor traffic, sales volume, hotel registrations, dinner reservations, and even the weather. In doing so, managers can ensure that stores have exactly the right number of workers for each hour of the day. However, JIT scheduling puts heavy demands on hourly workers and their families.

As currently used, JIT scheduling often has the unintended impact of making hourly shifts unpredictable and employee hours vary from week-to-week. For instance, an employee may work forty hours one week and only fifteen the next. NBC News recently reported in “'Just in Time’ Scheduling Creates Chaos for Workers” that some employees never know what their schedule (or their paycheck) will be, which makes it difficult to manage childcare, arrange transportation, hold a second job, or schedule classes. Additionally, variability in paychecks and in hours worked can affect eligibility for employer-sponsored health-care benefits and government housing assistance and childcare subsidies, which require a certain minimum number of hours worked or weekly pay.

Aside from impacts on hourly workers, JIT scheduling can put a strain on managers as well. According to “Scheduling Hourly Workers” by Nancy K. Cauthen, “Managers are expected to reconcile conflicting priorities: meeting employers’ staffing guidelines and sales targets, providing good customer service, scheduling employees for sufficient hours, and “staying within hours” by constantly adjusting labor-demand ratios.” The increased complexity of managerial jobs and the resentment from employees who feel stressed by the unpredictability of their working lives is taking its toll on managers. Some managers respond by editing the computer generated schedule on their own time, and others feel frustrated that they can’t change the schedule to be more predictable and stable for their employees.

According to “Starbucks Vows to Change Unpredictable Barista Work Schedules” published in the Seattle Times in response to a New York Times report about the chaos created in a single mother’s life by JIT Scheduling, Starbucks is changing its scheduling policies. Schedules at Starbucks now must be posted at least one week in advance, and workers can no longer be scheduled for back-to-back opening and closing shifts. Although Starbucks announced the new policy change only a few weeks ago, it will be interesting to watch and see if Starbucks is able to provide more stability to its employees.

Although no laws currently exist regulating JIT scheduling, this issue has received a lot of media attention recently, and there are calls for legislators to take action to guarantee a minimum number of hours to each part-time employee, to require that employees be paid for a minimum number of hours if they report to work but are sent home, and to mandate that schedules be posted at least a week in advance. In light of Starbucks revising its JIT policies and the negative public attention JIT policies are receiving, retailers may want to revisit their scheduling procedures to create more manageable and predictable work hours for their employees before they are legally required to do so.

Related topics: Employment, Retail