Technology often makes for better profits, but it can also wreak havoc with workers' lives. That was the lesson last month when Starbucks announced plans to revamp automated scheduling practices that treated workers more like widgets than individuals who had other responsibilities. Now other corporate giants that make millions thanks to the labor of low-income workers should pay heed.
Starbucks' corporate compassion came on the heels of a New York Times article that detailed the plight of a barista who was also a single mother facing enormous challenges juggling an erratic work schedule and parenting duties. She often had little advance notice of when she had to report to work, was assigned to "clopenings" (closing the store late at night and then reopening it just hours later in the morning) and random weekend shifts. The result of such unpredictable work demands weighed on the patchwork of family, friends and preschools that she relied on to assist with caring for her son. It kept her from pursuing higher education to better her opportunities. But despite all the juggling, it still wasn't enough. She frequently didn't get enough hours for full-time work, faced a daunting commute and didn't earn enough money to pay for housing.
Starbucks responded quickly following the article's publication, with executives pledging to revamp automated scheduling procedures and ban "clopenings." Under the new policy, employees will receive work schedules at least a week in advance. Baristas with more than an hourlong commute will be given the option to work closer to home, and store managers will play a more active role in scheduling.
Starbucks has long sought to foster a corporate image of progressive labor practices. It is one of the few quick-service companies that pays its workers more than the $7.25 federal minimum wage and offers benefits such as tuition reimbursement. Its chief executive has even voiced support for raising the minimum wage. But clearly it has been blind to what its scheduling practices meant for those same workers.
Now executives must make sure the edict for more compassionate scheduling actually gets implemented in individual stores. Other retailers and restaurants that have similar automated scheduling systems and restrictive practices — such as sending workers home when business is slow — should follow suit.
As the New York Times article so eloquently highlighted, many low-wage employees work desperately hard to keep jobs so they can keep their families afloat. They cope with scattershot scheduling, a dearth of hours, long commutes, erratic child care and low pay. Companies, communities and extended families should be sensitive to workers' needs. As workers try to improve their economic fortunes and make a better life for themselves and their families, it is clear they cannot do it alone.