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Career Q&A: Retailer's 'flexible scheduling' leaves worker in knots

Q: My 23-year-old daughter was hired by a local branch of a national clothing store. During her interview, she was told she would be scheduled to work at least 20 to 25 hours a week and would be given occasional "on call" shifts. Since her hiring, however, the store has routinely offered only 10 to 12 hours of regular work a week and has frequently scheduled her for "on call" shifts, meaning she is required to check in two hours before the shift to find out if she is needed. The store has never called her in to work such a shift, but she assumes there would be negative repercussions if she were unavailable. Short of quitting, what recourse do lowly retail employees have when they are lied to and exploited?

A: The scheduling shell game your daughter is experiencing is increasingly common in the retail and service industries. Employers operating on thin profit margins want workers who are available at a moment's notice, but they don't want to pay them to work a moment longer than they're needed. With so-called flexible scheduling, it's often the workers who end up bent out of shape.

According to a June survey of retail and service employees in Washington, D.C., workers' top complaints include too few paid hours and too little predictability. Shifts are assigned or changed with little notice; protests result in retaliation and further reduced hours. Even workers with multiple jobs can't get enough hours to make ends meet. And they're not just teens and recent grads.

"You can't get ahead in these jobs because you can't count on a regular schedule and regular number of hours," says lawyer Paula Brantner, executive director of the employee rights organization Workplace Fairness.

To be fair, I also hear complaints from managers and business owners about unreliable workers who leave their employers scrambling for coverage. While poor work ethic may be to blame, I wonder how those workers would perform if they had predictable paychecks and felt like valued team members, rather than Tetris blocks.

But I could ride that blame train in circles all day. Back to your daughter: If she wants to stick it out with this job — and no one would blame her if she didn't — she should ask questions and study co-workers to figure out whether she can make herself a top contender when extra paid hours are available. She might also consider sharing her experience — and, if she can afford it, her time — with one of the groups fighting for change. An organized effort to alert her employer's corporate HQ could bring about improvements at the local level.

Bring vegetarian options to the table

Q: Our department often holds catered lunches for meetings and training. Although I've been with the company seven years, and everyone knows I'm a vegetarian, our lunches include absolutely no vegetarian options. Often, for these lunches, I go grab my snacks or the salad I have in the fridge. Sometimes I just skip the meetings.

I have asked the manager and the person ordering the meals that they also order vegetarian and healthy options — not on a specific day, but in general. I don't want to be the office complainer. Can you recommend a graceful way to deal with this?

A: Before you snap and start pelting everyone with quinoa, it's time to get specific about how these flesh-fests affect you. Schedule a private sit-down with your manager: "I really want to join these meetings, but I often have to opt out because I can't eat anything with meat in it. I'm missing out on team-building and development opportunities, and I can't help feeling excluded." Then request again that a meatless option be made available — or that you be allowed to buy and expense your own takeout meal.

If your faith or a medical condition prevents you from eating meat, you could cite antidiscrimination laws as leverage. But let's start by assuming your co-workers simply don't realize that for you, meat-free eating isn't just an optional health fad — and it doesn't mean forcing everyone to eat Tofurky sandwiches with Nayonaise.

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