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Kronos shift scheduling software a grind for Starbucks worker

On-call scheduling software gets criticized in workers' rights debate, but top employment lawyer says the software helps manage costs.

Caitlin O'Reilly-Green, a barista at an Atlanta Starbucks, says a manager blames her erratic hours on the staff scheduling software used by the giant coffee chain.

"When you try to bring up issues with it, they just kind of blame it on the software," she said. "'That is what the computer does.' They can't do anything about it or change the schedule. It is very frustrating."

She said the shift scheduling software often turns out hours that make no sense.

O'Reilly-Green is among millions of retail and restaurant workers at the focus of a raging national debate over fair hours, pay and the use of shift scheduling software -- sometimes called staff scheduling software -- from big vendors like ADP, SAP and Kronos to set worker hours based on factors such as store traffic and weather.

Starbucks uses Kronos to set schedules at her store, O'Reilly-Green said, but the company would neither confirm nor deny that it uses Kronos.

"I work about 25 hours a week right now," she said of the Starbucks barista job she has held for a little more than a year. The schedule is "totally 100% different every week," she said. "Monday is 4 to 8. On Tuesday, it can be 9 to 4. It is different every single day, every single week. There has never been any sort of consistency."

She said a year-old Starbucks policy requiring at least a 10-day advance notice for a weekly schedule is helpful, but workers, at least at her store, need more advance notice and more consistency, though they do sometimes get two weeks' notice. Starbucks provides Blue Cross Blue Shield health insurance for workers, but it can be difficult to use because doctor's appointments are tough to schedule, she said.

O'Reilly-Green said the erratic scheduling is her biggest concern after the pay: She gets $8.10 an hour in a state where the minimum wage is $7.25.

Laurel Harper, a spokeswoman for Starbucks, said the company is very concerned about the experience of one of its employees and welcomes the opportunity to look into the situation and fix it.

Store managers are allowed to schedule employees up to three weeks in advance, and must post schedules at least 10 days in advance, she said.

A year ago, the company updated its automated shift scheduling software to enable more stability and consistency of weekly hours. Only managers have access to the software. Lower-level employees can't use it to propose shift swaps, for example, or leave notes, she said.

Employees do have the option to change shifts with other employees if a personal conflict arises. Each employee has unique scheduling needs, and store managers do their best to accommodate all requests for time off for any appointment or personal reason, Harper said.

Activist cites software abuse

Software companies, not just retailers or other users, have a big role in helping bring about change to improve schedules and protect workers in the retail and service industries, said Erin Hurley, worker organizer at Rise Up Georgia, a grassroots organization. Software vendors should set guidelines on how their shift scheduling software is used, she said.

Shift scheduling software enables certain retailers and restaurant chains to use on-call shifts and create erratic schedules for workers, according to Hurley.

"They should hold the corporations accountable if their product is being abused," she said. "I would not want to have a client that is abusing my product, and that is what retailers are doing with software -- abusing it."

Hurley received $8 an hour when she worked on and off for five years at Bath & Body Works. In her most recent stint from August 2014 to February, she generally had to be available for two to three on-call shifts a week, which forced her to keep her schedule open, even though 90% of the time she wasn't needed.

Kronos Vice President Charlie DeWitt said Kronos is continuing to work with retailers, policy makers, nonprofits, and academics to address issues surrounding schedule stability, equity and employee engagement.

"We have a policy to not comment on how our customers use Kronos," DeWitt said by email when asked if he agreed with the Starbucks worker who said the schedules produced by Kronos make no sense and that managers need to be more involved in setting the schedule.

But in a move that could benefit workers, Kronos is planning to make available in the next few months a plug-in to help companies track how often the time worked by an employee differs from the initial schedule, if they are receiving adequate hours and how often their schedule changes from week to week, DeWitt said.

"We recently met with 10 major retailers to explore enhancement opportunities for the prototype," DeWitt said in the email. "The meeting was successful and most showed interest in pursuing further."

Another vendor, Oracle, has discontinued selling shift scheduling software, a spokesman said.

Congress and about 10 states are considering bills to require premium pay for "on-call" scheduling, or in at least some cases, for failure to give at least two weeks' notice for shifts. San Francisco is leading the way with recently approved rules, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, recently helped reintroduce the Schedules that Work Act in Washington.

In April, the New York attorney general's office sent letters to 13 large retailers, including Burlington Stores, Gap, J. Crew, Urban Outfitters and L Brands, parent of Victoria's Secret and Bath & Body Works, asking if they use shift scheduling software such as Kronos, how it functions and how much leeway is given to store managers. In the letters, it also warned the retailers they may be violating state law with on-call shifts.

Gap this week announced it will stop using on-call scheduling in stores. Abercrombie & Fitch, which also received a letter, is aiming to discontinue on-call shifts in the U.S., starting in New York in September, the company said in a letter to the attorney general.

In a statement, New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman said the clothing chain is taking an important step that others should follow. "Unpredictable work schedules take a toll on all employees, especially those in low-wage sectors," he said.

Victoria's Secret worker faults shift extensions

In a meeting in July, Victoria's Secret management said the store plans to end on-call shifts but would replace them with unscheduled shift extensions, which are essentially the same as on-call, said Kandyce Collins, a sales specialist who has worked at Victoria's Secret in Atlanta since February.

She said she does not like the shift extensions, partly because they could be very difficult for workers with children that need care.

"The worst thing about the shift extension is that it is not on the schedule at all," she said. "It's not something that you can see, or you would know a week in advance, 'Hey, look out for my shift extension.'"

Victoria's Secret uses ACES ETN shift scheduling software, but unlike Starbucks, it allows workers to use the software to make rescheduling requests and check on their work status.

Douglas Towns, labor and employment partner at Sherman & Howard LLC in Atlanta, said as far as he is aware, San Francisco is the only jurisdiction in the nation to pass a law restricting on-call shifts and worker scheduling.

The San Francisco law provides for premium pay for schedule changes with less than a week's notice and on-call shifts, the city's web site said. The ordinances, which cover retailers with at least 40 establishments in the world, also require two weeks' advance notice of work schedules.  

Towns, whose clients include big-box retailers and restaurant chains, said part-time hours and inconsistent schedules long have been part of the retail and hospitality industries. He said many employers use shift scheduling software to account for variations in customer demands and preferences, increases or decreases in store traffic, and changes in staffing necessitated by other changes, such as current events or the weather, to better manage costs and the workforce.

Towns said increased benefits and pay for employees and restrictions on shifts may be worthy goals, but laws restricting on-call shifts and imposing penalties for varying those shifts could also hamstring an employer's ability to control costs in response to competition, and could even result in fewer employees or layoffs.

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