Abercrombie & Fitch has committed to stop the use of on-call scheduling in its U.S. stores, starting with an end to the practice in New York this year. The major policy shift comes roughly five weeks after a similar announcement from Victoria's Secret, and represents a win for advocates who have been pushing retailers to provide more stable schedules for their part-time, low-wage employees.
Abercrombie shared its plans in an Aug. 5 letter to the New York state attorney general's office, which contacted 13 national retailers in April for information on their use of uncompensated call-in shifts. Many of the nation's biggest chains have ramped up their use of call-ins in recent years to save millions in staffing costs, drawing public outcry.
On-call shifts typically appear alongside regular shifts on workers' schedules but require workers to phone before start-time — sometimes as little as two hours beforehand — to find out if they're needed or not. If not, they go unpaid. Some retail employees have said they're required to be "on call" for as many as 20 hours in a week, making it next to impossible to arrange other paid work, classes, eldercare or child care in that time, and generally wreaking havoc on one's week.
"The Attorney General's letter helped focus our ongoing internal discussions about how to create as stable and predictable a work environment as possible for our employees," Abercrombie General Counsel Robert Bostrom said in its Aug. 5 letter, which is included below. "The company's long term goal is to discontinue the use of call-in shifts throughout the United States, and we will begin that process in New York this September."
Abercrombie, which clarified in a separate email that its policy will extend to its Hollister and Abercrombie Kids stores, said it will distribute schedules with required shifts to workers a week in advance, and replace call-ins with a new system of email alerts. Employees can choose whether or not they want to receive notifications when an "unanticipated scheduling need" arises.
The alerts will only be sent if the shift matches a worker's potential availability, and doesn't require the worker to come in. Abercrombie said it will train employees to ensure there's no retaliation against those who opt out of the email alerts or those who receive the alerts but can't, or don't want to, work the available shift. It will also make sure there's no retaliation against employees who can't work beyond their previously scheduled end-time.
Victoria's Secret made waves in June when it told employees it would stop using call-ins a few weeks after a BuzzFeed News investigation into the practice. The chain, owned by L Brands, was sued for the practice in California last year, in a case that largely centered around whether "reporting for work" includes being available for call-in shifts (and therefore compensation if the shift is canceled).
The judge in that case dismissed the call-in reporting time claim but gave lawyers permission to appeal the decision to a higher court for an authoritative interpretation of what it means to "report for work" under the state's labor laws.
Abercrombie went a step further than Victoria's Secret by openly declaring its commitment to end call-ins and outlining the email alert solution. The company, which operated 786 U.S. stores as of May 2, also said it will instruct managers not to overschedule employees then cancel shifts in order to compensate for the end of call-ins.
"Abercrombie & Fitch is taking an important step that others should follow," New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman said in a statement. "Unpredictable work schedules take a toll on all employees, especially those in low-wage sectors. Without the security of a definite work schedule, workers who must be 'on call' have difficulty making reliable child care and elder care arrangements, encounter obstacles in pursuing their education, and in general experience adverse financial and health effects, as well as overall stress and strain on family life."
Schneiderman's office has received the scheduling information it requested from retailers back in April, but he hasn't made any new rules on how such shifts should be treated. The letters named 27 different chains, all of which are household names, and operate more than 16,000 North American stores.
An Abercrombie spokesperson said in an email to BuzzFeed News that the company is "grateful to have had the opportunity to work collaboratively with the New York Attorney General as we reviewed our processes."
The company's declaration "suggests that employers are feeling the pressure from the activism that's taking place on the ground, as well as the initiatives that the attorney general has taken in New York, and then the litigation approach we saw in California," said Liz Ben-Ishai, senior policy analyst for job quality at the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington, D.C.. "We hope that them taking the lead will show that companies can modify their practices to work in ways that establish fair scheduling for their employees."
Ultimately, advocates hope to see a policy establishing minimum standards around fair scheduling, but this is "a step in the right direction," she said.
"We probably will see some of the others making changes to preempt any legal issues they might run into," she said.