One isn't enough. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg
One isn't enough. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

The plight of low-wage retail workers has generated much talk in recent years. As I’ve written before, I don't find problematic the existence of jobs that do not pay enough to support a family. Retail jobs have never paid well, because retail margins tend to be pretty slim. The problem is not that retail is a low-wage job, but that an increasing number of people can’t find any other sort of job.

The natural response of many people is to say, well, these are the jobs we have now, so they should pay what factory jobs used to. Yet like the manufacturing jobs that went away, many of those low-wage retail jobs also face competition -- from higher-productivity firms such as Amazon and Stouffer’s. Forcing up the wages might destroy even more jobs, leaving a lot of workers even worse off.

All this is old territory. A less reported side effect of all this, however, is labor-market slack: retail scheduling practices that make it functionally impossible for a lot of people to support themselves.

After all, even low wages left workers some options, however unpalatable, such as stringing together multiple jobs to make ends meet. Unfortunately, the weakness in the labor market has coincided with yet another market development: scheduling software and technology that allows retailers to manage their workforce as another just-in-time input.

Workers are asked to input blocks of hours when they will be available; the software then crunches through everyone’s availability and spits out a schedule that takes account of everything from weather forecasts to the danger that a worker will go over the maximum number of hours to still be considered part time. Obviously, you can’t string together multiple jobs this way, because each job requires that you block out many more available hours than you will actually work. Meanwhile, Steve Greenhouse reports on even worse practices that I hadn’t heard of: requiring workers to be “on call” at short notice or scheduling them for shifts and then sending them home if business looks light.

In this situation, no matter how hard you are willing to work, stringing together anything approaching a minimum income becomes impossible. That makes it much more deeply troubling than low pay. Greenhouse reports that lawmakers are considering rules to combat the practice -- requiring companies to offer a certain amount of notice to workers or minimum shift sizes. I don’t find these laws as obviously troubling as doubling the minimum wage, but the problem is that some hourly jobs genuinely require on-call (certain kinds of nursing, say), and presumably there are teenagers who would like to work for a couple of hours after school. We don’t want to outlaw those benign practices or raise retail prices to the point where many jobs disappear entirely.

So what’s the alternative? Ultimately, this comes back to the weak job market. As long as the demand for low-skilled labor significantly lags the supply, workers will continue to struggle. Unfortunately, legislators can’t mandate a strong labor market. So we’re apt to end up mandating more labor market rigidity instead.

To contact the author of this article: Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net.