But those practices been changing over the past year, as companies respond to increasing public awareness around the impact on workers' lives of "just-in-time" scheduling. The changes come as states and cities across the country pursue proposals that would require companies to provide more predictable hours for workers, following first-in-the-nation legislation for retail workers in San Francisco.
Right now, most of Walmart's 4,655 U.S. stores operate on a system of "open shifts," where managers schedule workers within the times the employees said they're available. By the end of the year, Walmart says it plans to make two more options available: Fixed shifts, which guarantee the same weekly hours for as long as a year, and flex shifts, which allow associates to build their own schedules from the hours available, in roughly two-and-a-half-week increments.
Fixed shifts would be offered first to employees with the longest tenure, and then on a first-come-first-served basis as new shifts become available. The company is working on an app that would allow workers to choose and update their schedules on their smartphones.
"The more visibility and information you’re able to show associates about what’s out there, you’re able to make it their choice," says Walmart spokesman Kory Lundberg. And more features might be coming in the future, like the ability to split shifts in smaller increments. “I think everything is on the table, in figuring out how to get people in the store working when people are shopping. There are a lot of things we’re looking at to see how we can make it work."
The company has been testing the new system, which is built on commercial software modified for Walmart's use, at stores in Van Buren, Ark. and Wichita, Kansas for two years. And Walmart thinks the changes will help its bottom line as well: Early results showed an 11 percent decline in absenteeism and a 14 percent drop in staff turnover, which comports with what academic research has shown is possible with greater predictability and worker control.
The new set of policies include a few of the things activists have been demanding for several years now.
In 2013, a campaign project of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union called OUR Walmart had sent the company a letter asking for more advance notice of schedules, more consistency, greater access to full-time work, and a process to allow employees to bid on shifts based on their seniority at the store. Last year, along with a round of wage increases, the company announced a new system that allows workers to volunteer for more hours and switch shifts with their colleagues.
But getting enough hours to make ends meet remained a problem, and according to OUR Walmart's leader Dan Schlademan, the scheduling improvements were unevenly applied: Some stores where workers were active posted schedules in advance, for example, while others didn't.
OUR Walmart — which has since split off from the UFCW — was critical of the new changes, which don't explicitly guarantee more hours for part-time workers who want them. "For workers who have been speaking out, protesting, and fasting for $15 and full-time hours, today’s announcement represents a hard-won victory, but without increased pay or additional hours, it falls short of what most associates need to support their families, and or what is needed to improve customer service," the group said in a statement.
Carrie Gleason, director of the Fair Workweek Initiative at the Center for Popular Democracy, says that understaffing persists in Walmart's stores, and agreed that more employees should have access to full-time work. "These operational issues compounded by the need for greater input from employees can mean that new policies don’t always translate into the stable work schedules Walmart is promising," she said.
While the policy doesn't entitle workers to a fuller schedule, Lundberg says the flexibility allowed many workers to cobble together 40 hours nonetheless.
The move follows several improvements meant to increase worker retention and performance: Wage increases that will bring the base rate up to $10 an hour, for example, and a new training system for helping workers advance into higher-level positions.