The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

The Role of Manager Practices and Employee Work-Life Responsibilities in Explaining Fluctuating and Scarce Hours in Part-Time Retail Jobs

Sunday, January 19, 2014: 10:15 AM
Marriott Riverwalk, Riverview, Lower Parking Level, Elevator Level P1 (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Susan Lambert, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Julia R. Henly, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Alexandra B. Stanczyk, AM, PhD Student, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Purpose.Scarce and fluctuating work hours are defining features of many low-level hourly jobs, ones that undermine families’ daily routines and economic security. Prior research suggests that the practices frontline managers use to maintain labor flexibility are an important source of work-hour fluctuations. One such practice is to keep headcount (the number of workers) high in part-time jobs, which helps managers by providing them with a pool of workers who can be scheduled for short shifts but disadvantages workers by keeping their hours low. Another practice is to reward employees who have ‘wide availability,’ that is, who are willing and able to work fluctuating hours. Workers whose work-life responsibilities (caregiving, health, additional employment) limit their availability for work are thus at a disadvantage when it comes to garnering adequate hours. This study examines how store-level manager practices and employee-level work-life responsibilities combine to explain the average number of hours part-time retail employees work and how much their hours vary week to week.

 Methods. The site for the study is a US women’s apparel retail firm. The sample includes all part-time associates (N=606, all women) who were working in a set of 82 stores at any time between July and December 2012. Average age is 42; 51.5% of associates are white, 29.5% African American, and 15% Hispanic. Data on employee work hours come from the firm’s payroll system that tracks when employees clock in and out each day. Payroll data are matched with employees’ responses to a survey (75% response rate) and corporate personnel data on store and worker characteristics. Standard errors are adjusted for nesting of employees within stores, and analyses control for employees’ work-hour preferences and other individual and store characteristics.

ResultsMany workers averaged fewer hours than they would prefer. Daily hours were summed to calculate total hours for each week of the study period. Associates averaged 15.1 hours per week (range=3.3 to 31.6 hours); 40% reported that they would prefer to work more hours. Many workers experienced large swings in weekly work hours.  The average variation in weekly work hours (i.e., the standard deviation of weekly hours across the study period) ranged from .3 to 15.6 hours (mean=6), indicating that the extent of work-hour fluctuations differed substantially among part-time employees. The manager practice of keeping headcount high made it difficult for employees to get hours. The more employees on the store’s roster (per allocated hours), the fewer hours worked by individual part-time employees. Workers faced a trade-off between stability and adequacy of work hours. Sales associates with restricted availability had more stable schedules but worked fewer hours on average than coworkers with wider availability, even when they reported preferring additional hours.

Conclusion: Scarce and fluctuating hours are sources of precarious employment that jeopardize the economic and social well-being of today’s low-income families. The discussion will include suggestions of how social policy and employer practice can decrease fluctuations in work hours at the individual employee level while allowing managers labor flexibility at the store level.