Recently, major companies including Abercrombie, Bath & Body Works, and The Gap have promised to end their practice of making employees wait until the very last minute to find out whether they’re needed to work—effectively holding workers’ lives hostage to the changing demands of corporate staffing, rather than giving out regular schedules. This trend would seem to represent progress towards sanity and humanity in the low-wage workplace. But don’t get too optimistic too soon.
On-call scheduling is a close cousin of the fabled “gig economy”—the pseudo-utopian idea that full-time, regular employment is a thing of the past, one that will be replaced by a new era in which everyone is a permanent freelancer with the flexibility to pursue different “gigs” as they please. Business owners present this vision as one in which everyone is their own entrepreneur and boss; in reality, it is one in which everyone is constantly hustling just to stay afloat, with no real predictability or safety net.
While outright on-call scheduling of a company’s own employees is becoming more and more toxic from a PR perspective, the “gig economy” model itself, so far, is not. Uber and countless other “Uber of [sector]” companies are going gangbusters. And now, Amazon, which has plenty of problems treating its full-time employees well, is pushing into the gig economy itself. The Wall Street Journal today reports on Amazon’s new “Flex” program, which will create a stable of freelance delivery drivers who will use a proprietary app to work for Amazon ferrying packages to people who’ve ordered things for immediate delivery. It includes this moonbeam quote from an Amazon executive: “There is a tremendous population of people who want to work in an on-demand fashion. This is another opportunity for people to work with the company.”
Let’s be accurate. There is not a “tremendous population of people who want to work in an on-demand fashion.” There is a tremendous population of people who want to work. On-demand jobs, which offer companies all the benefits of employees without any of the costs of paying benefits for them, are just the best work that desperate people can find. Driving every last penny of cost out of the supply chain can push down prices, but never enough to outweigh the costs to all of the people who are trying to make a living in such a pitiless environment. The best long-term solution to this dynamic is to strengthen the government safety net to the point that getting benefits from one’s employer seems like a weird, outdated anachronism. We’re not close to that yet. Until we get there, keep in mind that corporate enthusiasm for the “gig economy” is the same as corporate enthusiasm for robbing Americans of their livelihood.
It’s nothing to get excited about.