RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Close to added close to two million jobs to the workforce this year. Not all of fit the nine to five mold. Much of the newly hired are working fragmented, unpredictable hours. From member station WNYC, Ilya Marritz has this report.
ILYA MARRITZ, BYLINE: Working in stores and restaurants has always meant keeping flexible hours. But a few months into his job at an Urban Outfitters in Manhattan, Zyad Hammad noticed a change. He was scheduled for fewer actual shifts. Instead, he was asked to be on call. This meant phoning the store a couple hours before the start of a possible shift.
ZYAD HAMMAD: I would call sometimes, I would speak to one manager, and they would be like, hold on a second, I have to ask to this other manager if we're going to use you.
MARRITZ: Hammad, who is a student at the New School, would think about the possibilities. Work, or stay home. It wasn't up to him.
HAMMAD: Finally someone picked up and would say, yes we are using you, or, no we're not going to use you.
MARRITZ: Pretty quickly, Hammad realized this decision was not random. Managers were closely watching the volume of sales to determine whether additional workers were needed.
HAMMAD: Some days they would even tell us, you know, over the phone we have enough money to use you today. It was about how much they sold that day, if they were close to their projected sales for the day or for the month.
MARRITZ: Urban Outfitters did not respond to requests for comment. But it's clear the company is not alone in embracing last-minute scheduling. Susan Lambert is a professor at the University of Chicago who studies low-wage workers.
SUSAN LAMBERT: The reason that companies do this is that they're trying to make a profit through containing their outlays for labor in a very kind of narrow way.
MARRITZ: Efficient. Bare-bones. This means keeping just the right ratio of staff to revenues. With advances in technology, it's possible to track both in realtime.
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MARRITZ: This instructional video is from the Ceridian company. It shows managers how software can help them keep tabs on sales to make staffing decisions.
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MARRITZ: Viewed through a computer monitor, cashiers, busboys, and sweater-folders become units of labor, measurable down to 15-minute increments. There are no reliable stats on the number of on call jobs. But since the Great Recession, the number of part-time workers in the U.S. has roughly doubled, to eight million. Each one of these is counted as a job in the Labor Department's monthly reports.
Lambert says a having a bare-minimum, on-call workforce means real savings for companies. But even the best staffing software might not predict a sudden rush. Then the customer is disappointed to find only one cashier on duty, and a line a mile long.
LAMBERT: You walk in and you can't get help and then you walk out of a store, and you don't buy what you would have bought because, you know, you didn't get the help. Those costs are never factored in.
MARRITZ: Lambert says data-driven staffing software is here to stay. But, she adds, companies can take efficiency too far. Employers should remember workers have lives outside the store. For Zyad Hammad, what he thought was a regular job became more like a freelance gig. Without a steady income, he went on Craiglist, to look for a second job.
HAMMAD: I only had to look for about a month to realize that it was the same everywhere.
MARRITZ: Employers looking for open availability - the willingness to work anytime.
HAMMAD: And that wouldn't work with me, because I already had another job where they requested five days open availability. So there was no way for me to work two jobs.
MARRITZ: In the end, Hammad quit Urban Outfitters, gave up his apartment, and moved in with his sister who doesn't charge rent. Hammad hopes after he graduates from college next spring, that new doors will open for him, at companies that offer full-time, predictable, hours. For NPR News, I'm Ilya Marritz in New York.
MONTAGNE: And this is NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.