For Nadia Tuffaha, a 25-year-old York University graduate, unpredictability is perhaps the worst thing about working on-call shifts.

“You can plan your day around the expectation to work and have conflicting schedules, and in the end none of it works out. They’ll say, ‘Didn’t you get our message? We don’t need you to work.’ I could have gone to class,” said Ms. Tuffaha, who has worked in the retail and services industry since 2008 while also studying.

“At the beginning of the week, everyone plans their hours so they can calculate how much they need to make. With on-call shifts, you never know how many hours you will get. What happens to people who need those hours to survive?” she asked.

It’s a good question, and also a reason on-call shifts have come under fire in the United States and gained increasing attention from activists and policy-makers in Canada.

On-call scheduling, sometimes called in-demand scheduling, works much like just-in-time inventory stocking. In recent years, it’s been enabled by technology that tracks real-time sales and customer traffic data to determine just how much staff is needed and allows management to adjust accordingly, sending workers home or notifying workers to report in if it’s busy – workers who are waiting on-call.

“Sometimes I’ll get a call literally an hour before my shift and they say, ‘Hey, we are going to need you.’ Or they’ll say, ‘Come to work, but maybe we will get busy or maybe not,’ and then two hours later they cut you,” Ms. Tuffaha said. She says most places she’s worked used on-call scheduling, though her current employer – a restaurant in Toronto – doesn’t.

In April, New York State Attorney-General Eric Schneiderman sent letters to 13 large U.S. retailers requesting more information about the use of on-call scheduling at their stores. Since then, three retailers that received the letter – Abercrombie & Fitch, Victoria’s Secret and, most recently, Gap Inc. in late August – said they will end on-call shifts. The Canadian locations of Gap’s five brands and Victoria’s Secret will follow the new policies, while Abercrombie & Fitch declined to comment to The Globe and Mail.

“Some employees have already seen the elimination of on-call shifts in their scheduling. Full phase-out of this practice across all Gap brands will be complete by the end of September,” Laura Wilkinson, a Gap Inc. spokeswoman, said via e-mail.

Of the retailers that received the letter from Mr. Schneiderman, Crocs, TJX Cos. Inc. (which owns Winners and HomeSense), J. Crew, Urban Outfitters, Sears, Williams-Sonoma and Ann Taylor all have Canadian stores. Both Sears and TJX Canada told The Globe that their Canadian stores do not utilize on-call scheduling. The other retailers did not respond to requests for comment.

In Canada, on-call scheduling is an issue that up until recently has been “under the radar,” said Elizabeth Kwan, senior researcher at the Canadian Labour Congress. “It’s always talked about in terms of precarious employment. We don’t know the extent of what’s happening with on-call because there are no official numbers on it specifically.”

Anecdotally, however, on-call scheduling is a frequent complaint of workers. “We’ve heard it’s become pervasive in some industries, particularly in non-unionized places,” said Angelo DiCaro, a researcher at private-sector union UNIFOR. “There is no legislation that I know of that addresses the issues of scheduling and nothing on guaranteeing minimum hours worked, which would directly combat on-call schedules.”

This could change, at least in Ontario. The province’s labour industry is conducting a review that aims to update laws on what it calls “changing workplaces.” Interested organizations and individuals are being asked to submit recommendations through a public consultation process.

The Ontario office of the Canadian Federation of Students is one of many organizations that wants scheduling to be reviewed under the Employment Standards Act.

“We’ve heard a lot of stories from students who are working that they are finding out their schedules last minute, and it puts them in a really difficult position trying to juggle school and other responsibilities,” said Rajean Hoilett, chairman of the federation’s Ontario office. The CFS is recommending two weeks’ notice of schedules, as well as compensation if schedules are changed.

Currently, there is a provision for minimum payment if an employee shows up for work but then is not needed – in this situation, federal law mandates that employees be paid a minimum call-out pay of three hours.

But “a lot of places get away with not doing that,” Ms. Tuffaha said. “Most people don’t want to get scrutinized at work for questioning why they didn’t get their pay. For me at least, I’ll be passive about working on-call or working less than the three hours because it’s just hard to stand up for myself in that situation.”

The Globe and Mail
Published Sunday, Sep. 06, 2015 5:56PM EDT
Last updated Sunday, Sep. 06, 2015 8:27PM EDT