In April, the New York attorney general's office launched an investigation into the scheduling practices of 13 national retail chains, distributing a letter to the Gap, Target, J.C. Penney, and 10 other companies. The letter asked, among other things, whether these companies' store managers use software manufactured by a company called Kronos to algorithmically generate schedules.
A few months later, Kronos was also featured prominently in an article published by the New York Times about the ill effects of erratic scheduling on Starbucks employees, especially one particular family. In a follow-up piece, the author, Jodi Kantor, points directly to Kronos' scheduling software as the root of the problem. "I saw that her life was coming apart and that the Starbucks software had contributed to the crisis," Kantor wrote of one of the story's subjects.
The piece's argument centered around the financial and scheduling unpredictability engendered by platforms like Kronos. When you don't know if your shift might be canceled, if or when you'll be called in, or what your hours will look like next week or the week after, it becomes very difficult to make even the most
basic plans for your future. This can have devastating long-term financial and emotional impacts on workers. According to a recent study by the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank in Washington, D.C., 17 percent of the American workforce is negatively affected by unstable schedules.
For their part, Kronos representatives argue that the algorithm is far from the root of the problem. "The populist view is that scheduling is evil, in that it's causing erratic schedules for employees, and so forth," Charlie DeWitt, vice president of business development for Kronos, told BuzzFeed News. "The fact of the matter is it's an algorithm. It does whatever you want it to do."
And you don't necessarily need to work for Kronos to believe that in a competitive retail climate, the problem is more complicated than technology alone. Lonnie Golden, a Penn State economist who has extensively studied the impact of erratic scheduling, acknowledges that Kronos' product itself is less to blame than the managers who make staffing decisions based on the data it provides. "It's not necessarily the technology that's responsible for minimum to no advance notice," he said. "It's the way in which it's applied."
But, he added, "where there's a technology problem, there's usually a technology solution." And while Kronos maintains that managers, and not the software, are responsible for early dismissals and last-minute shift cancellations, the company is nonetheless pursuing some technological solutions.
Kronos wants to help managers better understand how scheduling adjustments affect workers and, ultimately, the bottom line. Though the company maintains that its software doesn't produce the kind of erratic schedules that hurt wage workers, DeWitt said there was nonetheless an interest in figuring out why that perception existed — and, if possible, fixing it.
To that end, earlier this month at a retail conference in Philadelphia, the company announced that it's working on a new plug-in that will give managers better insight into workers' schedule stability, equity of hours worked among employees, and the consistency of schedules from week to week. In addition, Kronos is improving a feature meant to help give employees more control over their schedules: Though the software already incorporates employee availability and preferences into its scheduling calculations, improvements to a shift-swapping feature on its employee-facing web and mobile apps will theoretically allow employees to work around conflicts among themselves.
Golden said increased employee input and control would be a good thing. But some retailers, DeWitt pointed out, are uncomfortable making workers use an app outside of work hours; indeed, the practice could be seen as a shift of management responsibilities onto lower-paid individuals.
Part of the idea behind the new Kronos plug-in is to help companies tie fairer scheduling practices to reduction in absenteeism and turnover, which can be enormously costly. In other words, if Kronos can help executives see the connection between treating workers fairly and a store's ability to increase revenue, DeWitt said, managers will have an impetus to create more predictable, stable schedules.
And just because companies are looking at this kind of data doesn't mean they have to use it. "Companies like Kronos and Workplace Systems are starting to integrate some of these principles into their software," said Carrie Gleason, director of the Fair Workweek Initiative at the Center for Popular Democracy, "but it's all optional, so companies can decide not to do it." While 12 states are currently considering legislation that would create new labor standards around the workweek, Gleason said the technology alone lacks a mechanism for enforcement.
Given market pressures and standard management practices, it's unlikely that any change to Kronos' technology would give workers more power — especially because, given the competitive retail climate at the moment, the bottom line tends to be the priority. "It's not just bad managers. They have extreme pressure to increase productivity on an ever-shrinking labor budget," Gleason said.
With these changes, Kronos has taken logical steps toward both repairing its reputation and making sure its software creates sustainable work environments. But while the company cannot control exactly how the algorithm that forecasts schedules and optimizes workforces is deployed inside different workplaces, the Kronos engineers who designed the product are nonetheless the partial architects of work environments that have been proven to be untenable for low-wage workers. The Kronos scheduling algorithm isn't designed to serve those people; it's designed to be sold to their bosses, and as such, will ultimately be shaped to serve the needs of management — until regulations exist that compel them to change how it's used.
Caroline O'Donovan is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.
Contact Caroline O'Donovan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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