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Can We Make On-Call Work Less Painful?

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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I've written before about the problems facing workers who are at the whims of their employers -- shifts that are scheduled a week or less in advance, on-call periods for which they're supposed to be available on short notice to work but might not get it. This is obviously bad for the workers: It plays havoc with their schedules, making it difficult to schedule child care and, of course, rendering it impossible to take on a second job. The New York attorney general agrees and is now questioning 13 major retailers, including Gap and Sears, about their practices.

The problem is that once you start to find legal remedies, you fall down a bit of a rabbit hole. How do you prevent retailers from basically making it impossible to have a life while working for them, while also allowing economically beneficial transactions to take place?

After all, obstetricians and other medical practices have "on call" hours, and we don't really want to ban those. So do news organizations, which ensures they can cover breaking stories if they pop up over the weekend. I'm sure many other professions sensibly use on-call policies as a way to manage unpredictable workflow. So we don't want to ban on call entirely.

Maybe we should restrict on-call hours to salaried workers. But I've been on call as an hourly worker, and I was happy with that arrangement. It was a chance to pick up some extra money, and if they didn't need me, I got my weekend. There are plenty of folks -- say, college students -- who have the time for sporadic work, and they would be unhappy if they couldn't get it. It sounds nice in theory to say "Well, employers should put those people on staff," but there are lots of jobs, from small construction projects to maid service, where that would push up the price of services to the point where the companies lost a lot of work, then the "on call" people wouldn't get to work at all.

Maybe we should restrict on call to a certain proportion of work hours. But again, there are people who want all the hours they can get, and others who can only work sporadically. We'd be denying those people a beneficial option.

Ultimately, the problem is not the law. It's that employers can get away with forcing workers to commit large chunks of their waking hours just for the chance of picking up a few shifts. And the answer, as I explored recently, is that "the market for low-skilled labor is terrible." People are consenting to these miserable practices because they don't have any better opportunities.

Here's one solution that might thread the needle: Require employers to pay for the privilege of using workers contingently. I'm not saying that they should have to pay minimum wage, but require them to pay something -- say, $1 an hour -- for putting people on call. If the option is still economically valuable, they'll use it. If it's not, then the deadweight losses from banning on call are probably pretty minimal anyway.

This is not a perfect free-market solution, as my critics will be quick to point out. But it is probably better than forbidding the practice entirely, which is where New York seems to be pointing. Better still, of course, would be to work on the opportunity side, so that people aren't forced into contingent labor in the first place.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net