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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 4/21/15

How the New Flexible Economy is Making Workers' Lives Hell

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Reprinted from Robert Reich Blog


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These days it's not unusual for someone on the way to work to receive a text message from her employer saying she's not needed right then.

Although she's already found someone to pick up her kid from school and arranged for childcare, the work is no longer available and she won't be paid for it.

Just-in-time scheduling like this is the latest new thing, designed to make retail outlets, restaurants, hotels, and other customer-driven businesses more nimble and keep costs to a minimum.

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Software can now predict up-to-the-minute staffing needs on the basis of information such as traffic patterns, weather, and sales merely hours or possibly minutes before.

This way, employers don't need to pay anyone to be at work unless they're really needed. Companies can avoid paying wages to workers who'd otherwise just sit around.

Employers assign workers tentative shifts, and then notify them a half-hour or 10 minutes before the shift is scheduled to begin whether they're actually needed. Some even require workers to check in by phone, email, or text shortly before the shift starts.

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Just-in-time scheduling is another part of America's new "flexible" economy -- along with the move to independent contractors and the growing reliance on "share economy" businesses, like Uber, that purport to do nothing more than connect customers with people willing to serve them.

New software is behind all of this -- digital platforms enabling businesses to match their costs exactly with their needs.

The business media considers such flexibility an unalloyed virtue. Wall Street rewards it with higher share prices. America's "flexible labor market" is the envy of business leaders and policy makers the world over.

There's only one problem. The new flexibility doesn't allow working people to live their lives.

Businesses used to consider employees fixed costs -- like the costs of factories, offices, and equipment. Payrolls might grow or shrink over time as businesses expanded or contracted, but from year to year they were fairly constant.

That meant steady jobs. And with steady jobs came steady paychecks along with regular and predictable work schedules.

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But employees are now becoming variable costs of doing business -- depending on ups and downs in demand that may change hour by hour, possibly minute by minute.

Yet working people have to pay the rent or make mortgage payments, and have keep up with utility, food, and fuel bills. These bills don't vary much from month to month. They're the fixed costs of living.

American workers can't simultaneously be variable costs for business yet live in their own fixed-cost worlds.

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Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor and Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, has a new film, "Inequality for All," to be released September 27. He blogs at www.robertreich.org.

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