If you haven’t read Esther Kaplan’s piece for Harpers, The Spy Who Fired Me, go read it now! It’s essential background for anyone who wants to have an intelligent discussion about whether jobs in the on-demand economy are “good jobs.” Compared to what? Perhaps compared to the unionized jobs of the 1950s and 1960s, but not to the low wage jobs that have replaced them in other segments of the economy. Esther’s piece highlights how more and more low wage jobs have become part-time, with real-time data used to create “micro-shift” work that is on-demand for the employer rather than the worker, and with intrusive workplace monitoring to boot. By contrast, the best on-demand marketplace jobs provide freedom and agency to the worker, providing data that helps them to understand demand and make best use of their time, and using marketplace mechanisms rather than ever-finer systems of command and control to bring more workers to bear during periods of peak demand. There is still a long way to go to make on-demand jobs as good as they could be, but understanding the alternatives is essential if we aren’t going to craft policies that force employers into the cookie-cutter mold of low wage jobs in the existing economy.
— Tim O’Reilly
A 2010 management survey led by Susan Lambert of the University of Chicago found that 62 percent of retail jobs are now part-time and that two-thirds of retail managers prefer to maintain a large workforce, to maximize scheduling flexibility, rather than increase hours for individual workers. In 2012, a study of retail workers conducted by the Retail Action Project and Stephanie Luce of the City University of New York found that unstable scheduling, with radical changes from week to week, was common, as was extremely short notice. Only 17 percent of surveyed workers—and just 10 percent of those who were part-time—had a set schedule; only 30 percent received their schedule more than a week in advance. Schedules often had set start times, but many shifts ended abruptly as soon as business declined. One in five workers had to keep her schedule free for “call-in” shifts that rarely materialized.
Esther Kaplan is editor of The Investigative Fund, a nonprofit journalism project, where she has overseen investigations that have won an Emmy, a Polk, and other major journalism awards. She has written for Harper’s, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Nation, the American Prospect, the Village Voice and other publications, and is the author of With God on Their Side: George W. Bush and the Christian Right (New Press). She was a 2013 Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow and winner of the 2015 Molly National Journalism Prize. She was formerly a senior editor at The Nation and features editor at Poz, a national AIDS magazine. She began her journalism career as an assistant editor at the Village Voice, where she became a regular contributor, and for many years hosted a radio program on WBAI.
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