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Wal-Mart's new software schedules just-in-time employees

According to an article Wednesday in The Wall Street Journal(subscription required), Wal-Mart Stores in 2007 will create unconventional shifts for its 1.3 million employees using a new software system. "The move promises greater productivity and customer satisfaction for the huge retailer but could be a major headache for employees," the Journal reports.

Critics contend that if implemented, the new system could make it impossible to schedule child care, meet family obligations or rely on a paycheck of the same size each week. Under the proposed plan, minimum-wage earners are expected to be on call several days per month, in the same fashion as hospital physicians or some IT workers, but without those professions' more substantial compensation.

The news has raised the eyebrows of investors, efficiency experts, workforce analysts and social philosophers. Commentators are broadcasting righteous invective as well as robust operations analysis.

Some Wall Street analysts applaud the move's possible boost in efficiency. Nevertheless, these same analysts caution that it may result in lost revenue due to a drop in the quality of customer service, to say nothing of increased employee turnover rate.

They question the effectiveness of retail managers unable to schedule employees' time properly in the first place, and advise finding ways to staff the right number of workers for customer loads without infringing on employees' lives outside work.

Blog community response:

"Sam Walton believed that if you treat employees well, they'll do the same for customers. Treating Wal-Mart employees like just-in-time inventory must be making Walton turn over in his grave."
--Blogging Stocks

"The idea of micro-managing employees through software didn't occur to Wal-Mart just recently; in fact, I worked on a system that would have scheduled call-center employees' potty breaks down to 6-second increments almost 10 years ago. I quit, because I thought the software, however profitable, was immoral. ... A company has to believe its employees are no more than cattle to treat them like this. Absolutely companies need software to predict customer loads and marketing approaches, and I'm happy to assist. Scheduling employees to this level of precision just goes too far. "
--The Daily Parker

"This isn't, it should be said, an initiative unique to Wal-Mart. Other retailers, from Radioshack to Payless, have given the system a shot, though with varying degrees of ferocity. But Wal-Mart's adoption will make it standard. The whole enterprise underscores the dangers of the service economy, with its relentless focus on efficiency and terrifying absence of concern towards its workers. Given that service jobs are slated to be the fastest-growing over the next decade or so, a central focus for progressives will have to be endowing those workers with the bargaining power and voice to demand -- and receive -- better treatment. We talk about the need for better wages and benefits a lot, but workplace treatment is a critical component as well. The import of regular scheduling and predictable paychecks should not to be taken for granted."
--Ezra Klein