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How to Become Homeless: Work for the Wrong Company

Starbucks -- better than some

Starbucks — better than some

Jodi Kantor wrote a story for The New York Times that is epic, empathetic, and closely related to homelessness.

One of her sources and subjects was a 22-year-old barista, Jannette Navarro, who supports herself and her 4-year-old son. Kantor describes the situation:

Newly off public assistance, she was just a few credits shy of an associate degree in business and talked of getting a master’s degree…. Her take-home pay rarely topped $400 to $500 every two weeks; since starting in November, she had set aside $900 toward a car….

Along with virtually every major retail and restaurant chain, Starbucks relies on software that choreographs workers in precise, intricate ballets, using sales patterns and other data to determine which of its 130,000 baristas are needed in its thousands of locations and exactly when…. Scheduling is now a powerful tool to bolster profits, allowing businesses to cut labor costs with a few keystrokes.

This Kronos program does not have a humane bone in its body, and Navarro was unable to make any plans more than three days ahead — a dire situation when child care is a constant preoccupation. A worker could speak up, of course, and ask for special treatment, and be a pain in the manager’s posterior. This happens not just at Starbucks but everywhere: a low-level employee who makes waves by asking for a schedule change might reap unexpected consequences, like having her overall hours cut. Whether intentionally punitive or not, stuff happens.

The poor are always being admonished to better themselves via education, but even one night of school per week is impossible if you never know when you will have to work. Uncertain, unpredictable hours can play hell with a family’s budget. It can affect access to preschool and day care opportunities. It gets worse, as Kantor points out:

Child care and policy experts worry that the entire apparatus for helping poor families is being strained by unpredictable work schedules, preventing parents from committing to regular drop-off times or answering standard questions on subsidy forms and applications for aid: ‘How many hours do you work?’ and ‘What do you earn?’

To give credit where it’s due, Starbucks provides health care and other benefits that count for a lot, setting an example that more companies should imitate. In response to the publicity, Starbucks says it will try to do better in the area of erratic and capricious scheduling. Other media noticed this story. On Slate’s DoubleX Gabfest podcast, Jessica Winter said:

These businesses … have offloaded a lot of the natural risk of doing business onto families. So instead of Starbucks, this enormous and rich and incredibly successful enterprise, absorbing the risk of occasionally having an extra barista or two on duty, you have Jannette Navarro risking her child care arrangements, and her relationships, and her home, and her sanity, in order to keep a $9-an-hour job.

Here is Winter’s message for companies that strive to do better:

You create happy, healthy consumers who have more time to go to the mall and have more time to use their disposable income…. I have never understood that divide of how you’re almost destroying part of your consumer base in order to chase maximum profits.

Most single mothers are in such unstable circumstances, one wrong move can bring the whole house of cards tumbling down. When life is so precarious, a seemingly little thing like a schedule change can be the pebble in the pond, with effects that radiate outward in every direction. A lucky family will wind up camping in a relative’s basement, a friend’s dining room, a camper parked in somebody’s driveway, or a garage with no water or electricity. An unlucky family will find itself in a shelter or on the street.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Working Anything but 9 to 5,” NYTimes.com, 08/13/14
Source: “DoubleX Gabfest: The Daddy’s Little Princess Edition,” Slate.com, 08/21/14
Image by Nick Richards

  1. Katie McCaskey says:

    Thank you for bringing awareness to how the issue of erratic scheduling can affect someone’s stability. I think this is difficult to appreciate if you have work that adheres to regular hours. Those who have the luxury of set hours should recognize the huge advantages they have if they are trying to change their circumstances compared to those who work “on call” like the situation described.