Ending On-Call Won’t Fix the Schedule


Coming out against on-call scheduling practices is in vogue. After several media articles slammed the practice, cities began banning it entirely. Soon, significant pressure was placed on national retail brands to end this once-little-known scheduling policy.

“On-call” refers to when employers require open availability from the employee without offering a commitment of their own (pay or benefits). Employees either call in before their shift or wait to receive a call from their managers on whether or not they will work. Typically, this limbo time is unpaid. The reasons for ending such volatility seem clear, but what will fill the void is less certain.

The companies that have since dropped their on-call practices are quick (almost too quick) to extoll the virtues of work-life balance, sustainable management, and social responsibility of their brand. Yet, we see almost nothing about how they plan to cope with the loss of this scheduling technique.

Why are we missing these details? Because there is no plan yet.

Don’t misinterpret this to be another episode of finger-pointing at the employer. Employers are dealing with enough pressure from stakeholders, government agencies, labor groups, and even their own workforce on this issue. Instead of rehashing the problems associated with on-call, let’s explore why it came about and what we can do not just to eliminate it, but replace it with something better.

Why Do Employers Use On-Call?

In a vacuum, on-call seems at best controversial and at worst abusive. In reality, on-call is a symptom of a deeper problem; it’s a crutch for a broken system or process.

The first problem consistent use of on-call highlights is an end-user’s poor understanding of how to use their tools or manage the schedule at a fundamental level. Nearly every scheduling technology vendor touts their intuitive design and forecasting features. Despite this, their users still struggle with the basics like getting the right mix of workers or accomplishing the right mix of work. This means that the product isn’t as intuitive as described or that end users need to be educated on the processes that drive their tool/system before they really understand how and why to use it.

The second underlying problem is the inherent unpredictability of the schedule. There will be absences, people who quit mid-shift, and unexpected peaks in demand. Anyone who has seen or created a schedule knows this. However, too many schedule managers plan around these unpredictable factors rather than the predictable factors of the schedule, such as store hours, historical volume, or number of check-out lines.

The third problem exposed by on-call is that employers have not yet realized the creative potential of their technology. Many retailers encourage customers to use “self-service” checkout lines, kiosks, and online shopping, yet oddly these employers do not encourage workers to sign up for their own shifts, request days off online, or use text message alerts to fill open shifts. And again, it’s typically not because the technology is not there, but rather that the processes and policies to support it are missing.

What Will Happen When It’s Gone?

Eliminating on-call will be more symbolic than constructive if employers do not have a plan for employers to improve their scheduling practices. Although a despised and detestable practice, on-call created certain expectations and customs that will not dissolve overnight.

Among the online comments of praise for ending on-call, one worker stated an alternate opinion: “When I’m sick I can call in sick without feeling guilty…because I know they have an on-call worker.” Without a shift bidding or shift swap function enabled in the technology or an on-call worker, this worker will struggle in the future to find a replacement. Although no manager may admit it, on-call provided an immense amount of schedule flexibility, especially when working with strict budgets on hours or costs. If those corporate benchmarks and expectations do not also mature, then managers will be forced to find other means to produce the same ends.

How Could Employers React?

If an organization chooses to continue using on-call (legally), many cities have now mandated a guaranteed number of paid hours regardless of whether the worker ever steps foot in the store. This poses a real challenge for organizations requiring an on-premises punch collection device or biometric scan for capturing time. They will need a technology or a process to document the actual time worked along with any fill time pay owed, even if the employee never actually attends the shift. This piles more responsibility onto the manager or the system, potentially adding more cost to the employer.

If the on-call practice fades into the shadows, employers will lose the ability to track their reserve staffing pool (on-call workers) explicitly. This will make it difficult to understand their staffing challenges and when and why workers were called-in. Employers will need to come up with new models for flexing their staff, or they risk seeing the on-call practice arise into a new form.


Eliminating on-call without a plan to improve the scheduling processes that resulted in the use of on-call will not fix schedule volatility. Workers may end up with fewer shifts and shorter hours. Customers may see longer lines and less customer service.

Scrubbing one politically-charged issue from the playbook is not the only (nor perhaps the best) way to make a scheduling comeback. In fact, most employers need an entirely new scheduling playbook; one that provides employee and employer-centric metrics, an in-depth and hands-on education, and a step-by-step strategy to act on. With this new process, employers begin treating the schedule as a form of compensation and method of performance management. And that would be something to celebrate.