As the D.C. Council considers legislation that would regulate how private businesses schedule staff shifts, District Attorney General Karl Racine is seeking information from 13 regional retailers on how they may require workers to be “on call,” leading to meagre predictability for their personal time and commitments.

Eight other state attorney generals are collaborating with Racine in examining major chains’ scheduling practices, including those from New York, California, and Massachusetts. A form letter they’re sending to such retail businesses notes that “workers who must be ‘on call’ have difficulty making reliable childcare and elder care arrangements, encounter obstacles in pursuing an education, and in general experience higher incidences of adverse health effects, overall stress, and strain on family life” than their professional peers.

“This is a question of basic fairness for working people,” Racine said in a statement. “This kind of scheduling is not a business necessity, as many retailers have proven by ceasing their use of this unfair practice.”

The attorneys general say they have “reason to believe” a company like Forever 21, for example, may ask its associates to call in a couple hours before a scheduled shift to see if their labor is needed. (The letter does not specify what evidence or data the officials are using.) So, even though a worker may not have to report for work after they make themselves available to, they still often incur an opportunity cost for other affairs.

Some businesses contend that on-call practices allow them—and their workers—to be flexible for unforeseen situations and emergencies. They also say a bill like the one introduced by Councilmember Vincent Orange in December would harm their bottom lines, ability to hire employees, and growth.

In a Huffington Post op-ed last month, E. Faye Williams, the president of the National Congress of Black Women, lambasted the Council’s proposal, calling it “disastrous and ill-conceived.” If made law, Williams argued, the Hours and Scheduling Stability Act would make D.C. less friendly to businesses and workers.

Meanwhile, labor groups were quick to praise the attorneys general’s actions, noting that on-call scheduling may violate a District law mandating “at least four hours” of pay for hourly employees who report to work “under general or specific instructions [on a given day] but [are] given no work or [are] given less than four hours of work.” Ari Schwartz, lead organizer for D.C. Jobs with Justice, applauded Racine’s involvement in the collaboration. In a statement, he added, “Now it’s time for District councilmembers to listen to residents and pass new rules that give our neighbors and families the stability they need to get ahead.”

According to the Office of the Attorney General, the following 13 companies in the region were sent letters: Tilly’s, Inc.; Justice Just for Girls; BCBG Maxazria; Forever 21; PacSun; Zumiez; American Eagle; Vans; Aeropostale; Coach; Payless; Carter’s; and Disney.

Update April 14: In a statement, Forever 21 said it “does not permit on-call scheduling nor do we have a company policy around doing so.”

The Retail Industry Leaders Association also provided City Desk with a statement: “We welcome a discussion of on-call scheduling, because I think what policymakers will find is that the overwhelming number of national retailers have already abandoned that practice. The restrictive scheduling bill currently being debated by city council goes much farther than on-call, restricting employers and ultimately employees in a host of ways that will make running a retail business in the district exceedingly difficult.”

Photo by Darrow Montgomery