Passing the Buck: Employer Strategies for Transferring Risk onto Low-Skilled Jobs

Presented by Susan Lambert
Associate Professor in the School of Social Service Administration, University of Chicago
On Monday, March 10th, at the Evans School of Public Affairs


Increasingly, employers are passing fluctuations in demand directly onto workers to absorb, especially those in low-skilled jobs. By adopting workplace practices that maximize labor flexibility, employers build instability into jobs, making it hard for workers to achieve stable employment. The goal of this article is to help fill in the organizational story of how risk is transferred to low-skilled workers through daily workplace practices

Data come from a comparative study of 88 low-skilled jobs in 22 U.S. work sites in four industries (hospitality, retail, transportation, and financial services). The analyses reveal the pressures front-line managers faced to minimize labor rates in low-skilled jobs, the tools they had at their disposal to do so, and the strategies they employed in attempting to balance the often-conflicting goals of limiting both labor rates and performance problems. Findings suggest that front-line managers across the four industries studied faced similar pressures to minimize labor rates and had several common tools at their disposal – vague job status, last minute scheduling, and fluidity in the size of the workforce – to adjust employees’ work hours to match consumer demand. Managers varied, however, in terms of how they implemented these tools. Three strategies emerged that differed in the extent to which instability was dispersed versus concentrated among workers in the low-skilled jobs studied. Implications for practice, research, and social policy are discussed.

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