On-call workers need to be aware of pros, cons

Amy Lindgren owns Prototype Career Service, a career consulting firm in St. Paul, Minn. She can be reached at alindgren@prototypecareerservice.com or at 626 Armstrong Ave., St. Paul, MN 55102.

The latest news from the U.S. Postal Service is something of a mixed bag, so to speak. On the one hand, more rural offices will stay open than originally thought. But to accomplish this feat, hours will be trimmed, Saturday deliveries will cease and post offices in many areas will be operated by part-time staff, augmented by a larger contingent of on-call workers.

The contingent-worker strategy catches my attention for a number of reasons. On the positive side, the opportunity to work on call might be just what the financial doctor ordered for folks who need a little something to supplement their income. And there’s no doubt that most employers benefit from the staffing flexibility they gain with this structure, even while adding scheduling and quality complications.

But the negatives for workers in contingent situations can be problematic, particularly for those trying to cover monthly bills or reach specific career goals. This is especially true when the worker is scheduled, then canceled at the last minute. The effect can range from mildly annoying to financially catastrophic.

I have experienced this phenomenon numerous times myself, in jobs ranging from food server to night security dispatcher. Probably the most egregious example for me happened in a temporary job unloading trucks over the holidays for a shipping giant that I refuse to patronize to this day.

My shift for six weeks was 2 to 6 a.m. Monday-Friday. Imagine arriving to work at 2 a.m. in your work boots and jeans, only to be told to sit in the break room until you’re needed — off the clock. To this day, I feel that company literally stole hours from me that I’ll never get back.

So why did I stay the whole six weeks? The same reason most workers do: I needed the money, such as it was, and, believe it or not, I felt I had given my word.

That was a long time ago, but in the interim years, I have been disappointed to see more, not fewer employers using this staffing process. It’s common now in everything from construction to big-box retail — where the use of constantly rotating shifts is also endemic.

Here’s the thing to know about these contingent work schemes: If you are the worker in question, you are essentially subsidizing your employer. You are giving the company the benefit of a skilled, trained labor pool on constant call, but with none of the expense of using a contract house or external temp pool for the same purpose.

In all fairness, shouldn’t the workers in these situations share in some of the benefit? Yes, but it’s up to you to make it happen. If you have the bargaining power of a union or other workers, or if you have a particularly amenable relationship with your boss, you may be able to negotiate something that favors you in exchange for giving up the security of definite pay and hours. For example, you could request a paid holiday or a partial fee for canceled shifts.

At the very least, you might be able to use your state’s unemployment system to fill in the income gaps, although this isn’t likely for very intermittent or part-time jobs.

If the job is temporary or just something on the side, you might just have to wait it out. But if it is your primary employer who doesn’t schedule you consistently, you’ll need to either seek new work or buffer the effects by developing a sideline that you can turn to on unexpected days off.

Some possible standbys include operating a part-time Internet businesses or running your own on-call service where you email a short list of potential customers whenever you’re suddenly available to hook up computers or baby-sit their kids.

Another idea is to find a personally productive use for your time, such as online coursework or your own home project.

Or, if none of this juggling appeals to you, just look for another job. But don’t continue to subsidize your employer without recognizing what it’s costing you, in terms of income and time you could have spent doing something else — like sleeping.