Automated labor scheduling, which has developed into a sophisticated management tool with a bright future for restaurants and other retailers, appeared this week to have a darker side.

The struggles of a single working mother were chronicled Wednesday in The New York Times in a story titled “Scheduling Technology Leaves Low-Income Parents With Hours of Chaos.” One of her employers, Starbucks, said Thursday it would revise the way it schedules its 130,000 baristas.

Starbucks said it wanted to improve the “stability and consistency” in weekly work hours and amend some other problems with the scheduling software.

Cliff Burrows, Starbucks group president for the United States, Americas and Teavana, told the Times: “This has given us a real opportunity to hear partners’ voices and say, ‘Are we being clear enough, and are our intents and practices being followed?’ ”

But automated scheduling software often pits two competing interests. As Quartz writer Max Nisen noted: “Advances in management and workplace technology all have essentially one goal, to get more out of employees at lower cost. And in the quest for efficiency, companies often forget they’re dealing with people.”

To deal with the human resources side of the equation, Starbucks has made some significant changes to deal with scheduling issues. The website Bustle outlined three:

• Starbucks employees will no longer have to work widely split shifts, known as “clopening,” when an employee is scheduled to close a store at night and open it the next morning. “Some locations, like the Grand Central store in NYC, open as early as 5 a.m. and close as late as midnight, so you can imagine how much workers must have hated clopening,” writer Alicia Lu noted.

• Schedules will be posted at least a week in advance.

• Workers who live more than an hour away from their current store will be relocated to a closer one if possible.

Zack Hutson, a Starbucks spokesman, told The Seattle Times that the company’s software creates a draft of the schedule based on the availability and preferences of all the employees in a store, and managers have the power to change it to accommodate employees.

Hutson said that the if Starbucks workers are encountering problems similar to those in the New York Times story, “we want them to talk to their managers because we want to know about them and we want to fix them.”

Jannette Navarro, the 22-year-old San Diego barista whose scheduling troubles were chronicled by the Times, said a more stable work plan and paycheck would help her establish a routine for her 4-year-old son.

Starbucks is known for its progressive labor practices, but the Times said baristas across the country report their working conditions vary wildly.

Tim Kern, who was an executive at Starbucks for two decades and is now starting a small coffee-roasting company of his own, said: “Labor is the biggest controllable cost for front-line operators, who are under incredible pressure to hit financial targets.”

However, Charlie Burns, vice president of client services at Boston-based Objective Logistics, said critics shouldn’t blame the automation itself.

She told BostInno: “Blaming the software is like saying the dog ate your homework — no matter how amazing our product is we can never replace the human touch, which is the art of the thing.”

Contact Ron Ruggless at ronald.ruggless@penton.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @RonRuggless