Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Two Sizes Too Small

When I was a kid, my dad, a physician, was always on call on Christmas. Being Jewish, he would trade Christmas for Yom Kippur or some other day that his non-Jewish colleagues didn't mind working.

In those days, most everything was closed on Christmas, except movie theaters and Chinese restaurants—traditional Jewish Christmas Day haunts. Recently, however, there's been a much-publicized trend towards keeping some stores open on the holidays: last month, for example, some large retailers opened earlier on Thanksgiving than in any previous year. A small employee revolt ensued, but  retailers reasonably pointed out that their customers demanded early access to Black Friday sales.

The battle hasn't ended at Thanksgiving. In an effort to bolster end-of-year sales, McDonald's has urged its franchisees to keep their restaurants open on Christmas. (For their part, the franchisees complain that the kids who tend to make up their workforce don't much mind missing Thanksgiving with the family but are unwilling to skip out on Christmas.) And McDonald's is hardly the only restaurant chain remaining open on Christmas.

By and large, the folks serve your food and run your credit card are hourly, non-exempt employees. They are at the bottom of the corporate food chain, and they have little say over which hours and days they are required to work. What's more, in California, at least, employers are not required to pay their employees extra for working on a holiday. Decide to spend Christmas Day with your family, and you may spend New Year's looking for another job.

How then do we balance the demands of consumers and employees? Surely a business owner should be able to decide if it makes commercial sense to remain open on major holidays. And, of course, a lot of people, not just hourly retail employees, have to work on the days the rest of us are spending with family: municipal workers, physicians, caterers, and so forth. There's no fundamental right to skip work on December 25th—if there were, my dad wouldn't have had any opportunity to switch on-call days.

I propose we let consumers decide. It is consumers that have driven holiday openings in the first place, but we're talking about a relatively small number of opportunistic buyers. Let's give the larger American shopping public a say, by providing them with the maximum amount of information about how each vendor treats its workers. Just as restaurant chains (in California, at least) have to post nutritional information at the point of purchase, let's require retail chains to publish their employment practices in summary form.

What an employment practices disclosure might look like
Why? Because right now we're only hearing from that small segment of shoppers who cannot wait until the day after a holiday to hit the mall. Making employment practices available at the point of purchase offers the rest of us a chance to vote with our wallets all year around. All else being equal, I'd choose a vendor that treats its employees well over one that does not—wouldn't you? As things stand, such employers have no way to benefit directly from their generosity. By giving us the opportunity to recognize them for their good behavior, we can offer employee-friendly retailers a way to stand out from the competition.

Early studies on the publication of nutrition data at the point of purchase suggest that additional information influences consumer behavior. If such changes in behavior do indeed reward generous employers, we will have taken the first steps towards creating a virtuous cycle in which competition among store owners leads to a general improvement in employment practices over time. That's a change for which we could all be thankful.

1 comment:

  1. There is nobody who could rationally object to this idea. Instead we'll have to deal with fundamentalist conservatives irrationally objecting to it.