Worn out

A sociologist walks into clothing store—and encounters the low-tech anguish of fast fashion’s high-tech scheduling

June 22, 2023

I arrived at McFashion around 6:30 p.m. on a Monday evening. Getting there was its own adventure. Times Square is almost always jam-packed with ogling tourists with several children in tow, street performers in grimy Sesame Street and superhero costumes, and disgruntled workers trying to maneuver their way back to the office. In the sweltering summer heat, the wafts of air conditioning escaping from McFashion’s revolving doors lured me inside, where black-suited guards stood silently by the entrance. Blasting pop music drowned out the sound of the crowds outside, and McFashion’s gleaming linoleum floor, tall white walls, sparkling chandeliers, and artfully displayed bright clothes stood in stark contrast to the grit of the street. While things looked good from a distance, close up everything was a mess. Garments were strewn over clothing racks and sometimes entire racks had been knocked on the floor.

At first glance, fast fashion—a sector of the retail industry known for selling colossal amounts of cheap, trendy clothing—might seem mundane, apolitical, or even a distraction from more pressing social issues. But through my research working undercover at New York outlets of two of the world’s largest fast fashion stores—which I’m calling McFashion and Style Queen—I came to see fast fashion as a nexus of several overlapping phenomena: just-in-time retail, automated worker scheduling, digital surveillance, precarity, policing, worker resistance, and labor organizing, to name a few.

Fast-fashion retailers use just-in-time production and big data to know exactly how much of which item to produce and when.

Scholars rarely discuss the role of technology in bringing about flexible scheduling—and the chaos it inflicts on workers. Fast-fashion retailers use just-in-time production and big data to know exactly how much of which item to produce and when. This is an important part of what has made the industry so wildly successful. Employers have taken a similar approach to scheduling, harnessing digital technologies to achieve just-in-time labor, in which employee’s shifts are scheduled to parallel customer traffic.

At McFashion, I headed down three flights of escalators to the bottom floor of the store, and, after waiting in line behind a few customers, I asked the cashier for a job application. He couldn’t find one but asked to see my résumé. “They’re going to stop doing interviews soon and I happen to be a supervisor. Do you have experience?” he asked. 

“I have some retail experience. I’ve worked at a bookstore but never in fashion.” 

He reviewed my application. “Give me five minutes. Let me get my manager. You seem like a good candidate.” 

I moved to the side so that customers could continue to check out. Meanwhile, another employee brought me an application, which I began to fill out. I saw the supervisor walk back over with his manager, Stacey, who had braids that hung just past her shoulders and a flannel shirt tied around the top of her perfectly ripped jeans. After the supervisor told Stacey I might be a good candidate, she looked me up and down, presumably judging whether I would fit in with the store’s aesthetics. 

“Okay,” she said positively, and motioned me to follow her. She reached her hand back behind her as she walked. “Résumé. You got one?” I handed it to her, realizing she had mastered the art of multitasking, surveilling the store while simultaneously assessing me for the job.

Then, abruptly, we stopped. “Let me ask you this. Have you ever been to this store?” she asked skeptically. Oh, no, I’m blowing it! I thought. Maybe I should have omitted my teaching experience from my resume. “Yeah, McFashion is actually one of my favorite stores.”

“Really.” The skepticism in her voice was clear.

“Yep, McFashion, Style Queen, and thrift stores are where I shop most.”

“Okay. And what times have you been to this store?”

“Various times, actually. I’ve been here in the late afternoon, late night.”

“Good, so you know how busy it gets.”

“Yes, and actually I know someone who worked here before, so that’s why I considered applying.”

“Okay, go find a place to sit by the escalators. Finish filling out your application and I’ll go get you some paperwork.”

After at least 20 minutes, I started to wonder if Stacey would ever come back. When I finally saw her again, I followed her to the dressing rooms, where she was addressing her staff. I smiled and attempted to hand her my application, thinking that would be the end of it. 

“I still need to get your paperwork,” she said, waving me away. “I didn’t forget about you!” 

I sat back down and waited another 10 minutes by the dressing rooms. When Stacey reemerged, I followed her back to the escalators. “Are you another interviewee?” Stacey asked another woman. The woman said no, but I didn’t think too much of it.

“You sure you still wanna work here?” Stacey asked as we reached the intimates section. 

“Yep!” I replied. 

“Just checking,” she said. “Wait here.” 

She went into a back office and returned with a stack of papers, which she placed on a display table, among piles of frilly undergarments and pajama tops. She was walking me through the packet, highlighting what I needed to fill out, when suddenly she called out to a young woman walking by. 

“No, darling, there’s no interview. You’re hired.”

“Do you still work here?” Stacey asked. 

“Um, yeah!” the young woman replied with a laugh. 

I was starting to identify a pattern, in which even managers struggled to keep track of employees. 

Stacey told me that she would call me the following day to arrange a time for me to return to the store.

“So I should be prepared to come in to interview?”

“No, darling, there’s no interview. You’re hired.”

“What’s your name again?” I asked as she escorted me out. She extended her hand and gave me a firm handshake. “Stacey. Nice to meet you.”

I thought I was on the fast track, but I was about to encounter some serious bumps in the road. By the Tuesday of the following week, I still hadn’t heard from Stacey, so I called the store. It took me three tries to reach someone after getting busy signals on my first two attempts. Stacey was not in that day, but the person on the phone took my name and number and said someone would call me back that night or the following day. When I hadn’t heard anything by 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, I called again. After six minutes of being on hold, I hung up and called back. This time, someone picked up and told me that orientation was tomorrow at 11 a.m. but said that if no one had called and told me that, then I wasn’t eligible. I felt confused and frustrated. I said Stacey had hired me and had given me the new-hire packet, but she simply never called me back. The person on the phone then told me that I was hired, but they needed to put my information into the system before I could start, and that could take anywhere from two weeks to a month.

On Thursday morning, I took the hour-long subway ride back to Times Square with my completed employee-information packet in tow. I was directed to the lingerie section, where about thirty young applicants stood in a steadily growing line. 

“I hope this doesn’t take long,” one person said. 

Another asked, “Do you think we get paid for this?” 

Two people behind me had already turned in their paperwork; one said it took McFashion a month to get back to them, another said two weeks. Finally, I flagged down an employee who emerged from the office, and asked her what I should do with my packet. That employee waved down a manager, who said she couldn’t deal with me right now, but could I come back at 10 a.m. Monday morning? I told her I could and asked her if I would be doing orientation then. She told me no, that it would take a few weeks, but I should bring in a copy of my passport or driver’s license and my social security card.

With that, I left to start my hour-long subway ride back home. I had spent five dollars in subway fare and more than two hours of my time to be told to come back later. This waiting time has a significant impact on many potential retail employees; not only does it delay the period between their application submission and start date but it requires them to put in the unremunerated labor of repeatedly traveling to the store while bearing the costs of childcare and transportation. Pricey commutes disproportionally affect the poor. At the time of my research, a single subway ride in New York City cost $2.50; it increased to $2.75 in March 2017. 

Waiting is a tool of governance. In his 2011 Latin American Research Review article “Patients of the State: An Ethnographic Account of Poor People’s Waiting,” sociologist Javier Auyero observes that the “exercise of power over other people’s time both on the side of the powerful (adjourning, deferring, delaying, raising false hopes, or conversely, rushing, taking by surprise) and on the side of the ‘patient,’ as they say in the medical universe, [is] one of the sites par excellence of anxious, powerless waiting.”

“Anxious, powerless waiting” was a regular experience in my fast-fashion job search. I returned to McFashion the following week to submit my paperwork and found the store surprisingly calm upon arrival. This should be a quick process, I thought to myself. I made my way down to the office. I was stunned to see that, like last week, a line of people preceded me, this time about 20 deep. Only about six of them were men, and I was the only white person. I saw a manila folder in the hand of the woman at the back of the line, and one in the hand of the woman in front of her. A wave of relief rushed over me: I was not the only person submitting paperwork. I hoped I was at least in the proper place this time.

After 10 minutes, a woman approached the line and told us that the operations manager was running late—he had been stuck on the train for an hour and a half. She then gave us each a slip of paper with a number on it so that we could step out—use the restroom, get a drink—and not lose our place in line. I took the opportunity to leave the store and get a coffee, its sugar coating my sore throat. I wondered if such leniency would be given to employees who were late because of the train. Even during the application process, this temporal obstacle course created many opportunities for the chopping block: if applicants were late or missed one round, they were out of luck. 

If we couldn’t make it through all this waiting, there was no way we’d make it as employees.

Jayla, one of 20 fast-fashion workers I interviewed as part of my research, shared her experience during the hiring process. After being picked from a group interview:

It was like you were kind of hired, but they were still testing you. You had to go in and learn about the stores—little training sessions. A lot of people did drop out. If you couldn’t make it, you weren’t gonna make it into the store. If at any point you were late, you weren’t working there.

When I returned 15 minutes later, the operations manager had just arrived and was seeing applicants in groups of five. In total, I waited two hours for my turn. As Jayla noted, it was like a test: if we couldn’t make it through all this waiting, there was no way we’d make it as employees. The stakes became painfully clear when an older applicant, who had difficulty standing for long periods of time, was chastised by a passing security guard for resting on one of the display tables: “That’s for clothing only.” Indeed, precarity is felt deep in the body.

Finally, around 12:15, it was my turn to go into the office with four other women. We sat on metal folding chairs, huddled around the table. “How are you ladies doing?” the operations manager, Chris, said. “Thank you for waiting.” He was quite charming but also had a sternness to him; he reminded me of a high-school gym teacher who was affable on the first day of class but who would soon show his true colors. He took our IDs and social security cards. “Does anyone know why we’re all here today?” he asked.

A woman to my right said, “To hand in our packets?”—to which Chris laughed. 

“That’s not the only reason,” he said. ”Otherwise, we wouldn’t have you wait for so long. This is what we call your information audit. It’s not orientation, which confuses some people. What we’re doing today is going through all your paperwork, line by line, to make sure you have all the necessary information there. Because after you hand it in, I’m going to input it and submit it to corporate, and if you’re missing a signature somewhere, I’m going to have to call you and have you come back in to sign it. And that’s not any fun for anyone. For some people, it’s a trek just to get here. So today we’re making sure you’ve got everything you need as quickly as possible, so we can get you out enjoying this beautiful day.” As usual, the strict rules of the store were framed as promoting the interests of workers, without acknowledging the role the company played in creating their conditions of insecurity.

Before we left, Chris told us the next step was to be called back for orientation. “It will take anywhere from two to three weeks. Sometimes less, sometimes more. One guy turned his paperwork in on Monday, was called back on Tuesday, and came in for training that Thursday. So be ready, and answer your phone, ’cause I do not email.” Already, I had been to the store three times and had waited for several hours. I felt like I was on call. I couldn’t make any travel plans, or indeed any kind of plan, not knowing when the training would occur.

My orientation occurred a full month later, in July. In my case, I was happy for the long wait. My sore throat that morning turned into a case of strep. I didn’t have health insurance or access to proper medical care, so it seemed to last forever. Meanwhile, I’d moved into a new apartment after the building I’d been living in had caught fire. Given everything that was going on, if I had been hired at McFashion on the spot, there’s no way I could have made it all work, especially given their strict attendance policy. For others, however, going a month without a paycheck would have been impossible.

My coworkers chugged coffee and Red Bull—sometimes making themselves sick—to make it through the early, spree-like shifts processing clothes in the stockroom.

At both fast-fashion retailers I worked for—McFashion and Style Queen—employees were scheduled to work at all hours of the day, arriving as early as 3 a.m. to help process incoming shipments or staying as late as 4 a.m. to help close a store. “They want it, like, perfect in the morning,” one worker I interviewed, Kya, told me. Jayla couch-surfed with her friends to cut down on transportation time. My coworkers chugged coffee and Red Bull—sometimes making themselves sick—to make it through the early, spree-like shifts processing clothes in the stockroom. While Style Queen posted employee schedules one week in advance, we were lucky to have just a few days’ notice at McFashion. For many employees, the only constants were uncertainty and exhaustion.

Hours varied so much that even the most assiduous workers lost track of when they were on the schedule. During one of my first shifts at Style Queen, I was mentored by David, a longtime sales associate who regularly trained new hires. That evening, a manager approached us, clipboard in hand, to check in. At the end of our conversation, he said to David, “Okay sounds good. You leave at 8?” 

“No, 6,” David said confidently as he leaned against a garment rack. 

“Says here 8,” the manager replied, showing him a copy of the schedule. 

“Well, I’m gonna go check in back. I swear it said 6.” 

David returned a few minutes later and admitted his mix-up. This was the first time I’d ever seen him in the wrong.

Following legislative action and widespread public pressure, many retailers have ceased on-call scheduling, but workers often still have no idea when they’ll be asked to come in. During my monthlong tenure at Style Queen, I was called and asked to come in the same day at least three times. Each time, I said no. My manager, Dante, would quip, “I hate you!” and hang up the phone before I could respond; he would also approach me while I was at work and ask if I wanted to stay late. Although this was technically voluntary, he would be visibly disappointed when I denied the request. “I’m just trying to pay your bills!” he would shout. While I don’t doubt Dante’s intentions, I am skeptical of the way Style Queen frequently presented itself as having its workers’ best interests at heart. Calling people in at the last minute and asking them to stay late isn’t helpful to employees. What would help is offering higher wages and stable schedules, with flexibility that could be used to accommodate workers’ needs.

At the time of my research, Kronos was one of the most widely known automated workplace management companies. It worked across a number of industries—including retail, health care, and even law enforcement. (In 2020, Kronos merged with Ultimate Software and is now known as UKG.) Kronos’s website featured a link to a “Time and Attendance Solution Guide,” in which readers could “learn how automated time tracking improves daily operations, cuts payroll waste, and creates a culture of compliance.” With the help of this type of software, retailers can track vast sets of data that allow them to align employee scheduling more closely with consumer demand.

Kronos workforce scheduling algorithm

Images from Kronos’s former website provide some insight. The figure above, from 2017, illustrates the variables that might be taken into account when building a scheduling algorithm: “Working with the historical data from your point-of-sale (POS) system—items such as units sold, customers, transactions, traffic, and sales—Workforce Forecast Manager predicts weekly business volumes using the amount of historical data you have available.” The predicted weekly business volume then shapes employee schedules.

In the 2015 Harper’s article “The Spy Who Fired Me,” the journalist Esther Kaplan explains the extreme level of detail taken in by these algorithms: “Scheduling software systems, some built in-house, some by third-party firms, analyze historical data (how many sales there were on this day last year, how rain or a Yankees game affects revenue) as well as moment-by-moment updates on the number of customers in the store or the number of sweaters sold in the past hour or the pay rate of each employee on the clock—what Kronos, one of the leading suppliers of these systems, called ‘oceans of valuable workforce data.’” Notably absent from this ocean of data are the needs of employees.

Kronos claimed their workforce-management platform led to “higher satisfaction for employees and managers.” Yet, as Kaplan writes, “In August 2013, less than two weeks after teen fashion chain Forever 21 began using Kronos, hundreds of full-time workers were notified that they’d be switched to part-time and that their health benefits would be terminated.” I wonder if, as Kronos claimed, those workers experienced higher satisfaction. Since 2013, unpredictable scheduling has become a norm in fast fashion. Not a single job I applied to offered a full-time position, yet all desired applicants with “open availability.”

When I was conducting my research, one of Kronos’s newest products was called Artificial Intelligence for Managers and Employees, or AIMEE. The company described it this way: 

AIMEE is on the job even when you aren’t. Always working behind the scenes to solve problems and provide advice on critical decision-making. So your business can run with the intelligence and efficiency all employees expect of today’s technology. With AIMEE, managers and employees spend less time looking for the story and more time focusing on delivering great outcomes for their customers.

When industry leaders talk about the future of work, they are often thinking of tools like AIMEE and using big data, automation, and artificial intelligence to optimize performance and boost profits. Algorithms have not entirely eliminated the role of humans in crafting schedules, however. Here’s how one HR manager I interviewed, Heaven, explained it:

We—including HR, the commercial and financial teams—all get together with the directors. We start analyzing based on the increase [in sales] they want for the next year. Once commercial has finalized that version of the budget, they send it to HR. Based on this amount, what we do is we look at the past year and then we look at the hours [that] were given to them [employees]. And what we do is pretty much try to balance everything with what we call a productivity target. And try to balance out based on the sales what hours work best to have good productivity.
Kronos workforce management dashboard

In the workforce-management dashboard shown above, and as explained by Heaven, labor hours are always measured in relationship to labor cost. Giving workers too many hours when sales are down would lead to a “bad” productivity ratio. Heaven told me that managers would sometimes exceed the budget for hours, and HR would have to step in:

I tell them they have to go to next week’s schedule and reduce 50 hours from the entire schedule. So the schedule shifts. We pretty much give all the part-timers 20 hours. That’s the minimum we as a company provide. Twenty hours. But the full-timers are at 40. Sometimes if they need to reach those hours full-timers drop to 38 hours. Also, what we do, we have managers ask, “Does anybody wanna go on vacation?” If it’s very critical, we start asking part-timers, “Is there anyone that would like to take unpaid days off and enjoy the weather?” We do that as well. That’s how we recover.

Heaven’s account echoes a job advertisement I came across for a “Kronos & Timekeeping Administrator” with a “Fashion Industry Company.” The position summary read, in part, “Position will maintain employee schedules in Kronos and partner with operations on identifying employee behaviors in compliance with the Reliability Policy.” While this all sounds somewhat reasonable, it can have detrimental impacts on the lives of frontline employees.

Flexible scheduling carries profoundly negative consequences for low-wage hourly workers, who end up shouldering the risks and instabilities of the market. If the store sees fewer customers, workers see fewer hours and smaller paychecks. It’s incredibly difficult to support oneself, let alone other people, under such circumstances. 

In her 2014 book In the Meantime, Sarah Sharma uses the term “time work” to talk about the ways precariously positioned workers must attune their daily rhythms to the demands of others. For instance, Sharma profiles taxi drivers who wait around for their next customer and then race their passengers to the airports. In New York City, fast-fashion workers must similarly attune themselves to the constantly shifting pace of modern retail. Near the employee schedules posted in the break room of most stores, you’ll see sheets of paper that workers have taped to a table or tacked onto a wall with their names, phone numbers and information on shifts they would like to pick up or give away. Long-term workers become especially adept at this game, because retailers are known for drastically cutting the shifts of more senior workers (who are paid more) while continuing to bring on new hires, as reported by Susan Lambert in the 2008 Human Relations article “Passing the Buck.” Workers create private Facebook groups or text threads to swap shifts or share the latest posted schedules. These strategies are a critical piece of “time work” when employers sometimes post schedules as little as a day or two in advance of the work week.  

Analog “time work”

Just-in-time production and data-driven retailing may conjure images of well-oiled machines, of total and harmonious synchronization between computers, human laborers, and consumers. The reality, I discovered, is a much messier one, in which high-tech efficiencies exist alongside, and deeply rely on, the inefficiencies and daily anguishes of low-wage work.

Excerpted from Worn Out: How Retailers Surveil and Exploit Workers in the Digital Age and How Workers Are Fighting Back

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