Apps Empower Workers, Ease Scheduling

cellphone at work.

From The Wall Street Journal.

By Lauren Weber

Around 10 times a day, Sharon Padilla opens the Shyft app on her smartphone, usually to find extra hours at the Buffalo Wild Wings Inc. restaurant in Southern California where she works as a server.

With the app, Ms. Padilla and her co-workers can view their schedules and swap shifts when they’ve got a scheduling conflict or need extra work.

Shyft is one of a new breed of smartphone apps that are putting technology directly into the hands of workers and allowing them to share information, make schedule changes, report labor violations and potentially organize for change. Employers are watching such apps warily, in some cases allowing workers to download them but not expressly endorsing them, and in other cases, as with a new app for Wal-Mart Stores Inc. associates, actively discouraging their use.

While Ms. Padilla’s manager asked her to download Shyft when she took the job about six months ago, thousands of employees at chains like Starbucks Corp. and Gap Inc. ’s Old Navy have begun using the app, sometimes without their bosses’ blessings, to get more control over their schedules, said Shyft co-founder Brett Patrontasch.

“That behavior is happening all the time at these stores anyway,” he said, noting that employees often text-message each other to find subs. Apps update what is currently “a really analog” process, saving employees and managers time and effort, he said. While managers of individual stores may encourage workers to use the app, no large employers have approved it enterprisewide, he said.

Buffalo Wild Wings encourages franchisees “to use tools that are most effective for them,” a spokesman said.

Starbucks spokesman Reggie Borges said the company is aware of the Shyft app, but doesn't know whether employees are using it. “We encourage our partners to involve their managers when it comes to making adjustments to their schedules,” he said.

Manuel Castro ’s New York-based organization, New Immigrant Community Empowerment, is testing Jornaler@, an app that allows day laborers to record their hours and wages. “People understand what sharing means now. They share their status, interests, wants, needs,” he said. “What else can they share? And what else can we share with them, like information about labor rights?”

Users of Jornaler@, which means laborer in Spanish, can upload photos of license plates and work permits posted at construction sites to capture details about employers. The data can be used to file claims for wage theft, a widespread problem for day laborers, and alert others about unsafe working conditions, or determine whether an employer’s wages are in line with the local market.

Developers and worker advocates say the apps substitute the kind of intermediary role unions once played.

Jason Van Anden, the software developer who created WorkIt, an information-sharing app for Wal-Mart employees, pulled up a recent question posed on the app: “Can a department manager fire me without any previous coachings?”—referring to attempts to improve an employee’s performance. 

“That’s a good question,” mused Mr. Van Anden, the CEO of software development firm Quadrant 2 Inc. “If I’m that employee, am I going to ask my manager, who I’m concerned is considering this? Do I ask a co-worker? If there was a union, you’d be comfortable asking the union rep.” Talking to human resources, too, “opens a can of worms,” he added. “If you ask a question like that, they say, ‘why are you concerned you’re going to be fired?’ ”

WorkIt, which uses a combination of artificial intelligence and peer experts to answer questions, is a project of OUR Walmart, an organization advocating for higher pay and other benefits. Wal-Mart has discouraged employees from downloading the tool.

Unions are backing many of these nascent technology efforts. OUR Walmart grew out of an organizing effort by United Food and Commercial Workers International. And the Service Employees International Union helped found the Workers Lab, an Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit that is exploring new ways to engage workers outside the traditional methods of organized labor, particularly through technology.

Last summer, the group helped launch an app called WorkerReport to help individuals report violations of wage and safety laws. It is currently being piloted in three cities.

Creators of tools like WorkerReport say users may be ready for smartphone apps that can manage their work lives, but building a large, dedicated user base is challenging.

Read more from The Wall Street Journal.