Thursday, June 13, 2013
Reuters recently did a survey of Wal-Mart's hiring in recent months and published the findings today. The results are making a fairly decent size buzz in other media outlets and on twitter. The survey revealed a big surge in hiring temporary workers, who are automatically terminated after 180 days, although they can reapply for their positions. About half the stores surveyed were hiring only temporary workers, while others were hiring a mix of temporary and non-temporary workers. It appears that all of the temporary workers were hired to work part time, and that Wal-Mart makes a distinction between regular part-time work, and temporary part-time work. Regular workers aren't automatically terminated at the 180-day mark. The stores explained that this strategy allows them to be more flexible, able to react more quickly to changes in demand. Of similar types of stores, only Dollar General does temporary hiring year round. Most only do temporary hiring at the holiday season.
I have a serious question about this news. What does the "temporary" designation get Wal-Mart? It is a term without legal effect. We all know that in reality, nearly all of Wal-Mart's workers, and most workers in the U.S., are effectively temporary workers. They can be terminated at any time for nearly any reason with no notice. We also know, though, from Pauline Kim's (Wash. U. St. L.) work, and our own experiences, that many if not most employees don't realize this.
Clearly, people do attach legal significance to the terminology. Most of the commentary on the Wal-Mart news suggests that this kind of terminology has legal significance, as if the default employment relationship gave employees some level of job security, and hiring workers labeled "temporary" outside of the busiest season for that business is some kind of break with the norms of employment relationships.
So why use this terminology that has no legal consequences? Is this designation a way to make the workers feel even more insecure? Does it make them less likely to assert rights during their employment or after because they are told up front not to expect to continue? Is this kind of like noncompete agreements in places they are not enforceable? I have the same problem with other HR terminology, too, like "probationary" employees in an at-will setting. Or even full or part-time in an at-will context before the FMLA or the ACA mandated some limited benefits based on the number of hours an employee worked.
I ask these questions because I genuinely want to know what the answers might be. I speak to non-lawyers a lot about employment law issues, and I find that nearly every discussion or presentation ends up with me giving them bad news, that they don't have job security unless they have an individual or collective contract (or some statutory rights like civil servants and public school teachers). Our students, like most people, also tend to believe employees have job security until they take our classes.
Maybe part of an answer is that even though at-will employees have no legal job security, they have practical job security because most employers have incentives to keep employees. Small employers and people with hiring and firing power often have personal relationships with those they have power over that make firing people difficult. And employers' own beliefs, which tend to overestimate the risk of liability mean that they rarely terminate people without a pretty good reason. Is that enough?
Feel free to weigh in on any of the questions in the comments.