Business & Tech

New app helps shift workers swap hours

FILE - In this Wednesday, March 23, 2016, file photo, Starbucks workers prepare coffee using siphon vacuum coffee makers at a station in the lobby of the coffee company's annual shareholders meeting in Seattle. Starbucks says that it will be boosting the base pay of all employees and store managers at U.S. company-run stores by 5 percent or more on Oct. 3. In a letter sent to workers on Monday, July 11, 2016, CEO Howard Schultz said that the amount of the raise will be determined by geographic and market factors. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

Ted S. Warren/Associated press

Starbucks workers prepared coffee using siphon vacuum coffee makers at a station in the lobby of the coffee company's annual shareholders meeting in Seattle.

Next week, Starbucks barista Foster Cooley will be traveling. Normally he’d have to ask or text co-workers to fill in for him at his Chandler, Ariz., cafe and hope someone can take his shifts. Instead he’s using an app to post his hours to baristas in the entire region.

Called Shyft, the app emerged from Seattle Techstars, an accelerator program that backs promising startups. With little marketing and no cooperation from major retailers, Shyft says it has signed up 12,000 workers at US Starbucks stores, more than 7,500 at McDonald’s, and 3,500-plus at Old Navy. In the past three months, workers have exchanged the equivalent of 26,000 hours on the app, according to Shyft chief executive officer Brett Patrontasch. If the app catches on more widely, it’s sure to be unpopular in the corporate suite because it essentially wrests away control over scheduling. 

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“This gives shift workers the power to treat themselves like an economic unit and not be boxed in,” says Heather Redman, a Seattle technology executive who was the first to sign on as an investor. “It is a little controversial and disruptive to have your workers have a whole ecosystem that you didn’t put in, but that’s the world we live in.”

Founded last year, Shyft has attracted big-name investors, including former Seattle Seahawks player Russell Okung and ex-Mariner Edgar Martinez. Along with Redman, Madrona Venture Group and entrepreneur T.A. McCann, they agreed to pony up $1.5 million in new seed capital, the company said Wednesday. Patrontasch declined to discuss the company’s business model.

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 Shift workers often face challenging work schedules—erratic hours, shifts in stores further from home, not enough work to meet their financial needs. Many companies use sophisticated scheduling software that has been criticized for spreading a worker’s hours over too many days. Last year New York State’s attorney general sent a letter to more than a dozen retailers asking about one particular shift-scheduling practice.

A Seattle City Council member held a forum this week to discuss issues with shift scheduling, including too few hours and unpredictable schedules; the council and mayor are considering imposing rules. This month, a Starbucks barista gathered almost 13,000 signatures for a petition complaining that the company has been understaffing stores to save money and hurting workers who need more hours. 

Besides letting employees more easily offload shifts they can’t make, Shyft helps those who need more hours to qualify for health care, Starbucks’ college degree program, or even just make the rent. The company also wants to enable geographic flexibility: A worker who wants to visit his grandmother out of state, say, could pick up shifts during the trip. 

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Some companies require a manager to approve shift swaps so Shyft gives bosses a quick way to say yay or nay on a change. Workers trying to
offload a tough shift—say Christmas or a significant other’s birthday—can offer a monetary enticement. Some 10 percent of shifts on the system include such tips, Patrontasch says. 

Starbucks says it has no knowledge of anyone at the company using Shyft. The company, which said this week it will boost wages by at least 5 percent, makes one million manual schedule changes per week and said it empowers managers to allow those. “We would rather our partners work with their store managers to make those changes,” said spokewoman Linda Mills. “We’re not seeing a huge demand for that external technology.”

A spokeswoman for Gap, Old Navy’s parent company, declined to comment, and McDonald’s didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

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