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Because life-threatening crises arise at odd times, people in some fields have days when they’re on call. EMTs get called to accident scenes. Doctors have patients who might fall ill or go into labor at any moment. But do unforeseen variations in sweater sales, or in foot traffic in the housewares department, have the same urgency? Of course not.

Recently, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman sent letters demanding information from Gap, Abercrombie & Fitch, Urban Outfitters, and 10 other major retail chains about their use of on-call shifts — periods for which an employee must keep an open schedule but might not end up working.

Instead of simply reporting for work, the employee has to check in with a supervisor a few hours in advance. If she gets called in, she may have to scramble for a babysitter. If she doesn’t get called in, she doesn’t get paid, and it’s too late to get a shift on a second job. “People will be scheduled for eight on-call shifts in a pay period and only get called in for one shift,” says attorney Rachel Deutsch of the Center for Popular Democracy, a labor advocacy group.

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Some of the retailers Schneiderman targeted have written the practice into their employee handbooks. Others, such as JC Penney, told reporters last week they have policies against it. Still others have responded cryptically to reporters’ inquires; TJX, the Massachusetts-based discount giant, told CNN Money that its schedules “serve the needs” of workers and the chain. I contacted the company to clarify, but it didn’t respond.

On-call shifts are a new frontier: They’ve proliferated at big chains because of just-in-time scheduling software, which uses up-to-the-minute data to maximize sales while minimizing the number of employees on the clock at slower times. Statistics are hard to come by, although a 2011 survey by Retail Action Project, another advocacy group, found that 43 percent of New York City retail workers were assigned to on-call shifts sometimes or often. Until Schneiderman’s office started sending out letters, the practice had attracted little regulatory attention. (In Massachusetts, the attorney general’s office is watching what happens in New York, but hasn’t taken similar action.)

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Despite their relative novelty in retail, on-call shifts speak to an age-old tension. Economic life is full of uncertainty. How much should employers bear, and how much should fall on workers? Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, argues that stores face stiff competition from e-commerce and survive at the mercy of the customer who, he says, “moves on a dime.” He adds, “If you choose to work in retailing, you have to live with the consumer.”

In other sectors, though, people who work on call are often paid salaries that presume some unpredictability, or they’re paid for the time they spend waiting around. Deutsch used to work as a union rep for hospitals in the Bay Area. One hospital, she says, had a handful of technicians on staff who performed echocardiograms during the workday. After hours, there was a technician on call, who was paid half-time for those shifts even when there was no work.

A key difference: Echocardiogram techs have a specialized skill. Entry-level retail workers don’t, and those averse to on-call shifts are easily replaced.

Businesses aren’t social-service agencies. To rely on employers as guarantors of health care and retirement security, as the US government did after World War II, is to assume they and their workers want to be bound together intimately, for decades on end. But at the other extreme, companies that treat employee relationships as fleeting and transactional — the workplace equivalent of a one-night stand — will end up with lots of churn in their ranks.

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Or they’ll be subject to lots of government mandates. Responding to a variety of complaints about unpredictable schedules, San Francisco last year approved a far-reaching “retail worker bill of rights” that, among other things, requires employers to post schedules weeks in advance. A proposed Massachusetts law has similar provisions. Hurst points out that parts of the bill would have hamstrung local retailers in February, when sales plunged during a four-week Ice Age.

Retail chains can forestall such rules by changing their ways. When stores train workers to do more than scan tags and say “I can help who’s next,” those workers can improvise. They might tend to customers during a sudden rush while prioritizing other jobs, like restocking shelves, at slower moments. If employers still believe they need on-call shifts, they can simply guarantee employees some pay for those periods. Ideally, chains would do so voluntarily. In practice, some will need a regulatory nudge.

When retailers can claim free options on hourly workers’ time, they have no incentive to make firm decisions in advance. But no one likes being strung along, and no one’s life is infinitely flexible.

Dante Ramos can be reached at dante.ramos@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @danteramos.

Related:

Luke O’Neil: Surviving the gig economy

Dante Ramos: Rage against the scheduling machine

Special section: The Work Issue

Editorial series: “Service Not Included”

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