“Challenge the status quo through the lens of our values. This is our rallying cry.” --Pat O’Dea, Peet’s Coffee & Tea CEO, 2011 Annual Report

Friday, September 27, 2013

What is the Disposable Employee Model?

After Peet's Coffee & Tea in Chicago fired a dedicated employee of 5-year tenure, and threatened to fire another, baffled Peet's customers came to us asking, what is going on? Why is Peet's getting rid of our favorite baristas?

We realized that it was time to explain in detail a system that has long been obvious to those on the inside. It's called the Disposable Employee Model. 

The D.E.M. is a strategic combination of policies that guarantees short-term employment among the bottom 80-90% of a company. 

What companies use it? More each year, in particular: fast food companies, grocery stores, big box retailers, chain restaurants, and fast coffee. 

What does the D.E.M. look like for a Peet's Coffee & Tea employee?
  • Different work schedule each week (days/hours generated by computer software)
  • Mixtures of shifts that start as early as 4:45 a.m. and end as late as 10:00 p.m.
  • Fluctuating pay: employee scheduled 10 hours one week, 30 hours the next
  • Wages just above legal minumum
  • Annual "raises" not even cost-of-living increases
  • Benefits essentially unattainable
  • Shift lengths around 4-5 hours (working 5 days/week = about 20 hours)
  • Over-hiring practices that create an artificial labor hour scarcity
  • Gratuitously harsh but selectively enforced policies that allow the company to quickly dispose of any employee who sticks around long enough to start complaining about any of the previous issues

Customers inevitably ask, why would an employer use such a terrible model? Because chaos, instability, stress, scarcity, and fear are important elements in preventing and combating resistance. Think for a moment about the psychological influence of the model:
  • Defining a job as part-time implies that it is "transitional": Employees aren't invested enough to protest, because they are constantly looking for a new job, which often comes in the form of a lateral move to a company with similar work conditions. 
  • Defining a job as part-time implies that it is "supplemental income": Employees do not complain about poverty wages, because the conditioned public response is always, "You're not suppose to be able to LIVE on what you make there!"
  • Defining a job as part-time implies that it is not a "Real Job": Employees do not hold the job to "Real Job" legal standards, accepting injuries, sexual harassment, discrimination, and intimidation as simply par for the course. 
  • No full-time option means an employee must get a 2nd job to survive: Employees are too exhausted juggling 2-3 jobs to come together to try to influence company policy.
  • Defining a job as part-time implies that it is "unskilled labor": Working in a society that values investment over labor, employees internalize rhetoric that demeans the value of their contribution to the company and shames them into silence about the abusiveness of their work conditions.
  • Harsh but selectively enforced rules keep employees in constant fear of losing their jobs: Employees know that raising any real questions with management about the dysfunction of the system is likely to make them targets for retaliation.

What do Peet's workers have to say?

"What’s the worst thing about the Disposable Employee Model? It teaches workers that they’re replaceable, and they know that if they speak up against their employer they will be gotten rid of and replaced by someone else. Will that new employee be better? Probably not. But it doesn’t matter."
-Amanda D, disposed-of employee

"Our bosses have found a way to get by without explicitly intimidating their workers--as long as we believe that we are disposable and can be easily replaced, we will take it upon ourselves to be as agreeable as possible, and never even consider standing up for what's best for us."

-Emma BB, disposed-of employee

If you learned something from reading this post, please share it on social media! Short link: bit.ly/dempost, hash tag: #notdisposable.


  1. I've never worked at a coffee shop, but this sounds just like some other jobs I've had!

  2. I have worked for two grocery chains in two states that absolutely used this model. Demeaning, demoralizing, depressing. Go Peets!!! Expose the injustice!

  3. In the 70's, I had been working for 2 yrs at a Jack-in-the-Box. Was fired one day for refusing to put out half-cooked burgers and egg sandwiches. There was a "rush" on, and cars waiting in line, so Manager ordered me to put them out. Gave me a 10 minute break to "think about my decision". I said "No". He sent me home, for good. Some years later, people got sick and some died from e. coli poisoning or salmonella.

  4. DEM, in some measure, is being used in every company and organization now. Hire top level and the best employees and then if they can't survive the harsh and unrealistic goal expectations. Get rid of them.

  5. Sounds like Alan Greenspans theory that adjustment is no longer related to inventory rebuilding but rather to eliminating labor...the variable has changed from recovery to suffering.

  6. Workers of the world UNITE!

  7. I just left one of these jobs at a home heatlth care agency last year. Having been there for 5 years I was one of the old timers -- only around 7 people out of the 60 in corporate had been there longer than me. The managers seemed to enjoy firing a lot of people and getting a whole new work force every few months. Never mind that things were NOT being done correctly and the company got in trouble for it. . . The CEO always wanted another crop of workers who would kowtow to his every want.

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