Running a one-employee business
November 5, 2012 5:55 PM   Subscribe

I'm curious how people hire employees for a business that only needs to have one employee present at any given time. How do you deal with sick days, lateness, etc.? Further details inside.

Let's pretend I'm opening an ice cream stand that will operate from 6am until 10pm. I think I'd like to have an employee work from 6am until 2pm, and 2pm until 10pm. Or maybe an emplyee from 6am until 11am, 11am to 4pm, and 4pm to 10pm.

There's no need for more than one employee to be there at any given time. How do you go about planning for that? If I will only have part-time employees, how do businesses plan to have someone on call if someone needs to call out last minute? Where would you go to find employees to hire? Curious to hear any stories, how you dealt with scheduling, hiring, sick days, etc. Thanks!

(and I'm not really opening an ice cream stand…just giving an example of a one employee shop where a manager doesn't need to be present.)
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
The owner or his/her spouse or kid goes in. Or they hire a temp, or call everyone else who works there until they get someone to show up. Most small business owners figure they have to do it themselves.
posted by Ideefixe at 5:57 PM on November 5, 2012 [12 favorites]

I had friends in high school who worked at the local snow cone shack after school. It was one person at a time, and if one was sick they would either call the other employees (all friends) to come in, or call the owner (who actually had another job so sometimes he couldn't come in). One time I remember a friend being sick and not able to get anyone else to come in so they just closed that afternoon. Of course, this was a small town and it wasn't a super busy time of year so it didn't really kill the business.

But yeah...generally the owner expects that they will have to fill in if they can't find anyone else to do so.
posted by MultiFaceted at 6:02 PM on November 5, 2012 [3 favorites]

I worked for ... let's say an internet ice cream stand and we had round the clock staffing and this was a giant problem. So with 168 hours we'd have 4.5 full timers, more or less. If you had a lean staff [and most of our employees were salaried] then you had just enough people to cover shifts and if one person took a day off, other people would have to work extra. This was decently okay until someone would take a week or nine days off (which was totally acceptable as far as vacation guidelines) but it meant that all the other staffers would have to basically work 50-60 hour weeks in order to cover, and work 15 days in a row. As the ranking ice cream staffer, I had to choose between making someone else work too much, or working too much. We finally dealt with this by getting a few "floaters" people who worked very few hours but were available on an as-needed basis to fill in additional hours for vacations and whatnot and it's been great. If you've got people who are salaried it's extra money, but if you're just paying people hourly, then it's no real problem to have a few underemployed people who can pitch in whether it's yourself, your family, or another employee.

The big deal too is having a list of procedures so that people on shifts (even fill-in people) know what is expected of them, what they need to have done at the end of their shift and you need to think whether that's realistic. So if the place opens at 6, do you have the employee coming in at the same time as they are getting their first customers or do you pay them for 15 extra minutes so they can open up, get things ready, etc? Will there be overlap between your staffers? What if one person is ten minutes late? What happens when one of them has to eat and/or go to the bathroom? Do you know what the laws are for break time and whatever in your state or locality? There are a number of different ways to work this out that are more/less worker or employer favoring and mostly hard-boundaried by applicable laws wich you should get to know.
posted by jessamyn at 6:20 PM on November 5, 2012 [8 favorites]

I think most businesses try to avoid operating with just one employee on site. For both safety and security reasons, they usually want to schedule 2 to be there for most of a shift. So if somebody calls in sick you still have the one employee there.
posted by COD at 6:23 PM on November 5, 2012

If you are the owner and sole employee you're there 100% of the time. If you're not there you're not open. This isn't great but it's common, especially for smaller businesses in smaller towns.

But wait, when you hire just a single person you no longer have to be there 100% of the time to be open! This is fantastic. Sure, you have to cover for them when they're sick or whatnot, but it's still a hell of a lot better than 100%.

If you have several full-time employees, someone manages them. It's always been my experience that it's the manager's job to cover for employees that can't make it. This is why managers at places like the ice cream stand aren't very happy people, and will fire your butt for ditching on work.

Also a piece of paper marked "Back in 15 minutes" taped to the door works in a pinch.
posted by Ookseer at 7:14 PM on November 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

(I really tried to make the ice cream thing work with this example, but it just didn't happen.)

I was the only receptionist in a small office for a couple of years. It was a business where the phone needed to be answered all of the time, and while there were other employees there, they couldn't do that and their other jobs. I worked full time; there were other employees who would cover for me if I had a booked vacation (basically, people who knew my employer and would book time off from their usual jobs when he needed someone to cover my job) tbut here was nobody to call if I was sick. I only took sick days when it was absolutely necessary--if I just had a cold, I would be at work anyway. If I really really couldn't be there, they would do without me, for example by leaving the phone turned off all day. The fact that I was willing to go in to work sick is one of the things that made my employer pleased with me, because it was preferable to him as a small business owner to just have one employee in my job. It's not a great model to run on, and indeed I no longer work there, but it is workable and I think a lot of businesses like this just hire the one person and expect them to show up. The key is finding reliable employees who won't call out very much.

I've also worked in places where I would be the only person in the ice cream shop, but because I and my co-workers were all part time, I would be able to call one of the other part-time workers if I couldn't go in. This system works if you have enough employees.
posted by snorkmaiden at 9:33 PM on November 5, 2012

The problem you describe is one reason that businesses that are underfunded and/or undersized are unstable. A business that does not achieve enough scale to have enough employees when needed (including having employees to cover for other employees) will be at chronic risk of the kind of problem you describe unless the owner is willing and able to cover in such situations. There really is no other good solution to the problem. This inherent vulnerability is just the nature of the beast for a tiny business. That's one reason why if I were to start an ice cream store (which I wouldn't, for various reasons), I would want to make sure it's a big enough operation to require more than one employee at a time. So, the solution to this problem is not to put yourself in the position of having this problem.
posted by Dansaman at 10:27 PM on November 5, 2012

Generally the owner, as they have the most at stake.
posted by hobo gitano de queretaro at 11:00 PM on November 5, 2012

Most small business owners figure they have to do it themselves

And on the other side, as I understand it, larger businesses with really stiff staffing requirements often require employees to have (in addition to the shifts where they actually work) shifts where they are required to be able to come in if necessary to cover for someone.
posted by hattifattener at 11:00 PM on November 5, 2012

In my experience, other employees are guilt tripped into coming in to work to cover. If nobody is available, the manager has to go in to cover, generally.

If you have only 2 employees and one of them phones in sick, then you're likely to have to ask the not-sick one to work a 16 hour day. Having 3 employees doubles your chances of finding someone to cover.

Make it clear during the hiring process that employees will need to be very flexible with regards to hours and days worked, and that they might be called upon at short notice. Springing this on people once you've hired them will use up your employees goodwill very quickly, in my experience.

I'm currently working a full time week because someone is on holiday. My colleague has had to rearrange her childcare schedule to cover busy hours. This holiday was booked back in January - my manager has known that it's coming up for long enough to arrange for staff to cover. Pulling tricks like this is frowned upon because it could have been planned for. Someone being off sick is a different issue, because nobody plans to be ill. Myself and my colleagues are much less likely to grumble about covering sickness than holiday.

In retail, this is what "Saturday Kids" are used for, generally. Having several people who work only one or two days a week (the weekend, hence the name) greatly increases the chances of finding someone who can come in at a pinch.
posted by Solomon at 11:03 PM on November 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Pretty much every niche retail outlet I've worked for staffs like this. The owners often don't or can't come in - in my case, the owner literally can't do my job, as he does not have the requisite skills and knowledges to sell our product.

In a sensible setup, you make sure you have one or two employees who are willing to pick up shifts when required. Usually students or people with similar flexible schedules. I've been that person - it becomes a good thing, because it works out to be extra play money, basically. It's also common for tight sales teams to want to look after one another - I'm still working right now despite morning sickness you could use as a weapon because if I'm not here, my 2IC is doing 12 hour shifts and spending zero hours with her two kids. I'm here for her, not for my boss, and it's often part of the culture in sales environments with external management that you look after your own.

In a less than sensible set up, you under-employ people. So tell your hires they're in for 30 hours a week, but give them 25 most weeks. Just enough hours to keep them in the job, but not enough that they can afford to turn down work. That way they're "hungry", as it were, and will take any hours you give them. Firing people who refuse pickup shifts for being "inflexible" or cutting their hours back so they're forced to take what you give them is common too. It's a fairly solid sign of a toxic retail environment though and is to be discouraged. The loyalty I mentioned above can also be stretched, with slackers taking advantage of their co-workers, though there's only so far that will go, and you will not have any support when you need it if you abuse it when it's there.

Worst case scenario is that the managers work the long shifts. I've done 12 hour shifts and 70 hour weeks as a manager. There are also times when you can't get coverage, so you just go to work sick or injured or whatever. Again, it's more commonly the managers who do this than the staff, but if you don't want to put anyone out, you'll come in sick. It's not healthy at all, but if you're a casual employee then you may well wind up without a job if you miss your shifts too often. It's not legal, in any way, but it's often parsed as "poor performance", or your hours are cut down to below subsistence level and you are forced out.

Just depends on your environment. I'll usually happily work a 12 (aka a "clopen" - close to open shift) so I know one of my girls is looking after herself. Same with most of the other managers in my chain. It can be a bit of a battle in cold-and-flu season, but it can be done.
posted by Jilder at 1:42 AM on November 6, 2012

At my work, there only technically has to be one person there. This is what they do:

Stagger shifts by a few hours to allow for lateness, random problems cropping up, etc. So for example, I'll arrive 3 hours before the end of the other person's shift, we work together for a while, they fill me in on whatever I need to know for the day, and have their break.

If someone's late, the person on shift basically has to stick around until they get there. That's why it's good to have employees with a) a good work ethic or b) who get along; so they feel a strong responsibility to be on time.

We're encouraged to call in sick as far in advance as possible. People have called in sick two days in advance. Obviously they were not actually sick but this way, the manager has time to find someone to cover the shift. People are going to fake sick anyways, so it's better for the business to gracefully ignore this in favour of ensuring adequate coverage. (Obviously, if someone's doing it regularly, that's unacceptable).

There's a list of everyone's phone numbers in the employee area. We are encouraged to call each other for shift coverage, to swap shifts, basically to help each other out. Again, the business is better off from us covering for each other than being strict about who is present. I work in an industry that's prone to issues like absenteeism and lateness.

The manager's phone number is also available and if it comes to it, the manager either has to find coverage, or come in. I guess if someone really couldn't stay, and there was no coverage, they'd have to close the store for a little while, but I don't think that's ever happened.
posted by windykites at 5:46 AM on November 6, 2012

If you're trying to do this as a buisness model, you can hire someone as a "floater". This is a person who may not have any scheduled hours, but will be on-call to cover if someone is sick, or can't make it in for his/her shift.

A floater might be a person who only wants occasional shifts, who doesn't need X number of hours at a job. Perhaps a spouse or a neighbor of the owner.

Hospitals have PRN nurses, folks who prefer not to have set hours, but will takes shifts on an "as needed" basis.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:16 AM on November 6, 2012

I have had several businesses that operate with just one employee at any given time. Getting shifts covered is really not a big deal at all, though for some reason people who work in businesses of this size do tend to believe that their shifts are flexible and are frequently getting others to cover their shift to go to shows or to an audition or snowboarding or what have you (although ithat flexibility is a big upside for people looking for part time work, so I guess it's a give and take), and I do frequently find myself doing last minute texting to find someone to cover a shift for things like hangovers(aka a stomach bug) and whatnot.

One very good way to combat the lack of being able to find some one to cover a last minute shift is to have several employees who just work one or two shifts per week. There are a lot of people who are looking for just a few shifts per week for extra cash on hand, so it works out well for the business as your pool of people to fill in is expanded, and there is usually someone who lets me know that they are looking to temporarily pick up extra shifts because of some random expense, so first dibs go to them.

In businesses of this size as long as there is a sense of we're in this togetherness amongst the staff most people will want try to step up when necessary. It's one of the awesome upsides of teeny tiny businesses, the sense of family that is inherently created.
There have been very very few times in the last thirteen years where I was the one working the shift, which is good because at this point my employees are much better at their jobs than I could possibly be.
posted by newpotato at 2:20 PM on November 6, 2012

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