Right-Wing Urban Outfitters Now Asking Employees to Work for Free

Yves here. Wow, this is astonishingly cheeky. Good for Gawker catching Urban Outfitters out in an attempted violation of labor laws. It looks like the finesse the company attempted was to pressure salaried workers, since salaried workers are not subject to overtime payments. I’m curious to get expert reader input. I wonder if the snag was OSHA….or the terms of the insurance on the warehouse?

Plus I’d look to see if Urban Outfitters is a short. This is an awfully desperate effort to contain costs. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect from a company that is worried about missing its forecasts.

By Kali Holloway. Originally published at Alternet

Over the last few years, Urban Outfitters has become known for three things (outside of carrying overpriced clothes that fall apart the first time you wash them): 1) Offending every possible marginalized group under the sun with apparel that features really tasteless messages; 2) allegedly stealing designs from up-and-coming artists and selling them as their own; and 3) having a president and CEO, Richard Hayne, who has given money to anti-gay marriage crusader Rick Santorum and other Republican politicians. Now the company is making news for its boldest action yet: asking employees to work for free!

Gawker got hold of an email sent to salaried employees of URBN, which is the company that owns Urban Outfitters, on Tuesday. Note how it suggests that taking part will help build camaraderie:

From: URBNcommunity

Sent: Tuesday, October 06, 2015 12:01 PM

Subject: A Call For URBN Volunteers!

A Call for URBN Volunteers!

URBN is seeking weekend volunteers to help out at our fulfillment center in Gap, PA. October will be the busiest month yet for the center, and we need additional helping hands to ensure the timely shipment of orders. As a volunteer, you will work side by side with your GFC colleagues to help pick, pack and ship orders for our wholesale and direct customers.

In addition to servicing the needs of our customers, it’s a great way to experience our fulfillment operations first hand. Get your co-workers together for a team building activity!

The Details:

Who: Home Office URBN salaried employees

Where: URBN’s Fulfilment Center – 766 Brackbill Road, Gap, Pennsylvania 17527

What You’ll Be Doing: Pick, pack and prepare packages for shipment(please wear sneakers and comfortable clothing)

When: October 17, 18, 24, 25, and 31 Lunch will be provided

Two shifts each day: 9:00 AM – 3:00PM or 12:00 PM – 6:00 PM

(you can volunteer for one or multiple days)

Transportation: If needed, URBN will provide transportation to and from GFC (details provided after sign up)

HowSign up using this link and we will be in touch with more details. Please do not show up without signing up.

That’s an interesting request from a company that’s been posting earnings that outpaced predictions over the last three quarters.

After the Gawker post went up, URBN – which also owns Free People and Anthropologie – sent the site this message:

After successfully opening our new fulfillment center in June, we asked salaried employees at our home office to volunteer for shifts that would help support the new center through a busy month of October. Unsurprisingly, we received a tremendous response, including many of our senior management. Many hourly employees also offered to pitch in – an offer which we appreciated, but declined in order to ensure full compliance with all applicable labor laws and regulations. The dedication and commitment of URBN employees are second to none, and their response to this request is a testament to their solidarity and continued success.

See? Everyone loves working for free, I’m sure, and didn’t feel any pressure to come in when they would rather be anywhere than work…for free.

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  1. Clive

    Hey, “lunch will be provided”. What more could they ask for? Okay, at some point there’ll be someone making a wisecrack about maybe paying minimum wage.

    I’d offer my guess as to what’s behind this (which is still just a variation on “this company and/or its business model is on the skids” suggested above) — the local reputation of the “fulfilment centre” is so awful that no-one will work there unless they are absolutely desperate and (luckily, by some miracle in our lovely societies) people in the catchment area are not — yet — desperate in sufficient numbers to resource the operation.

    Word gets round which employers are the total pits and the lowest of the low in most local communities. My town has one (they take special delight in abusing workers in especially obvious deliberate ways, it must be some weird and hideous management technique they think might help them screw labour even more). Fortunately physical assets are ultimately harder and more costly to move than these business think and unless the area is in destitution people wise up and go to anther hopefully less crappy job.

    1. craazyman

      who said there was no such thing as a free lunch?

      God is dead but religion is alive and well.

      “The company” and its worshippers will congregate for fellowship on Saturday.

      1. Clive

        “… or multiple days”. Even God got Sunday off. But then she didn’t work for Urban Outfitters.

        1. ambrit

          UO has that reputation for stealing the ‘fruits of the labour’ of the creative classes. One cannot find a more representative example of ‘the creative class’ than God.
          Wait! I just figured it out! UP is that ‘Fallen Angel’ cat. Wanting to be top dog while stealing the thunder of the Founder of the firm fits the facts perfectly!
          Milton (Friedman?) was right. It is better to rule in Pennsylvania than serve in Manhattan.

  2. jrs

    URBN – which also owns Free People and Anthropologie …

    And so Free People takes on rather “To Serve Man” connotations. Apparently Free People means people working for free. It’s a cookbook!

    I guess the abuse of salaried designation, a very very old trick in some fields (and people wonder why we fear work), is metastasizing.

    1. washunate

      abuse of salaried designation

      I’m curious what you mean there? There are times where employers misclassify employees based on the duties test, but it’s pretty rare that employers claim an exemption when the employee fails to meet the salary test.

      If you’re speaking bigger picture, it’s not employers that abuse the designation. That’s how the USFG has crafted the regulations. This is one of the key points about our system. Politicians like to complain about corporations, but it’s the government itself that sets up these rules. There is pretty broad compliance with the wage and hour laws of the FLSA, relatively speaking.

      It would be a very different predicament if the problem was widespread employer noncompliance rather than a deliberate choice made by the political class.

        1. Ulysses

          You most often see people, who are miscategorized as exempt and paid salaries less than $30k/year, (the legal minimum for exempt status varies by state) in retail and fast food. I personally know of hundreds of these cases– where “assistant managers” have been worked so many hours that their effective rate of pay has fallen below the federal minimum wage.

          How do unscrupulous employers get away with this? Most people simply don’t know anything about labor law and are thus easily ripped off.

        2. washunate

          I’m not sure what that link says specifically (it’s behind a paywall). So two comments generally.

          1) Most of the improper claims of exemption are based on the duties test, not the salary test. Judgment calls are much easier for employers to defend than simple, quantifiable rates of pay.
          2) That’s why I said relatively speaking. I agree there are violations, but they are relatively rare enough that our court system is still capable (again, relatively speaking) of handling them.

        3. susan the other

          “Solidarity” – what a laugh. It wouldn’t violate any labor laws if they sent that letter out to all the shareholders. That’s the only solidarity they are interested in. Let the shareholders have a fun day of camaraderie.

      1. jrs

        I mean that I think it’s wrong to use the salaried designation (that was lobbied for probably precisely by those use it and a lot of that law is only in the last few decades, it was not always thus) to work employees unpaid overtime on a regular basis. It’s BS. It’s also wrong of course as you point out that such labor law exemptions exist in the first place. Labor law should apply to anyone who works for others and employees should be compensated for their labor period (remember with salaried they aren’t just not paying time and half or whatever, they aren’t even paying time – so it is unpaid labor). Huge abuses of the designation have taken place against employees that were not even managerial in fields like I.T. (microserfs), yes it’s all perfectly legal, and it’s wrong not to pay people for their labor.

        Now the issue of illegal wage theft is also rampant but I was making the point legal wage theft should be outlawed and is wrong. But the illegal wage theft, they also aren’t enforcing existing labor laws adequately. And because of this working people have lost a lot of the wealth that is not just rightfully but even legally theirs, it is theft, and the perpetrators walk free.

        1. washunate

          Gotcha, thanks. I agree. I just think it’s important to be clear since HR matters can get rather obscure and nit picky that the primary issue with respect to exempt status is the duties test. While there are some grey areas about what constitutes a guaranteed salary, it’s relatively cut and dry compared to the judgments involved with job duties, especially the executive, administrative, and professional exemptions.

          Which of course is why we should just make the salary test $75k a year to simplify things.

          The bigger issue with hourly workers is employers forcing workers to work ‘off the clock’ – precisely because the overtime laws apply. If employers were broadly noncompliant, there wouldn’t be any need to hide those hours in the first place.

      2. jrs

        I doubt the pretty broad compliance. For one thing I have interviewed at places where I was told they would abuse labor law period straight up in the interview! They were going to work contractors who they admitted were legally not exempt more than 40 hours while paying them for 40 as the job could not be done in 40 hours a week. They said (in the interview!) I would have to be hush hush about it because it’s technically not allowed. Nontheless I did not get the job (or contract work really as it was). This is in a field they could have had FREE overtime legally (even though I don’t agree with that,it still would have been legal) by straightening up and bringing the contractors on as employees. Instead they preferred law breaking.

        Also I read articles like this:

        1. hunkerdown

          If they hired employees, they’d have to confabulate quite a few unemployment pretexts from all the turnover.

        2. washunate

          Ah, one of the major points of definitional fun: misclassification of employees as contractors.

          A contractor is not an employee. Therefore, FLSA wage and hour protections for employees do not generally apply. Neither do major SSA programs, like OASI, DI, HI, or unemployment.


    1. financial matters

      Arbeit has the same etymological roots as “poverty” (Armut in German). It derives from the Germanic arbma-, meaning lonely and neglected, abandoned. (The Human Condition)

      If they were supported by a BIG, they would have more freedom to make this choice to volunteer. Even better if they had the additional choice of a living wage job guarantee.

      These things are not impossible. As we recently learned from the ‘Killing the Host’ post concerning what happened in Latvia:

      “Everybody could have gotten their homes free instead of giving real estate only to the kleptocrats. The government could have taxed the land’s rental value rather than letting real estate valuation be pledged to pay banks – and foreign banks at that. It could have been a low-cost economy with high living standards, but neoliberals turned it into a smash and grab exercise. They now call it an idea for other nations to follow. Hence, the U.S.-Soros strategy re Ukraine.”

    2. hunkerdown

      cf. 2 Thessalonians 3:10, in which authors allegedly including Saul of Tarsus try to cultivate good servants for empire.

      1. Just Ice

        Please do not conflate working with having a job. It used to be that most people were self-employed on family farms or via the commons so there was no excuse except disability for not working. That is no longer true since family farms and the commons have been largely stolen.

    1. Moneta

      Ironic how they use a team-building exercise that should trigger the idea of unionisation for the non-salaried.

      I wonder how many will offer their time out of fear and how many genuinely think it’s a great idea. If we could measure this ratio, we would get a good sense of how much worse worker conditions will get before any type of reversal.

      In my neck of the woods, there are still too many perma-optimists who want to see the good in everything and believe things always work out in the long-run to get any but a continuation of these practices.

      Here in Ontario, students need volunteer credits to get their high school diplomas. And an increasing number of university programs require free stages. A part of me thinks there is nothing wrong with gaining a littler bit of experience but a big part of me sees this as going down thru slippery road of exploiting the young, blurring the fine line between free labor and volunteering.

      Interestingly, every time I have tried to argue this last point, ALL people up to now have thought that I am nuts as kids today need all the experience they can get. For me, it’s a clear sign of what rabbit hole we are going down… Society is incredibly attached to neo-liberalism and it will either take a long time or some very few big shock to change the entrenched mindset.

      1. washunate

        Salaried is a bit different in the states, since salaried means in practice your employer owns you 24/7/365. It’s one of the real problems with how low the salary threshold is in the US. Even the Obama Administration seems pretty serious about raising the salary test.

        On student “volunteering” and so forth, that is a trend in the US as well. There seems to be a lot of well-paid older adults who rather like the idea of sending younger Americans off to work for little or no pay.

        And of course, there are other types of work that fall completely outside the discussion, like prison labor.

      2. jrs

        I suspect it’s not actually fear that motivates so much as well brown nosing … and if all you do is white collar office work say (or whatever the salaried workers do) maybe it doesn’t sound bad to actually do real labor for once just as a volunteer (not for real mind you), at least it’s new and different and is real in a way that pushing papers isn’t, and you can get brownie points with your supervisors that you can use to argue for a raise or whatever.

        And you are so dead inside you have nothing else you’d rather do with your weekend? If you have to work 24/7 to feel useful, couldn’t you at least find a co-op or a charity to pack boxes for or something where it’s not just enriching the owner class? Well it’s not exactly that … remember the brownie points … they’ll remember at review time … right? And they might … The problem is that such carrots always have sticks behind them, the velvet glove on the invisible hand masks the iron fist. And it’s fear and control that may not seem such.

  3. TJ

    Better yet, why not combine a team-building exercise with a family-building exercise and bring along the significant other and the kids too! It’s a great way to maximize the productivity of your family unit while preparing children for future work and careers. Make it fun! Organize “Pick, Pack and Prepare” contests and watch the kids go! Depending on your little imps’ manual dexterity, they might someday aspire to work for real money in an Amazon warehouse. That is, if they join the workforce before robots make human labor redundant. And next weekend, remember it’s, “Packing with Parents” day, so load up Mom and Dad (if they’re still living and capable of providing labor) and work side by side with them again, just like the old days! Here at Urban Outfitters, if you’re fit for work, we’ll find you work.

  4. AWB

    In the meantime, liberal Amazon, who’s founders wife gives $ to pro same sex marriage movements has seen the error of their ways and given up hiring temp labor at minimum wage with no benes to work in their sweatshops, err, warehouse operations, to putsue the chinese model of slavery.

    What does the political affilation of the ceo have do with the story, or is this a liberal hack job and yves slip is showing?

    1. Clive

      No. It means that Urban Outfitters gets to do a twofur — treating the people who work for them badly and demonstrate incipient bigotry at the same time. Oh, and I have a hunch that if you ever got within sight of Yves’s slip, she’d whack you one. But I also suspect there’d be a queue forming for that particular task.

    2. washunate

      I agree it’s important to view this as part of the systemic problem of how crappy the workplace is for most workers, rather than something unique to Urban Outfitters. Honestly, what do liberals think working in retail and food and other areas is like? That the employees are treated with the respect and dignity accorded to tenured professors and doctors and police chiefs and prosecutors and prison wardens and pension managers and football coaches and all the administrators and so forth? Ha.

      But I don’t see that as a particular error committed by Yves.

      It’s just part of raising awareness amongst educated Democrats who really have no personal connection to how horrific working conditions have become for tens of millions of American workers. Keep in mind also Yves has become very steeped in MMT, so it can be a bit jarring and challenging to shift gears from ‘more jobs’ to ‘jobs suck’.

      1. reslez

        Why does party factor into it? What about all those Republicans who think the poor are too lazy to work, do they not suffer from this malady of having “no personal connection”? I suspect the real issue is the 1% and the 10% class of immediate flunkies as opposed to “educated” people or “liberals” in general.

        1. washunate

          That’s what the flunkies are. They are formally educated. Higher education is the aristocracy of our time, handing out titles that have little connection to substantive value.

          As far as what party has to do with it, two things.

          1) That’s AWB’s point, as I read it (aside from the bizarre comment about Yves): it’s not just a right-wing problem. It’s a bipartisan problem.
          2) Republicans don’t claim to support worker rights. They are generally strongly against the New Deal and in particular things like worker protections such as minimum wage. But the Democrats are different. They claim to support workers. So they should be held to a much higher standard of accountability.

      2. jrs

        The middle class (or upper middle class as you may call it) is socialized not to see the working class. I was raised middle class (arguably still am) though with some awareness of poverty in the Great Depression (so I KNEW Great horrible Depressions can happen and I knew something bad was likely to happen in the build up to 2008), but that was something that could happen not something that was all the time. So not seeing is the only way I can describe it. This can be moralized as lack of compassion or whatever and usually is by left commentators. But there may be some concern about the really poor and concern about poverty in Africa etc., what is not seen isn’t that, but how bad conditions are for the vast majority, what isn’t seen is the working class majority in this country and yes how bad most labor is as well.

    3. Ulysses

      Yves has also called out Amazon many times for their abusive practices, clearly you aren’t a frequent reader of NC. (Reply to AWB above)

  5. DJG

    Comrades, the glorious revolution of creative destruction continues! Our cadres volunteered to go to the countryside for the cabbage harvest!

  6. Jay M

    addendum to the invitation to overwork: UO will be partnering with the Dept. of Agriculture and have a booth where our associates can establish eligability for SNAP cards during the free lunch. Online assistance from health care experts will also assist our associates to sign up for Medicaid, which is a free medical plan offered by the ACA. Additionally our associates that participate will be offered tax services in order to help them negotiate the complex Earned Income Tax Credit forms during the tax season if still employed. We are proud to bring the benefits of a sharing economy to UO associates.

  7. washunate

    I’m curious to get expert reader input. I wonder if the snag was OSHA….or the terms of the insurance on the warehouse?

    Obviously we’d have to know proprietary details for sure, but the general guess is not OSHA or insurance, but rather FLSA. That’s the Fair Labor Standards Act, one of the primary New Deal pieces of legislation that sets guidelines on child labor, pay, hours, and so forth for certain employees.

    It is pretty explicit that non-exempt employees (covered workers) are required to be paid for their time unless they can be classified as exempt. That’s why the memo clarifies salaried vs hourly. That’s the colloquial HR language for exempt and non-exempt from some of the wage and hour requirements of the FLSA.

    This is also a really good case study in what still needs to be improved with the FLSA. Significantly raising the minimum wage, significantly raising the salary test threshold (for classifying an employee as exempt from overtime), significantly reducing the number of weekly hours until an employee hits overtime pay, and making the FLSA protections apply universally to all workers would be four simple legislative tweaks that would make the workplace a much better place.


    1. jrs

      Yea, I don’t think we’re entirely dealing with New Deal era laws here though some of the framework dates to then of course. I’ve researched the issue before. Exemptions were specifically passed much more recently to exempt things like I.T. workers (who were not exempted before then. Nor of course was much time spend worrying about them during the New Deal ear!). I agree these laws need reform.

      1. washunate

        Agreed, I mean New Deal era in that’s where the core legislation comes from – as well as much of the underlying philosophy for contemporary neoliberal opposition to labor protections and social insurance. FLSA, SSA, and others have been amended many times over the years, as have the Executive Branch rule-making decisions that go along with them.

        That’s one of the reasons the Dem pundit talk about needing to pass a bill on healthcare that we can fix later was so hilarious a few years ago. We already had the core legislation (SSA). We just needed to turn Medicare, Medicaid, CHIP, and other programs into a unified single payer system.

  8. JoeK

    Gawd these mean-in-every-sense-of-the-word capitalists are an endless source of black humor.

    The weaseling lies they tell when their moral degeneracy is exposed belies their attempts to portray themselves as the self-sufficient, hard-working, take-no-charity adults in the room.

    Methinks this is one main reason the rightist politicos keep a laser focus on value-based wedge issues–they simply can’t be honest about their agenda as it’s fundamentally odious to anyone with a gram of moral fiber.

    1. Norb

      A bully or lover of totalitarian values will always deflect a criticism away from themselves and attack others. That is what makes them totalitarians. I think they were once called fascists.

      See Sheldon S. Wolin’s Democracy Inc. Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism for an in-depth analysis of our current dynamic. This book first came out in 2008- chilling and prescient stuff.

      The part that really struck me was this: “The survival and flourishing of democracy depends, in the first instance, upon the “people”‘s changing themselves, sloughing off their political passivity and, instead, acquiring some of the characteristics of a demos. That means creating themselves, coming-into-being by virtue of their own actions.”

      Being sold out by backstabbing Democrats is more dangerous to democracy or forming a demos that any Republican wedge issue.

      Whether its Obama, Clinton (Take your Pick) or Bernie Sanders, if they are not held accountable for their ACTIONS, any notion of a functioning democracy is a sham.

      Its really a question of if we want to live in a democracy or not. And If you answered YES, figuring out what that means and how to get there. This runaway train we are on is heading for the big pileup, and I don’t think jumping off is an option.

  9. Norb

    I think this is another case illustrating the perversion of language by business elites. Turning everything on its head. Cynically using the language of family, solidarity, and comradeship has been going on for some time, but greatefully, workers see through the shallowness very easily. It is mostly the young that fall for it. But the truth hits home with the first round of layoffs they experience.

    My favorite is singing happy birthday to staff in order to strengthen team building and connection. Who thinks up this stuff? The management consultant racket must be running on fumes by now.

    It would be refreshing if the powers that be just came out and said it plain- we want to reinstate SLAVERY.

  10. reslez

    Any salaried employee who participates is potentially screwing an hourly employee out of overtime, or an unemployed person out of a job over the holidays. How dare UO resort to exhortations of worker solidarity and team building for such a vampiric request. Truly sociopathic.

    1. Will

      One terrible year I was stuck working the advertising department at Macys, and they sent out a call somewhat like this one except asking for salaried workers to come “help out” on Black Friday at a store where they were having a labor dispute. wooo, the benefits of salaried employment: you’re first in line to be one of the company’s scabs!

    2. jrs

      true, true. I don’t think they see it that way (as the scabbing is not wide out in the open), they may be naive, but if they understood the labor movement they would.

  11. ekstase

    I like to look at the language of abuse:

    “It’s a great way to experience our fulfillment operations first hand. Get your co-workers together for a team building activity!”

    ° You, the reader, are too ignorant to know what a great experience this is, so we will tell you.
    ° You are sorely lacking in the kind of first hand experience that could get you promoted around here; you’d best show up at our unpaid event.
    ° A real team player would get other people involved too, convincing them will be like convincing yourself.
    ° Our idea has all the logic of a six-year old. That is why we use exclamation points for no good reason!

  12. Andrew Roth

    Wage-theft scams like this one at Urban Outfitters are rampant in agriculture. Growers are always offering “volunteers” the “opportunity” to “experience” farm work. My favorite is probably a winery in Ontario that advertises for free labor to go out in the middle of the night in subfreezing temperatures for its ice wine harvest. I’ve pruned pear trees under zero-degree Fahrenheit wind chills, and the weather conditions for ice wine harvests sound about as bad.

    But you get your name on the bottle! Many thanks for much labor! “Volunteers” may get a bottle or two of wine as well; I don’t recall offhand.

    The attitude of these growers is that many hands of yours make light work for us. I’ve noticed it most in help wanted ads for estate wineries and diversified organic farms. Many of them are unabashed about it. They presume to exempt themselves from all labor laws by having their “volunteers” sign waiver forms. Then a volunteer gets sick or injured on the job, the boss gets a six-figure fine for not carrying workers’ comp insurance, and the managerial class has a fit about how unfair routine regulatory enforcement is to small business, and how inimical to human liberty.

    The target victim demographic in these rackets is David Brooks’ BoBo. Management knows better than to attempt something so flagrant on Mexican field hands, who insist on being paid. Stealing wages from Latin American peasants more often involves a labor contractor flying by night and reincorporating under a new name in another county.

    Overt wage-theft rackets through illegal volunteer programs will stop when yuppies stop enabling the selective agorist self-righteousness of landed freeloaders.

    1. bob

      The estates are also usually set up an operated as tax dodges too. Not only are they paying 10% on 300 acres of what you are paying in property taxes for 1/4 acre, the whole mechanism of agriculture, and in canada especially, direct subsidies, pay them for doing us the service of screwing most people over.

      That’s also before externality costs.

      Not just wage theft, that’s just the part of the iceberg that’s visible, if you want to see it. Most don’t even want to see that bit.

  13. ekstase

    One thing I’ve learned is that no matter what the law on unpaid work, if you are in a place that has a strong union, you can get backed up, and the would-be violators know this, so they won’t pull as much stuff. When that is weakened, you can be told, implicitly or explicitly, that you have to take it. No one can do it all alone. You have to have people that you know will have your back, or it won’t work.

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