Despite being 34 percent down from the record-high stock price it reached in March, Urban Outfitters—your favorite purveyor of chic clothes at solid prices and culturally insensitive underwear—is doing okay for itself. Even with its debts, experts in both style and finance consider URBN—owners of Urban Outfitters, Anthropologie, Free People, and more—a rousing comeback story. As well, U.O. has plans to expand and just ended a rather unfair labor practice.
That makes yesterday’s revelation that the company asked some of its employees to work for free all the more puzzling.
As shown in a confidential internal email leaked to Gawker, higher-ups called for “volunteers” to assist in a “team-building activity” at a shipping center in Pennsylvania. And what was this “team-building activity?” Trust falls and tug-of-war? Nope. Helping to “pick, pack, and ship orders,”—a.k.a., work.
Here’s the email itself:
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!
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)
How: Sign up using this link and we will be in touch with more details. Please do not show up without signing up.”
Urban Outfitters public relations department later offered this explanation up to the press:
“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.”
So, URBN asked salaried employees to pitch in for free, hourly workers enthusiastically did, and then the company declined to have them do so? Also, U.O. workers were psyched about the whole thing? Maddening.
To be fair, this all sounds like a corporate snafu—perhaps some middle manager speaking out of turn or not thinking past their own goals sent this to all employees instead of just salaried ones. Also, it’s unclear what level of salaried employees the email asked to contribute. If white-collar managers were the target instead of entry-level workers, it would cast a different light on the whole matter.
Yet, in a time when many retail employees are taking to the streets do demand fair pay for honest work, it’s really, really off tone—though U.O. has a long, long history of missing the mark. Sigh.