The Shame List: Urban Outfitters and the Quest for Free Labor

On Tuesday, Oct 6, Urban Outfitters sent an email to their salaried employees with a great volunteer opportunity: donate your time toward an important cause called “filling orders in our fulfilment centers.” That’s right, UO has extended a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for “team building” by “servicing the needs of our customers.” In exchange they’ll earn free lunch and transportation to and from the warehouse. How lucky! How envious I am! How do I apply for and earn this prestigious unpaid position?

While some have pointed out that Urban Outfitters aren’t breaking any laws, others (including me) argue that while that’s true, that doesn’t absolve them of being complete assholes. Not only are they denying paid jobs to temporary workers by recruiting volunteers, but pressure from corporate can make a lot of people fall in line. A press release from UO reports that “Unsurprisingly, we received a tremendous response!” Because when the executive team asks you to do something, you do it, whether you like it or not. If you don’t, you’re branded for life as “not a team player” and a “wimp” and “quit sitting in my chair.” All for the benefit of their own bottom line.

This news comes on the heels of the announcement that Urban Outfitters will eliminate their on-call shifts in New York stores, after pressure from the New York state’s Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. In his letter to 13 national retailers who use the practice, he stressed that it may be in violation of New York law, where employees who report for a scheduled shift must be paid for at least four hours of work.

Retail workers point out that it counts as “reporting” to call an hour or two before shift while being available and ready. The New York law is vague about the definition, but current attorneys argue that the law was designed so employers can’t take advantage of their workers’ time and should be interpreted as such. Proponents of the ban on on-call point out that making yourself available for a prospective shift limits your ability to schedule other productive or lucrative things during that time, such as school or a second job. Those who care for others are forced to make arrangements for potential child or elderly care. For those who don’t work near their reported store, some even have to get ready and in uniform before the call just in case they have to jump in their car or on a bus to make the commute on time. This hugely takes advantage of workers’ time, and employees get no benefit.

Many other companies have also caved to pressure, including The Gap, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Victoria’s Secret. (The secret is exploiting the workers!) So far, no word on whether the senior management team will need to pitch in with packaging bras.

Melissa Dylan is a writer and MBA who used to work on-call shifts for a restaurant because apparently Cheesecake delivery is a life-or-death situation warranting instantaneous deployment of additional hands.

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