Urban Outfitters Shuffles One Step Forward, Stumbles Two Steps Back on Employee Rights

Sounds like a terrible place to work.

Sounds like a terrible place to work.

Mary Beth Quirk at Consumerist reported on a little bit of good news for New York state low-wage workers yesterday:

Following in the footsteps of retailers like Victoria’s Secret, Bath & Body Works, Abercrombie & Fitch and Gap, Urban Outfitters says it will stop using on-call scheduling — but only in New York. This change comes after pressure from New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s office, which has been probing various companies’ use of the system.

On-call scheduling is a practice in which employers keep their employees waiting until the last minute to learn whether they’re going to work or not. Employees have no way of knowing how many hours they’ll work, and they have to be ready to drop everything and show up for a shift at a moments’ notice. It’s almost impossible for workers to hold second jobs if their primary jobs demand that they work on-call schedules. They don’t get to enjoy financial stability since they will never know how many hours of pay they’ll receive on any given week. This is an abysmal way to treat an employee.

It’s great that New York state is leading the fight against on-call scheduling. When employers are forced to prove that they can get by without on-call scheduling in one state, it will hopefully be easier for other states to promote anti-on-call laws of their own. Urban Outfitters may not have eagerly agreed to this change, but at least they agreed to it.

Gawker also called Urban Outfitters out for some especially egregious behavior yesterday. They published an internal e-mail from UO parent company URBN asking their salaried office workers to volunteer to work weekends in their shipping warehouses. Yes, for free. What are the benefits? Well, they’re offering free transportation to employees with no cars. And it’s a “team bulding” exercise. And employees will get to “experience our fulfillment operations first hand,” which is apparently some kind of benefit. And while of course URBN can’t threaten employees with any repercussions for refusing to work extra hours over the weekend for free, many corporate environments do operate under an implicit threat that people who do not volunteer are not considered to be “team players” and will be passed over for raises and promotions.

Employees should not be doing free work in their spare time for an employer without fair compensation. This is exactly why we need to raise the overtime threshold.

We learn about unfair employer practices all the time, but how many times do we learn about shoddy treatment of both ground-level employees and corporate office middle management in the same 24-hour window? Urban Outfitters just proved itself to be a terrible employer on pretty much every single level of the company. But don’t cry for Urban Outfitters CEO Richard Hayne, though. As Wikipedia points out, Hayne enjoys “a net worth of $1.8 billion, [making him] the 262 richest person in the U.S. according to the 2008 Forbes 400.” Hayne has used some of his vast fortune to support Rick Santorum’s senate campaign and California’s anti-gay Prop 8, thereby establishing him as one of the worst bosses in the entire country.

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Paul Constant
Paul Constant has written about politics, books, and film for Newsweek, The Progressive, the Utne Reader, and alternative weeklies around the country.