We’re months away from the holiday shopping rush, and it seems that Urban Outfitters has come up with a new strategy to prepare for the flurry of new customers: asking its employees to work for free. On the weekends. On Tuesday afternoon, the Philadelphia-based retailer sent out an email to salaried employees requesting volunteers to “pick, pack, and prepare packages” for wholesale and direct customers. Here’s the callout in the actual email, which was obtained by Gawker: 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.
The email immediately sparked controversy online. People couldn’t believe that Urban Outfitters would ask employees to come in on a weekend and work for free. Technically speaking, it’s not for “free” since all of the employee volunteers are salaried employees, not hourly. However, there’s no mention of a bonus or comp days in the email — the only perk is free lunch. In an email statement from an Urban Outfitters spokesperson, the company spun the “volunteer” callout in a positive light, saying that even “senior management” volunteered to take on shifts and support the team. Urban Outfitters was quite clear that hourly employees who volunteered were “appreciated,” but the company declined their offers for help in order to stay in compliance with labor laws.
So Urban Outfitters isn’t actually breaking the law. But this email is still outrageous; it’s yet another example of our country’s ongoing trend towards demanding a workforce that is constantly connected, on-call, and available 24-hours a day. Even on the weekends. And in a company where even senior management enthusiastically "volunteer" to come in on Saturdays and Sundays to do additional work, it’s hard for lower-level employees to just say no (even though they likely make significantly less money). The company culture dictates that working for "free" is totally acceptable and encouraged. If your boss is willing to come in, why aren’t you? At a time when so many people — including President Obama — are pushing for overtime pay for salaried employees, plus other benefits, this email serves as one more example of why labor rights and employee compensation are so important.