It’s been a quiet week for Urban Outfitters. The fashion retailer was among the first to announce that stores would close during the coronavirus outbreak. Company headquarters in Philadelphia’s Navy Yard emptied out.
Despite directives that other employees could stay home or telecommute, one group of workers still has to show up at the office: the photo studio teams who pump out images for the company’s world of e-commerce, and its suite of brands such as Anthropologie, Free People, and Terrain.
The team members interact closely with models who’ve recently traveled to Europe — including pandemic hotspots such as Italy — and with freelancers who commute to Philly from New York, workers told The Inquirer,speaking on condition of anonymity to protect their jobs. Several photo studios staffed by at least a few dozen people have continued to operate this week.
“None of us should be in this situation to begin with, having to choose between our job security and doing what’s right” to stop the spread of coronavirus, one of the people said.
“I wish they would do what they did for everyone else: Let us stay home for the next 2½ weeks, and get paid like normal, so we can clean the facility, and stop spreading it to everybody,” another person said.
Employees at several major companies across the Philadelphia region expressed concerns this week about having to report for work — even after state and local officials announced sweeping measures to shutter certain businesses and keep people apart. Workers were worried about health risks, and some were angry or ashamed by their company’s decision to stay open.
“People are upset, and they’re scared,” an employee at a Kohl’s department store in Delaware County said on Monday. “They’re upset that they’re putting themselves, and their families, and everyone they come into contact with, at risk.”
On Monday, the Wisconsin-based Kohl’s announced that starting Tuesday, stores nationwide would be open on a reduced schedule, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. The Delco employee said workers reported to Kohl’s on Tuesday, and were then informed that the store would be closing for up to two weeks, and that workers would be paid during that time.
Kohl’s issued this statement: “Honoring state officials, Kohl’s is following guidelines for the state and voluntarily closing all our stores in the state of Pennsylvania beginning” Tuesday.
On Tuesday, another major retailer, Macy’s, said it would close all brick-and-mortar stores by end of day, through March 31, and will continue to provide pay and benefits for affected workers.
Urban Outfitters announced last Saturday that stores would close through at least March 28, and that it would “create social distance” in corporate offices for employees who could not work remotely.
In a statement on Tuesday, the company said it “has taken and is taking the threat of coronavirus extremely seriously." As the company continues to pay store employees while stores are closed, “it is critical for us to continue digital sales to defray part of these costs.”
For those who do have to work in the office on e-commerce, the company said it is reducing risks by dividing “those employees into shifts,” disinfecting photo studios between shifts, and vetting models to “ensure they have not recently traveled to areas with high incidences of infection (e.g., Italy).”
The two employees who spoke to The Inquirer disputed all of those points. “Literally, none of that is true,” one of them said.
Urban Outfitters also said that employees can take a combination of paid and unpaid leave if they are concerned about COVID-19. “Our employee administration team (“HR”) has been — and remains — available to answer any questions.”
But in interviews, employees said the company does not have an HR department they can turn to for help, and said they had not heard of an “employee administration team.”
“This could have all been resolved if we could have gone as a team to HR,” one of them said.
The governors of Pennsylvania and New Jersey, along with Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, have all made moves in recent days aimed at limiting in-person business activity.
Kenney ordered “nonessential” businesses to close as of 5 p.m. on March 16, until at least March 27.
But Urban Outfitters said it “does not believe that Mayor Kenney’s order required the complete closure of the Navy Yard. We have contacted the city to address this question but have not yet received clarity on this matter.”
Gov. Tom Wolf has urged nonessential businesses throughout the state to close for at least 14 days. His administration is encouraging professional services firms to allow employees to telecommute, or at least avoid gatherings of 10 or more people, per guidance from the federal government.
At the State Farm offices in Concordville, many of the 1,200 employees have been told they need to be in the office, and could not bring company computers home to telecommute, according to one employee’s spouse.
“They were told if they don’t feel safe, they can use their paid time off,” the person said, even though the person’s spouse and other colleagues have been allowed to work remotely in the past. State Farm is allowing people with underlying medical conditions to stay home, the person said.
The couple is concerned about having contact with their parents, some of whom are immunocompromised and less able to ward off infections.
“I think it’s irresponsible that the president of the United States is saying to avoid crowds of 10 or more more people," and employees are expected to go to work in a building of 1,200 people, the spouse said.
State Farm said “this is a rapidly changing situation and the decisions we are making balance health concerns with our obligation to continue to serve our customers.”
After this story was published on Wednesday, State Farm said an email was sent to employees around 3:30 pm Eastern time on Tuesday, alerting them to policy changes on paid leave that will be retroactive to March 14, as well as additional compensation for employees still working on site. The employee’s spouse who spoke to The Inquirer said the new guidelines were communicated to workers Wednesday morning when they arrived at work.
“We have implemented social distancing in the workplace, continued frequent deep cleaning, and instructed employees who can, to work from home," State Farm said.
On Monday, Gov. Phil Murphy ordered the closures of nonessential retail, recreational, and entertainment businesses from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. daily.
Murphy has also encouraged businesses to allow workers to telecommute. On Sunday, he announced that many of the state’s 64,000 employees could work from home in an effort to model good public health behavior.
At the Bank of America in Hopewell, N.J., some teams were told this week that if they were uncomfortable coming to the office, they could talk to HR about working from home.
But some employees were hesitant to call HR and had still been reporting to work — even though they have full remote work capabilities, said a Bank of America employee who spoke under the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
“They don’t want to be the one defector on their team,” he said.
The decision to work from home shouldn’t be left to workers, he said, it should come down from the top.
As of Tuesday afternoon, his team moved from a rotational schedule — where some were working from home, while others were required to report to the office — to full work from home.
In a message to New Jersey employees sent Monday night, Bank of America stressed its “intense focus on the health and well-being of our employees” and said it had taken “many proactive steps in support of teammates, including ... progressively moving more areas into alternate work arrangements.”
The pandemic has not slowed demand, the company said in the message. The bank said it continued to see “significant traffic” to its financial centers and ATMs and that its wealth and private bank teams are “very actively engaged with clients right now."
Bill Halldin, a Bank of America spokesperson, said that the company’s response to the pandemic was evolving as the situation unfolds each day. “Each of our business units and support functions is communicating with its employees on their current plans,” he said. “Working from home is one component of those plans, where that is feasible."