The package appeared at the Urban Outfitters warehouse on March 17. It was the standard zip-up case for customers receiving and returning brand-name clothes rented by the month through the company’s Nuuly subscription service.
A note was attached.
“I’d typically take to store, but we have come in contact with virus and are taking zero risks of spreading,” said the note, a copy of which was seen by The Inquirer. “Thank you. Stay well.”
Whoever wrote it underlined “thank you” three times.
A young man who processes returns at the warehouse in Bristol Township was concerned about handling this one, employees said. He was instructed to process it anyway.
This week, a different kind of note arrived at the inboxes of employees at Urban Outfitters’ headquarters in Philadelphia, where some employees have had to report to work during the coronavirus pandemic. “Unfortunately, we have had our first confirmed case of COVID-19 in an employee from the Navy Yard” campus, the email said.
Urban Outfitters Inc. — which also encompasses such brands as Anthropologie, Free People, BHLDN, and Terrain — rang up almost $4 billion in sales in the fiscal year ending Jan. 31, 2019, its most recent annual report. The company was one of the first retailers to close its stores to the public as social distancing measures took hold, and has now pinned its hopes on e-commerce.
That means dozens of employees have continued producing photo shoots and running food and beverage service at its Navy Yard campus, even as other businesses have shuttered. Hundreds more have kept operations running at warehouses in Bristol Township and in Gap, Pa.
The company says it’s in compliance with city orders to close “nonessential” businesses and state orders to close business that aren’t “life-sustaining,” noting there are exceptions to those orders. “We are carefully reviewing and following state and local executive orders across the country on an hourly basis,” a spokesperson said in a statement Wednesday afternoon.
But current and former employees are voicing growing concerns about the in-person work requirements amid the global pandemic that has put a halt to huge amounts of economic activity in the United States and around the world. This article is based on audio of internal meetings, company emails, and interviews with multiple employees who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect their jobs.
Some employees have circulated a phone script encouraging friends and family to call Gov. Tom Wolf’s office to report that Urban is “endangering people’s livelihoods, mental health, and physical well-being ... to sell clothes and home furnishing items.”
As one worker at the Nuuly warehouse put it: “There is nothing life-sustaining about it. We are literally renting out clothes to slightly privileged people.”
In a statement emailed Wednesday in response to questions from The Inquirer, Urban did not address specific questions about the incident at the Nuuly warehouse or other claims by employees. The company said employees “are not required to come to work if they don’t feel comfortable" and can use sick, vacation, and unpaid days off to do so.
“We take our employees’ health and well-being most seriously,” Urban said in its statement. The company said that while it has closed stores, certain jobs “cannot be performed remotely.” Urban said it has reduced staff at its headquarters from 2,100 to “typically less than 100” per day. A spokesperson also said the company has increased cleaning regimens, and encourages employees to share concerns.
“If our safety protocols are not being carried out in a given location or by a particular manager, we want to know so we can immediately rectify the situation,” the company said. “We understand how, on the surface, some might consider online fashion retailing to be nonessential, but the reality is that COVID-19 is a serious threat not only to our health but also to our economy.”
After Mayor Jim Kenney ordered the closure of “nonessential” businesses last week, the company said it did not believe it had to completely close. Days later, after Wolf ordered businesses that are not “life-sustaining” to close, the company told employees its operations were exempt, and could stay open under such categories as “electronic shopping and mail order houses,” and “warehousing and storage," according to an email to staffers.
It’s “extremely essential that we get the [digital] sales to offset some of the major losses we’re going to have,” Denise Albright, chief operating officer for Anthropologie North America, told employees on a March 18 call.
On a Friday call to discuss Wolf’s latest order, Urban chief development officer David Ziel said he handles a majority of the company’s lobbying in Harrisburg. “We’re very close with the Wolf administration,” he said. “I’m very close with Mayor Kenney.”
Ziel also said he and Urban’s general counsel had just gotten off a call with Philadelphia Managing Director Brian Abernathy. "Once we got through the conversation with him, he was very relieved we have less than 100 people at any given time this week on campus,” Ziel said.
City spokesperson Lauren Cox said Wednesday that Abernathy “confirms that is a fair characterization of the call.”
During the discussion with Abernathy, Cox said, “the firm stated that they only have employees at the site that are necessary to support their electronic shopping enterprise — which is considered an essential business under both the state and our order, and is separate from their storefront operation. They also outlined a number of precautions they were taking, including social distancing. Based on that, the city is comfortable that the firm is currently complying with the mayor’s order.”
A statement from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development did not specifically address Urban.
On the Friday call, employees expressed worries about how to practice social distancing while being in direct contact with models — having to dress them, doing their makeup — as well as interacting with freelancers from New York, where the pandemic in the U.S. is most severe.
On the same call, Ziel urged employees to educate themselves about what is considered a “low-risk” work environment instead of listening to the “hype and everything going on.”
“Even somebody who confirms that they have COVID-19 in your studio that day … that’s low risk, it’s very low risk,” he said.
In an email to employees Wednesday, before this article was published, the company said “the decision of a small number of employees to leak internal documents and surreptitious recordings of management to the press was selfish and shortsighted.”
At the Nuuly warehouse in Bucks County, some workers said they felt the company was hiding information from them after the package arrived with the note about the "virus.”
Day shift workers were not informed about the incident, three people said, and only learned of it from co-workers. "It was never addressed,” one person said. “At that point, I got the feeling of, ‘What else are you hiding from us?’”
Employees also said they were concerned about work conditions at the distribution center in Bristol Township. The less glamorous side of the apparel rental businesses is that the clothes come back dirty, employees said: Sometimes they are stained with urine, feces, blood, and vomit. Workers process the packages, and sort the clothes into bins to be laundered on site.
“These clothes are coming from New York, Vegas, Minnesota, all over,” one employee said. “We’re still in the beginning of this pandemic, and we don’t know if these clothes have been exposed to the virus.”
By Monday, large monitors in the warehouse displayed a letter from the company saying the facility was exempt from closing down: “We ask each of you to also practice social distancing in your private lives.”