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At Urban Outfitters, on call needs an off switch

The big retailer, founded in Philly, is among those that demand workers’ free time but won’t pay for it.

Urban Outfitters schedules workers for on-call shifts. But if they’re not called in,they’re not paid.
Urban Outfitters schedules workers for on-call shifts. But if they’re not called in,they’re not paid.Read more / File Photograph

URBAN Outfitters, you're breaking my heart.

I'd loved you since I discovered your lone West Philly shop when I was in college. You'd just changed your name from the Free People Store, and your countercultural merchandise spoke to my giddy dreams of a boho life. I was smitten the day I bought an Indian-print cotton bedspread from you to sew into curtains for my first-ever single-girl apartment.

"Where'd you get them?" friends would ask, eyeing my handiwork.

"Urban," I'd say, knowing the word had become code for "I may be broke, but at least I'm hip."

God, I was young.

Since then, you've become more successful than I have, morphing into a $1 billion global behemoth that also encompasses the brands Free People, Anthropologie, Bhldn and Terrain. Your clothes still skew to the young demographic I used to belong to, so I'd taken to scanning your racks for Christmas gifts for my clothes-horse teenager.

She got to wear your cute stuff and I got to maintain a touchstone relationship with a company that had put down roots in Philly, as I had, and never left. It made me happy.

Sure, your price tags indicated you'd gotten a tad full of yourself ($89 for a cotton/poly romper? Really?). And you'd stumbled embarrassingly in attempts to be edgy (a shirt evocative of the one the Nazis made gay concentration-camp prisoners wear? What were you thinking?).

Still, Urban, I'd cut you slack the way family cuts slack to kin. You've remained a player in a city that has lost too many homegrown businesses to either bankruptcy or foreign soil. That counts for a lot in my book.

You may not be perfect, I'd always told myself, but you're ours.

But Urban - oh, Urban. I've been learning about the way you treat your part-time employees, the young, mostly female staff who work in your retail stores. And I'm ashamed of you.

For years, you've subjected them to an enslaving scheduling system that betrays your "free people" roots. Basically, you give them their schedule only a few days in advance, with some shifts designated as "on call." But they don't know, until three hours before the shift is to begin, whether you need them to work that shift or not. If not, they don't get paid.

Yet they're required to hold that time for you, in case you do.

"On calls are considered scheduled shifts, and the same attendance policy applies," your employee handbook says.

All I can ask, Urban, is: What the hell? But your PR flacks didn't respond to my questions.

The use of "on-call" staffing is obviously necessary in medical and first-responder fields, where lives depend on workers being available when needed. Reasonable people know it's part of the gig. But using the same scheduling to ensure that a billion-dollar retailer doesn't "waste" money on excess workers during a slow day at the shop?

C'mon, Urban. It's horrible.

The unpredictability means employees can't schedule classes, if they're in school. Or go to a second job, so they can cobble together a full-time salary. Or reliably arrange child care or pay their bills, since their cost to do both remains fixed even though their working hours don't.

Their only compensation, if I read the handbook correctly, is that they get to keep their jobs so you can continue to exploit their need to make a living.

"It's pretty messed up," one of your employees told me when I asked her about the policy. I won't say which of your 179 U.S. stores employs her, since she needs her crappy job. She's toiling through college and doesn't know, week to week, what her paycheck will be. "It's hard to plan," she said.

She could get a job at a different store, but it seems you're not the only retail chain doing this.

Gap, Abercrombie & Fitch, and L Brand Inc.'s Victoria's Secret and Bath & Body Works are some of the other billion-dollar corporations whose on-call scheduling have wreaked havoc on their workers. The practice began about 10 years ago, says Carrie Gleason, as globalization increased retail competition and companies needed new ways to shave expenses.

"They started incorporating new technology into scheduling that used software algorithms" to track store traffic, the time of year, even weather patterns, says Gleason, director of the fair-work-week initiative at the Center for Popular Democracy.

But the predictions aren't perfect, so on-call staffing provides wiggle room to keep labor costs down. Retailers also tie store managers' bonuses to how low they keep labor costs.

How can you stand being part of this, Urban?

In April, New York state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman called companies like you on the carpet, following his investigation into the legality of on-call staffing at 13 retailers whose New York stores employ thousands of low-wage Americans.

As a result, big changes have happened.

Victoria's Secret and Bath & Body Works stopped the practice nationwide. Abercrombie and Gap say that nationally they, too, are phasing out on-call shifts.

But you, Urban, are dragging your feet. You'll stop the practice in New York, you announced this month, but everywhere else it'll be exploitation as usual.

Which means you're doing the right thing in New York only because New York law requires you to. As for everywhere else, it's human decency be damned.

"If Urban found a business model to let them stop on-call shifts in New York, they ought to be able to find a business model that will let them stop the shifts everywhere else," says Lance Haver, formerly the city's consumer advocate and now director of civic engagement for City Council.

"If they don't, then consumers can say we're not going to shop at their stores until they change their practice. We can refuse to support a store that abuses the people who wait on us."

Haver also thinks the only way to assure that businesses like you, Urban, treat employees better is for your workers to organize.

"People say there's no longer a reason for people to join unions," he says, "but that's because they don't know about these disgusting practices."

Lest you think, Urban, that all your employees are miffed with you, that's not the case. I spoke with one employee, a fan, who asked not to be named because she's hoping to work her way into your corporate headquarters at the Navy Yard. She sees her on-call schedule as a necessary evil, given the vagaries of the retail market.

"The company has to do right by its shareholders," she told me. "I think they're stuck between a rock and a hard place."

Except that your company founder and CEO, former hippie and current billionaire Richard Hayne, owns most of your stock.

He has the clout to end on-call staffing. That's not being between a rock and a hard place. It's holding the power position.

Please, Urban, return to your roots and free your people. And please start in Philly.

Because family comes first.


Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly