Urban Outfitters HQ Employees Say They’re Forced to Work In-Person During COVID

"It's an incredibly toxic place to work," says one employee. An Urban Outfitters publicist says their complaints are without merit.

an urban outfitters sign

An Urban Outfitters sign in Philadelphia (photo by Thomas Mathie/Flickr/Creative Commons)

Urban Outfitters has never sounded like a great place to work.

There are the employee lawsuits, like the Main Line mom who claimed Urban Outfitters fired her for daring to get pregnant.

There was the time that Urban Outfitters nixed its flex-time benefit, a change that negatively impacted employees with children especially.

And, more recently, there was the letter that more than 700 Urban Outfitters employees wrote to management, accusing the company of racial discrimination.

So it didn’t surprise us to hear that employees at the Urban Outfitters headquarters in South Philly say they’re being treated poorly during COVID.

Philly Mag has spoken with four people who work there about their experiences with Urban Outfitters Inc., which publicly trades as URBN and includes the brands Anthropologie and Free People, among others. They all agreed to speak on the condition that we not identify them or what positions they hold in the company, because they’re afraid of losing their jobs.

When COVID first hit Philly, the Urban Outfitters headquarters essentially shut down, and employees were allowed to work remotely. But once things eased up, the staffers say, they and many other employees in the design department, product development department, production department, and buying department, were required to return to the office — and that nothing changed once COVID’s second wave hit.

One staffer told us that “several dozen” employees fall under this requirement. Another guesstimated that “somewhere between 50 and 150” employees might be forced to come to the office on any given day, even with staggered schedules in place.

A publicist for Urban Outfitters declined to get specific with the numbers of employees affected but readily admitted there are employees at the headquarters who are, in fact, required to be in the office.

The publicist claims that some positions at the headquarters are “location dependent” and that they “can only be done effectively or at all from a specific physical location.”

The Philadelphia department of health’s rules say that businesses located in the city are “required to have their workers work remotely unless … it is otherwise impossible to conduct the business remotely.” The city’s rules go on to specifically state that “a reduction in productivity due to remote work is not a sufficient justification for maintaining in-person operations when remote work is possible.”

So in other words, if it’s possible for you to do your job remotely, even if that means you’re working at a much lower level of productivity than you did in the office, the business must allow you to work remotely.

The four Urban Outfitters employees we spoke with say there’s literally not one job at the headquarters that would be impossible to do remotely. Oh, it wouldn’t be easy in all cases, and at times, some special procedures would need to be put into play to make it work. But it’s possible. And possible is the threshold the city has set.

“And actually, for most of the jobs I’m talking about, it would be really easy,” says one of the Urban Outfitters employees. “But Urban just likes to make your life difficult. It’s a really high-pressure job. I feel like I can’t complain anymore about this or they are going to fire me.”

The employees also point out that they were all able to do their jobs over the months when headquarters was closed.

“It wasn’t always easy,” admits one employee. “But we did it. And now they’re just trying to say we’re ‘essential’ because it’s inconvenient for them to say anything else.”

Urban Outfitters management handed out protocols and policies to in-person employees to mitigate any COVID problems. The normal stuff: Wear masks. Stay apart. Sanitize. Yada yada yada. But employees claim that violations of those policies are rampant and that nobody is on-site enforcing anything.

“It freaks me out,” an Urban Outfitters employee confides. “People take their masks off for Zoom calls. People are touching and hugging and eating their lunches near other people with their masks off.”

Adding to the anxiety is the fact that the employees have received alerts about other in-person employees testing positive for COVID. Naturally, the company doesn’t reveal who those people are due to privacy laws. But the employees are concerned that they’re relying on a company they don’t trust to let them know if they’ve been exposed.

“We interact with so many people here every day,” says one staffer.

The only recourse Urban Outfitters has offered the in-person employees is a bit of a choice that’s not much of a choice. If they aren’t comfortable coming to the office, they can use their vacation time and not work. And once they run out of vacation time, they can take unpaid leave. The Urban Outfitters publicist pointed out to me that the company is now offering “unlimited unpaid leave.”

The employees say it doesn’t help that there’s no human resources department at Urban Outfitters to which they can collectively or individually take their concerns. The Urban Outfitters publicist counters that while the company doesn’t have a department called “human resources,” it does have a department called “employee administration,” and that this department is designed to handle complaints.

“I have never heard of that department before,” one Urban Outfitters employee says. (Another staffer claims that this “department” amounts to a generic email address and that they have no idea who is actually reading those emails.) “Besides, that’s just not the way it works here. You don’t complain. It’s an incredibly toxic place to work, in part because this is the only game in town if you want to be in this industry. So they can take advantage of their employees. And they do. Every single day.”