Urban Outfitters “Asks” Salaried Workers to Volunteer

Can an employer ask a worker to “volunteer” to work on weekends?

This concept is being tested by the affluent retailer Urban Outfitters, Inc., which asked salaried employees at the company’s Philadelphia corporate headquarters to “volunteer” to work six-hour shifts on weekends throughout October at the  company’s new fulfillment center about 50 miles outside Philadelphia.  Urban Outfitters operates under the Anthropologie, Bhldn, Free People, Terrain and Urban Outfitters brands.  Somewhat ironically,  the company announced in August that its total  net sales had increased in the second quarter by 7% over the prior year to a record $867 million.

A memo leaked  to Gawker  states that “volunteers” will “work side by side with your [fulfillment center] colleagues to help pick, pack and ship orders for our wholesale and direct customers.” The memo continues: “In addition to servicing the needs of our customers, it’s a great way to experience our fulfillment operations first hand. Get your co-workers together for a team building activity!”

Salaried workers are exempt from the protection of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which established the 40-hour work week and regulates the payment of wages and overtime.  They can be forced to work uncompensated overtime. But it’s a different thing to ask workers – even salaried workers –  to volunteer. The FLSA prohibits for-profit employers from permitting any individual to “suffer or permit to” work without compensation. The definition of “volunteer” is to work without compensation. So it stands to reason that for-profit employers cannot ask any employee to “volunteer” to work.

The situation demonstrates the problems facing workers who are exempt from the FLSA – especially poorly paid white-collar workers.

Urban Outfitters’ CEO; Richard Hayne’s net worth is approximately $1.35 billion (according to the Forbes billionaires list) but many white-collar workers are not so lucky. They are  barely paid enough to put food on the table.  The FLSA’s “white collar” exemption applies to employees whose job duties primarily involve executive, administrative, or professional duties and who earn a salary of at least $455 per week or $23,660 a year. This poverty-level paycheck is particularly brutal for single parents (mainly women) who must schedule and pay for child care. And, let’s face it, an employer’s request for volunteers is inherently coercive. Only a courageous worker can pass up an opportunity to experience the fulfillment center “first hand” in a “team building activity”?

Last summer, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) announced a proposed rule to amend the FLSA “white-collar” exemption to eventually eliminate the exempt status of an estimated 21.4 million“white -collar”employees. The DOL’s proposed regulations dramatically increase the minimum salary threshold for exempt status workers to $970 per week or $50,440 per year. This represents the 40th percentile of earnings for all full-time salaried workers throughout the United States.

But for now, it appears that salaried workers at Urban Outfitters who don’t want to risk their jobs by refusing to “volunteer”  will be spending their weekends packing overpriced clothing into cardboard boxes.

It should be noted the FLSA does permit individuals to volunteer in the non-profit sector for religious, charitable, civic or humanitarian  organizations and to perform volunteer services for a state or local government agencies. Indeed, the U.S.Department of Justice  has the gall to retain licensed attorney volunteers for up to a year at a time to work as unpaid prosecutors along-side Assistant U.S. Attorneys who earn a starting salary of more than $75,000. Instead of leading the nation, it seems the federal government, including the Office of Personnel Management,  is intent upon perpetuating  hiring practices that are sadly antiquated and even discriminatory .

Appeals Court Says ‘Bye to English Teacher Blogger

The First Amendment took a beating recently when a federal appeals court panel in Philadelphia, PA,  upheld the dismissal of an English teacher who wrote a semi-anonymous blog containing satirical observations about modern-day teaching at an affluent suburban high school.

Natalie Munroe was hired in 2006 by Central Bucks East High School in Doylestown, PA, earned tenure, and received excellent evaluations. But she became increasingly frustrated with student behavior,  especially with respect to academic integrity and honor, and lack of parental support for teachers. In 2009 she began a personal blog under the name “Natalie M’ that was called, “Where are we going, and why are we in this handbasket?”  The blog was intended for family and friends and had fewer than a dozen subscribers, including Munroe and her husband.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit noted forebodingly in its ruling that “no password was required to access the blog.”

Munroe was suspended after a local reporter asked a  school official in February 2011  if he was aware that students apparently were circulating material from the blog on Facebook and other social media. Her suspension led to national media attention that inflamed the controversy. Principal  Abram Lucabaugh estimated that 200 parents told the district they did not want Munroe to teach their children.  Munroe was fired in June 2012.

In a 2-1 ruling, the appellate panel upheld the dismissal of Munroe’s lawsuit in which she alleged her termination was retaliatory and violated her right to free speech . The majority said public employees are entitled to discuss issues of “public concern” but the state may impose speech restrictions on public employees that are necessary for efficient and effective operations.  Although most of Munroe’s 84 blog entries had nothing at all to do with her work, the majority said Munroe’s speech was sufficiently disruptive to the school to diminish any legitimate interest in its expression. The lone dissenter observed  the majority had “ducked’ the fact that Munroe’s media appearances and interviews contributed to her discharge and said that a jury should decide whether Munroe’s speech was protected by the First Amendment.  He maintained the school district “forfeited its right to match its operational interests against Munroe’s free speech interests” when it waited two years to fire her and failed to transfer her to another school.

The stated reason for Munroe’s dismissal was  “incompetency” even though she was obviously a better-than-average English teacher. She was a good writer. Her comments were pointed but funny and thought-provoking. And she cared.

[Read more…]

Amazon’s Brutal Conditions No Suprise to Warehouse Workers

Amazon has come full-circle. Not only is Amazon a harsh and stingy place for low-paid hourly warehouse workers, it is also a  Darwinian nightmare for white-collar workers.

The New York Times recently outlined Amazon’s assault on the respect and dignity of  its white-collar workers, who are encouraged to inform on each other and are pushed out  if their performance flags due to a family tragedy or health crisis (i.e. miscarriage, cancer).

Bezos on Monday issued a statement expressing shock about the Times expose, stating he won’t tolerate these “shockingly callous management practices.” He encouraged workers who are victims of this kind of treatment to contact him personally.  “The article doesn’t describe the Amazon I know or the caring Amazonians I work with every day.” Jeff Bezos

However, Amazon has a history of poorly treating its low-paid   hourly workers at Amazon “wish-fulfillment” centers in Nevada. These workers are subject to  relentless schedules for unpacking and repackaging of goods, constant electronic surveillance, and a system of demerits designed to weed out”weak” performers. They also are forced each workday to donate a half-hour of their personal time to Amazon.

Amazon pays a company called Integrity Staffing Solutions to operate two warehouses in Nevada that serve as storage and order-filling facilities. Integrity has an anti-theft screening procedure that requires workers to wait in line at the end of their shifts, empty their pockets, and walk through metal detectors.  However, Integrity refuses to pay workers for the time it takes to complete this mandatory screening process.

After two hourly workers filed a lawsuit, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco ordered Integrity to pay the warehouse  workers overtime because the time spent for anti-theft screening was a job requirement that benefited only the company.

Integrity took the case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which last year reversed the 9th Circuit court and ruled the screenings were “noncompensable postliminary activities.” In other words, the nation’s highest court said the workers weren’t entitled to be paid for the time it took to undergo the mandatory screenings because it wasn’t technically “work.”

All of this is a legal shell game; Amazon  dictates the slim profit/loss ratio that determines the working conditions and pay for warehouse workers.

Amazon’s market valuation is $250 billion and Bezos’ net worth is estimated at $47.7 billion, making him the 15th richest billionaire in the United States.

In his statement to Amazon workers on Monday, Bezos said Amazon is not a “soulless dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard … Hopefully, you’re having fun working with a bunch of brilliant teammates, helping invent the future, and laughing along the way.”Does Bezos really think that Amazon warehouse workers who are forced to donate a half-hour of their workday to Amazon for anti-theft screening are “laughing along the way”?  One can’t help but think that if Bezos really cared about his workforce, he would not cheat already under-paid workers who labor in his warehouses out of a few bucks for time they are forced to spend at work.

If all of this isn’t pathetic enough … Forbes published an article on Monday by Oliver Pursche stating that investors shouldn’t worry about the Times’ depiction of Amazon’s brutal working conditions for white-collar employees, including long hours, infrequent vacations, and a data-based evaluation system some describe as unfair. He contends these conditions technically are not illegal, and the “reasoning behind the company’s corporate culture should be taken as a positive for investors. Amazon’s practices increase efficiency–a plus for a company that reinvests so much that its profits are, at best, razor-thin–and encourage innovation.”

 

The DOL Addresses ‘White Collar’ Slavery

*The Dept. of Labor issued the final rule on May 19, 2016. The DOL  more than doubled the salary threshold for eligibility for overtime for full-time salaried workers — lifting it from $23,660 to $47,476 per year. That means some 35 percent of full-time salaried workers, based on their pay, will now be eligible for overtime. PGB

The Fair Labor Standards Act, 29 CFR Part 541, makes it possible for employers to impose a kind of slavery on poorly-paid salaried employees who are exempt from the protections of the act because they are classified as “white collar” workers.

However, the U.S. Department of Labor this week released proposed amendments to the FLSA  “white collar” exemption provision that would, if adopted, eventually eliminate the exempt status of an estimated  21.4  million so-called “white collar” employees.

The FLSA exemption now applies to employees whose job duties primarily involve executive, administrative, or professional duties and who  earn a salary of at least $455 per week or $23,660 a year.  The DOL’s proposed regulations dramatically increase the minimum salary threshold for exempt status workers to $970 per week or $50,440 per year. This represents the 40th percentile of earnings for all full-time salaried workers throughout the United States.

Low-level white collar workers are ripe for exploitation, especially during difficult economic times when jobs are scarce.  During the Great Recession, many employers forced poorly-paid white collar workers to work endless or erratic unpaid overtime hours  to compensate for lay-offs or short staffing.  This caused predictable stress and burnout, with all of the attendant problems for individuals and families.  The “white collar” exemption is particularly brutal for single parents (mostly women) who must schedule and pay for child care.

The DOL has not updated the “white collar” salary level since 2004.  To prevent the proposed new salary level from becoming outdated, the DOL’s proposes  automatically updating the salary level each year to reflect the applicable 40th  percentile of earnings.  [Read more…]