In response to the coronavirus pandemic, big clothing brands, including Ann Taylor, American Eagle, and Anthropologie, shut their stores across the world but earned praise for announcing they'd pay their store employees during the closures.
But employees told BuzzFeed News that the companies are misleading them as well as the public.
Store associates ended up getting paid very little or nothing after stores cut their scheduled shifts before announcing the closures. And employees said the companies have failed at communicating with them during the pandemic.
“They’ve been misleading, manipulative, and created far more stress in an already stressful time,” an Ann Taylor store manager, who requested anonymity for fear of losing her job, like several other people who spoke for this article, told BuzzFeed News. “People who shop there were texting me saying they were so happy Ann Taylor was paying associates, and I had to tell them they actually weren’t. Everyone is angry — clients, managers, associates. Everyone.”
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BuzzFeed News reached out to some employees after they had commented on a BuzzFeed post about companies that said they were paying associates through the crisis.
In a now-edited announcement on its website, Ann Taylor said it was closing its stores March 18–28.
“Our associates are at the heart of what we do, and they will be paid for their scheduled shifts during this time,” Gary Muto, the CEO of Ascena Retail Group, whose brands include Ann Taylor, Loft, and Lou & Grey, said in the announcement.
After BuzzFeed News reached out to Ann Taylor for comment on the morning of March 27, the part about paying store associates was removed from Muto’s statement on the website.
The Ann Taylor store manager told BuzzFeed News that store associates “got absolutely nothing.”
“No pay at all,” she said. “If they did get paid, it was the people who usually work 25-plus hours, and we snuck them on for three hours for one day to cover managers' breaks.”
She said that Ann Taylor first directed managers like her to cut associates’ shifts back on March 12, a week before stores closed. A few days later, more associates’ shifts were cut when Ann Taylor reduced store hours.
Then, on March 16, managers were told to operate on “minimum coverage,” which meant that only two people from the management team would be scheduled to work, she said. This meant that no associates were put on the schedule.
“This was a full 24 hours before we knew we were closing,” she said. “We had associates on the other side of the phone crying, saying we couldn’t cut their shifts because they wouldn’t be able to pay rent. It was one of the worst things I’ve ever witnessed.”
So when Ann Taylor publicly announced the next day that it would pay store associates through the closures, it caused confusion and anger among employees, the manager said.
“The store associates were calling and texting, asking if they were getting paid now — after we had just told them they weren’t getting paid,” the manager said. “It didn’t just mislead the public; it misled the people who work for the company.”
A company spokesperson declined to comment.
The company has since furloughed all store associates until it can reopen stores.
“We found out on March 24th that we had to call everyone from home and tell them they were furloughed,” the Ann Taylor manager said. “Associates are able to use up the rest of their sick time if they choose to, which they have very little of."
In a letter to employees published on StreetInsider.com, Muto said, “Furloughing our [store] associates is one of the most challenging decisions we have ever had to make as an organization.”
He said that it was “incredibly disheartening” for the company to take this step “due to the unpredictable and unimaginable impact of COVID-19.”
“I want you to know that as a furloughed associate, you are still very much part of our team, and it is our goal to recall you to work as soon as possible,” Muto’s letter said.
The Ann Taylor employee said the company used managers like her as “puppets” and made them look like “the bad guys.”
She said that other managers she has talked to across the company’s brands felt that the company had treated store employees unfairly.
“When we go back to work I am going to have a team full of women who dislike me because the company made us the bad guys,” she said. “We were the people responsible for doing all these awful things.”
In a news release March 17, American Eagle Outfitters announced it was closing its stores at least until March 27 and that “all store associates will be compensated for scheduled time during that period.”
Naomi Slack, a store associate at an American Eagle in Oklahoma City, called the statement a "cleverly worded lie."
Slack, 43, told BuzzFeed News that while American Eagle said it would pay associates for "scheduled" shifts, it didn't say "we'll just take you off the schedule."
"That's so shitty," Slack said.
Slack, who was hired at American Eagle a little over a week before it closed its stores, was expecting to be scheduled for at least 10 hours a week as a part-time store associate.
But on Tuesday, when Slack logged into the employee website to check how many hours she would be getting paid for, "I felt like I got punched in the gut."
"I got zero hours because I got scheduled for zero hours," Slack said.
Slack, who still has her day job at another company, said she was depending on the approximately $100 she would have gotten from American Eagle to go toward her medical treatments and the "extra money I need every month to make sure I don't overdraft my checking account by pay day."
Slack said American Eagle's statement to the public and to employees about paying store associates for their scheduled shifts did not clarify that some associates like her would not get scheduled at all.
"They shouldn't get the press they're getting for being kind to their employees. when they're not," she said.
Slack provided BuzzFeed News with screenshots of group chats in which her store manager informed associates about closures and the pay schedule during that period.
In one message on March 18, Slack's coworker asked their store manager, "So we will get scheduled but not have to come in and we will get payed [sic] for those days!!"
The store manager replied, "That's the idea BUT if corporate feels we 'overscheduled' they can pull the hours out. Hopefully we fell into their guidelines."
He later added that not everyone was scheduled and that priority was given to leaders and core associates.
"Then if hours were left, we could schedule flex associates," Slack's store manager said in the chat.
Slack told BuzzFeed News that she had never been told she was a "flex associate" and did not even know what that meant.
When she found out she had not been scheduled to work at all during the store closures, Slack asked the store manager about it.
"I know that you guys were going to scale down but I didn't think it would be to zero [hours]," Slack told him.
"We only had a limited amount of hours to use," her manager replied. "The priority was full time at 40 then our core staff at at least 12. after that there really wasn't much to use."
When Slack lamented to him about needing the money, the manager told her, "It's something new none of us have gone through."
Slack said she will look for another second job soon. She said that American Eagle should have paid all their store associates for the two weeks.
"They have more than enough money to do it," she said. "It's a billion-dollar brand."
In a message to her direct manager, Slack complained about the company's misleading statement.
"It's shady," Slack said in the message. "Feels like a dirty trick after what they said cuz I could have started working on another job somewhere else 3 weeks ago."
Her manager replied, "I understand how frustrating it can be, just know that you are not alone."
A 21-year-old store associate for American Eagle in Oregon told BuzzFeed News that the company's statement about paying store associates was “misleading."
On March 16, the associate — who did not wish to be identified for fear of losing her job — said she got a call from her manager after the company shortened their store hours. She was scheduled to work for three shifts that week, but due to the reduced hours, the manager had to cut two of the shifts.
The next day, she found out — through an American Eagle mass email sent to all customers on their subscription list — that it was closing all its stores.
Only after that email did her store manager tell associates via group text that their store was closing.
“So before the decision to close the store was made, associates were called and asked to reschedule or cut their shifts, that they otherwise would have been compensated for,” the associate told BuzzFeed News.
She said that if her scheduled shifts had not been cut she would have made $135 (before taxes) for the week. After two of her three shifts were cut, she made only $45 for the week after stores closed.
“While I am thankful for the time I was compensated for, it’s upsetting that what I would have normally been paid was cut over half for my last check until further notice,” the associate said. “This has affected me greatly financially. Like many store employees, I do not know when I will be making an income again, and am having trouble applying for unemployment since American Eagle has not laid off their employees yet.”
The company did not reopen its stores on March 27 as previously announced, and associates have not heard from the company about when the stores will likely reopen or if they will be paid during this time.
She doesn't know of any associate who had shifts scheduled this far out, which means they wouldn't be compensated.
She added that there has been “minimal communication” from American Eagle.
The assistant store manager sent associates a group text March 27 informing them about how they could send photos to be posted to the store’s Instagram account during the closure.
The manager “casually mentioned, ‘While we don’t have a date for when we return…’ but did not expand on that,” the associate said.
On Monday, the store assistant manager contacted the associates on group text to tell them the company had given associates a coupon code for 25% off.
“Not exactly the compensation some of us were hoping for,” the associate said.
She said that associates still haven’t received a company email about what the continued store closures mean for store employees.
“I unfortunately do feel the company could be handling this situation better,” she said. “I feel at the very least, clear and consistent communication directly with the employees would make a positive difference.”
American Eagle Outfitters did not return multiple requests for comment.
URBN, which includes brands like Anthropologie, Urban Outfitters, Free People, BHLDN, and Terrain, publicly announced it was closing all its global stores on March 14 and that it would continue to pay store employees.
But Anthropologie "said they'd pay employees publicly but have so far made no attempt to give employees any actual information about what's going on and after announcing they'd pay for scheduled hours, promptly took everyone off the schedule. Workers with 30+ hours a week are getting only 8 hours ‘quarantine pay,’” one person commented on BuzzFeed.
When asked about the commenter's claims, URBN said in a statement to BuzzFeed News that it was “standard business practice for retailers to adjust store associate schedules according to traffic and demand trends.”
The statement said that, "due to the impact of COVID-19 and the rapidly declining retail store environment during the week of March 9th," store employees' schedules "had been adjusted downward.”
“We understand employees may question the timing of this change, but these two decisions were 100% mutually exclusive as we continued to react quickly and ever changing conditions,” the statement said. “Notwithstanding deteriorating conditions in the market, we chose to honor those scheduled hours.”
On Tuesday, March 31, URBN announced that it was furloughing “a number of store, wholesale and home office employees” for 60 days as store closures "continued for the foreseeable future."
The company said that impacted employees will continue to receive enrolled benefits during their furlough and be able to collect unemployment compensation.
“We will make every effort to assist those furloughed in receiving all benefits available to them,” URBN said.
In the meantime, store associates are struggling to make ends meet.
The 21-year-old American Eagle store associate said she was having trouble qualifying for unemployment.
"I normally have two jobs that I am financially dependent on (as well as providing child care), and my other job laid me off, so I have been filing for unemployment since I was laid off from that job on [March 20],” she said. She said unemployment representatives had advised her to continue applying weekly even though she was still employed by American Eagle.
“I still have not heard anything back from the unemployment office, however,” she said.