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Fashion Companies in New York Plot a Return to the Office. Employees Aren't Happy About It.

Zoom can't accommodate fittings and fabric evaluations, but navigating the return to office life is proving difficult.
Companies are having difficulty getting employees back to the office | Source: Getty Images
  • Alexandra Mondalek

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NEW YORK, United States — G-III Apparel Group is ready for its remote work experiment to end.

The American company, which licenses brands including Donna Karen New York and Karl Lagerfeld, shut down its two New York offices in March along with most other fashion businesses as the coronavirus pandemic spread across the US. Last week, it ordered everyone back starting Aug. 3. That date was pushed back by about a month after some employees complained.

G-III is among the growing number of fashion, beauty and lifestyle brands looking to bring its workers back as soon as possible. New York City, which has managed to contain the spread of the virus after a Spring peak, allowed offices to reopen in late June. Many businesses are opting to operate remotely regardless. Google, for instance, recently said it won’t require employees to return until the summer of 2021 at the earliest. However, L’Oréal plans to reopen its New York office at 50 percent capacity on August 3. Some Estée Lauder employees are already back at work, with a wider reopening scheduled for September 8.


Fashion and beauty are ahead of the curve on reopening offices because remote working has had mixed results for many companies. Some executives prefer Zoom to criss-crossing the globe to meet suppliers and retailers, and many marketing and public relations professionals have hardly missed the office. But virtual conferencing isn't ideal for evaluating fabric samples or fitting models, and digital fashion shows have had limited appeal.

Still, many are uneasy with the idea of heading back to the office, especially with new Covid-19 cases surging in many states.

After G-III set its initial date for offices to reopen, employees emailed the company’s human resources department asking about exceptions for individuals who live with at-risk roommates or family members, as well as other concerns. In addition to postponing the reopening to Sept. 8, G-III offered a weekly commuting stipend of $100 for employees who agreed to work from the office at least three days a week prior to the official date.

Any employer-based requests for medical information must be handled in a non-discriminatory manner across the board.

“This will also allow us additional time to organise social distancing and space planning to enable the increase in associates at our offices,” an HR representative told G-III employees in an email obtained by BoF. G-III did not respond to a request for comment.

After months of remote working, employers need to show flexibility and a willingness to respond to employees’ concerns, said Helen Rella, a New York-based employment and labour attorney at the firm Wilk Auslander.

“Most employers in my experience are trying to work with their employees because it's in everybody's best interest if people come back to work,” she said. “We don't want to have a situation where valued members of the workforce are not coming back to work.”

A Changed Workplace

G-III employees will be returning to a dramatically different office than the one they left in March. The company will assign employees staggered arrival and departure times, require masks and daily temperature checks. Communal surfaces, including bathrooms and doorknobs, will be cleaned every two hours “on average,” according to documents sent to employees.


Desks will be spaced further apart. Gatherings of more than 10 people will be banned, and employees will be encouraged to communicate electronically with colleagues, even when they are in the same building. Even lunch breaks aren’t spared: food deliveries will be banned and office kitchens closed.

In France, where companies like L’Oréal are headquartered, the transition back to office work began in May, though not at full capacity. Many companies in France have adopted the same safety measures that New York authorities have mandated, including limiting in-person interactions in the office itself.

Few Exceptions

For international companies like L’Oréal, what works in Europe or Asia may not apply in the US. Case numbers and deaths continue to rise in some US states. Though New York’s counts remain low, many residents left the city during the pandemic’s peak, and may now be living in hotspots like Florida and Texas. If they return to New York, they may be required to quarantine for two weeks.

Meanwhile, some employees who stayed in New York have concerns about their own health, especially if they have pre-existing conditions that put them at higher risk for contracting or dying from the virus, or if they live with someone who is more susceptible to the virus.

“If you have questions about this, or other personal circumstances such as living with someone with a higher-risk medical condition, you should discuss with your manager and HR representative,” L’Oréal told employees when it ordered them back to work, according to a document shared by the beauty watchdog Instagram account Estée Laundry. “You are encouraged to have an open dialogue now to find a mutually agreeable Phase 2 schedule that accommodates your personal circumstances and satisfies the demands of our business.”

At L’Oréal, employees who would like to apply for an exemption to continue working remotely must sign an authorisation form granting the company access to their medical history. Rella said that while employers may have asked employees to provide a doctor’s note to prove illness in the past, medical records in their entirety are generally considered highly confidential.

Employers and employees should try to work together.

“Any employer-based requests for medical information must be handled in a non-discriminatory manner across the board,” Reller said, to help prevent against discrimination against employees with disabilities in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. “Any medical-related information that an employer obtains (including the fact that an employee has been diagnosed with COVID-19), must be maintained as confidential. This basic requirement also has not changed due to the pandemic.”


L’Oréal did not return BoF’s request for comment.

Childcare is another sticking point. Many schools, summer camps and daycares remain closed, making it difficult for some parents to return to work. L’Oréal told employees they would need to make arrangements for childcare, though employees are encouraged to speak to their manager and an HR representative to agree on a schedule that accommodates an employee’s “personal circumstances and satisfies the demands of [the] business,” according to the L’oreal document published on Estée Laundry.

Still, there are hardly any norms, given the unprecedented nature of the situation, Rella told BoF.

“Fear is not an excuse for a failure to return to work and employees who refuse to return to work, now that professional offices are permitted to reopen, may be deemed to have resigned their employment and or be subject to employment termination,” Rella said. “Employers and employees should try to work together, and if employees have a concern, they should raise them with their employer.”

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