Employees were getting headaches and nausea. When Away’s monogramming team, the people tasked with artfully painting customer initials onto minimalist Instagrammable luggage, moved from the company’s headquarters in SoHo to a new office in Brooklyn on July 15th, 2019, they were placed in a room without heat, where paint fumes lingered in the air. “Everyone started to get sick,” says a current employee named Eric*.
Away sent employees gas masks and promised to install a new ventilation system. But a month passed, and the ventilation system never materialized. “Does anyone else feel super dizzy/sick like everyday?” asked one team member in Slack. “These fumes got me zeeted high key.” (Basically, paint fumes were making her feel high). “Yep nausea from paint led to hurling in the bathroom Tuesday,” another responded.
By November, the team had been working in the room for nearly five months, and people were starting to get worried. Many complained about persistent headaches, itchy eyes, and hacking coughs. They tried leaving the windows open, but the room didn’t have working heat, and the temperature outside was in the 40s. Away sent the artists desk fans and fingerless gloves.
Finally, on November 21st, Eric decided to call the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to report the working conditions. “The worst part was an overlying feeling of helplessness, like no one was advocating for us and our safety or well being,” he says. When Away told him the OSHA inspector hadn’t found unsafe levels of chemicals, it did little to quell his fears.
The OSHA incident was one in a series of difficult events that have plagued Away in recent weeks. On December 9th, CEO Steph Korey stepped down in the wake of a Verge investigation that included leaked documents highlighting a growth-at-all-costs company culture and a history of employee intimidation. In the wake of that report, 12 new employees came forward with allegations about other problems at Away.
The company has eight retail locations in cities across the US, a store in London, and a new monogramming outpost in Brooklyn. While employees at the company’s headquarters in New York have struggled with allegedly noxious management, workers in retail and production settings have grappled more with the physical climate. Away reassured employees that the room was safe. A Slack message viewed by The Verge confirms that OSHA found that airborne element readings were at “acceptable standard occupational exposure limits.” Still, employees worried about their health. “Our problems are less about the toxic social environment and more about the actual toxic environment,” Eric tells me.
The monogramming team’s experience of feeling ignored is mirrored by Away’s retail employees who’ve endured neglect as the company has expanded across the globe. Store associates worked summers in New York with no air conditioning and winters with no heat. They have dealt with mice, cockroaches, broken toilets, and water leaks resulting in rampant mold. For months, store managers in Manhattan had to carry tote bags full of cash to corporate headquarters because Away allegedly refused to open retail bank accounts. (Away did not respond to this claim.) Once, at a store in Los Angeles, managers had so much cash piling up that they couldn’t fit it in the safe at the end of the night. The door, quite literally, would not close.
Away’s exemplary customer experience and handcrafted designs are a cornerstone of its business model and brand. Yet, over the past four years, it has fallen to low-paid workers to ensure these corporate promises come to life. While Instagram ads and celebrity collaborations have elevated Away’s cultural status, they aren’t always enough to make customers fall in love. Maria, a former sales supervisor, tells me, “Their thing was being customer-obsessed, but they didn’t realize what that meant for the people who had to deal with customers.” (She asked that only her first name be used in this story.)
Angela, who also asked that only her first name be used for this story, had years of retail experience when she was hired at the Away store in Los Angeles. “They told us, ‘You’ll start out part-time, but there’s so much potential to grow with the company,’” she says.
The store had quite a few quirks. Away wouldn’t let retail employees email — a rule it also enforced for corporate workers — so every question had to be asked on the chat platform Slack. Oftentimes, Angela’s queries received no response. “From a customer experience standpoint it didn’t make sense, people would be waiting while we were on Slack trying to get an answer,” she says.
The store also allegedly didn’t have a bank account. Employees stored cash in a safe at the back of the shop, which was becoming increasingly full as time went on. “Everyone knew the code,” Angela says. Eventually, the amount of cash got so absurd that a manager took a video raining down hundred dollar bills.
According to multiple sources, when the store finally got a bank account, it did not have an armored truck pick up the cash. Instead, a store manager carried the money to the bank in a duffle bag. “I sat there with tens of thousands of dollars in essentially a shopping bag,” he says.
Four months into her tenure, Angela filed a sexual harassment claim against that same store manager. The pair had been texting flirtatiously, and the exchanges had gone too far. Away fired the manager immediately, then asked Angela to hand over her phone so they could review the exchanges. To Angela, it felt like they didn’t believe her, despite having taken action against the man. “I didn’t get any support,” she says. She decided to quit as well. “It literally felt like we were just there to sell stuff, and it didn’t matter how you made it happen, just make it happen.”
Away did not comment on this matter.
Maria joined Away’s retail team at the Bond Street store in Manhattan in the summer of 2018. The location was small, the design minimalist, and if the suitcases were swapped out for leather notebooks, it could have easily passed as a Moleskine outlet.
Almost immediately, however, she noticed some key differences between Away and the other retail jobs she’d worked. The air conditioning in the store was not working, and for a while, neither was the toilet. The water delivery, which corporate was supposed to send every week, often never materialized, leaving the store associates and cleaning staff without hydration. Maria started running out to Duane Reade in the middle of her shift to get bottled water for the team.
She figured Away co-founders Steph Korey and Jen Rubio must not be aware of the problem. It wasn’t just associates who were struggling, after all; customers were also complaining about the heat. Maria felt certain that once the executives found out about the air conditioning, they’d send someone to fix it immediately. (At one point, Away did send someone to fix it, but apparently, the repairs did not work.)
Then the retail associates received Bluetooth speakers and checks with notes from Away’s co-founders apologizing for the conditions. (Maria’s was for $300; they differed depending on peoples’ salaries.) But the AC was still broken, and a new portable speaker wouldn’t change that. “I feel like they pretended to care but I don’t think they really did. If they did, they would’ve done something about it,” Maria says.
The store also had rodents. Cockroaches and mice scurried across the floor, alarming customers and retail associates alike. “I know it’s New York City,” Maria says, “but I’ve worked in SoHo for a while and not had rodent problems.”
Once, she got a call at 5AM because the alarm in the store had been set off. When she reviewed the security camera footage, she saw a mouse had activated the motion sensors. (Employees nicknamed the mouse Mickey.)
Maria urged her manager to get an exterminator for the store, but months went by and nothing happened. Then, as the temperature outside began to drop, she was faced with a different set of problems.
Winter in New York is always brutal, but in 2018, the weather was particularly bad. As the holidays drew near and the amount of foot traffic began to climb, the store’s already ineffective heater stopped working. “You could see your breath in the store,” says Jeffrey, a retail associate. (He asked that only his first name be used.)
Associates weren’t supposed to wear coats, hats, or scarves in the store — it wasn’t on-brand for the company — but when the temperature dropped, they decided to ignore the dress code, and many worked in their winter coats. “Everyone was getting sick,” Maria says.
The issue was compounded when a water leak sprung up in the stock room and mold began to bloom across the walls. Associates started piling suitcases on raised pallets so they wouldn’t get water damage from the floor.
Employees say they told corporate managers about the mold but didn’t see any action. The stockroom was where they were supposed to take breaks and eat lunch, but they no longer wanted to be down there. Finally, they decided to call OSHA.
Back at the company headquarters, customer experience employees were in crisis mode as the number of customer calls reached a record high. Executives had already asked the team to cancel their holiday travel plans and told them to stop working from home, but they still couldn’t keep up with consumer demand.
In a panic, executives temporarily shut down the customer experience phone line since associates were missing so many calls. Confused customers began calling the retail store complaining about late orders and broken bags. “We were basically the customer service team for weeks because we were the only phone number they had,” says Jeffrey. “I get it: they were overworked,” adds Maria. “But it was stressful. It was a lot.”
Oftentimes, the questions customers had were not things the retail associates were trained to answer. Frantically, they’d Slack the corporate team to try to figure out what to do, but rarely did they ever hear back. The silence was deeply ironic, given The Verge’s report that Away executives were known to chew people out for failing to respond to Slacks immediately, even on nights and weekends.
The store was also not big enough to manage the number of orders and returns coming through. The stock room and staircase had cardboard boxes piled to the ceiling, and trying to navigate the clutter was becoming impossible. Many associates worried it was a fire hazard. With phones ringing off the hook and customer emails piling up, they spent hours sitting on suitcases in the stock room, trying to respond to customer inquiries.
Maria knew her team wouldn’t be treated like the corporate employees, but she’d believed the company when it said “bring your whole self to work.” So when her manager told her she needed to tone down her makeup, she was surprised they weren’t into her already subtle self-expression. “They said females should wear makeup, but keep it really natural looking,” she recalls.
Maria also knew secret shoppers were coming into the store to monitor how her team was performing — a fact Steph Korey has openly acknowledged. “You have to receive your items within two minutes and be greeted in under 10 seconds if you’re a customer,” Maria says. “But if a secret shopper goes on a Saturday and it’s crazy, the associate loses points.” Later, she found out they were also making notes about how the store associates looked. Those who weren’t in the dress code ran the risk of being written up.
When Away sent retail associates a survey to find out how they were doing, almost everyone complained about the dress code. “You told us to bring our most authentic self to work!” Maria wrote.
Store associates were also often the first to find out about the issues customers were having with the luggage. People would come in with scratched suitcases and broken zippers, and the associates would do their best to fix them, trying to always act surprised. “We would kind of be like, ‘Oh my god, that doesn’t really happen. We can repair it,’’” Maria says. “It was treated like an isolated incident,” adds Jeffrey.
At first, Maria and her co-workers would reach out to Away’s product team to relay customer feedback and dissatisfaction, but after a while, they realized no one was responding. “It just kind of felt pointless after a while,” she says, “always sending feedback and not having anything done about it.”
Away’s monogramming team still says they do not think there is adequate ventilation in the room where they are painting the luggage. While the OSHA inspection did not conclude that the chemicals in the room were problematic, two employees have recently resigned over health concerns. “Management was aware of complaints for months,” says an artist named Elena*. “They seemed resentful of our department voicing issues.”
“It’s like we have been brushed aside and forgotten,” Eric adds. In previous years, full-time monogramming artists were included in company-wide events, like Away’s annual holiday party. After the move to Brooklyn, the team was told they would have a separate event, though full-time artists could attend both.
Earlier this month, those artists realized the Google invite for the main holiday party had been removed from their calendars, and the team no longer had access to the company’s main Slack channels. “The environment is just kind of a big bummer,” Eric says. “Everyone wants to quit.”
Many retail associates also say they feel their jobs are not valued. The company’s issues have reached the frontlines, impacting those who deal with customers and product. One former retail associate tells me: “The stuff at the top trickles down to the bottom. And when you’re at the bottom no one cares about you.”
* Names have been changed to protect the identities of those involved