Last week, Everlane’s consumer experience team was gutted by layoffs in the middle of its union drive, a huge blow to the nascent organizing effort. Now, the former employees are fighting back, accusing the CEO of retaliation and threatening a legal challenge if the employees aren’t reinstated.
The team, which primarily operates remotely, announced plans to unionize in late December, as reported by Anna Merlan in Vice. They said the direct-to-consumer clothing company treated them as “disposable” and failed to adequately compensate them for the work they did.
“This was not only disappointing, but also unlawful”
The team spent months gathering the number of signatures needed to form a strong majority — a requirement for unionizing efforts. Finally, on March 23rd, they sent Everlane CEO Michael Preysman a letter announcing they had enough support and asking for voluntary recognition. Four days later, 42 team members — including all of the vocal union supports — were laid off.
Representatives from the Communications Workers of America (CWA) linked the terminations to the team’s organizing efforts. “This was not only disappointing, but also unlawful,” wrote CWA’s San Francisco chapter president Orange Richardson IV in the letter to Preysman (read the full text of the letter here). “We know that Everlane has as its mission radical transparency and ethical treatment and so in light of this we are asking you to reconsider this action, re-hire the terminated remote CX workers, make them whole, and recognize their Union.” The letter says the union stands “ready to take appropriate action to defend the rights of remote CX workers.” Former employees confirmed to The Verge that this means possibly suing for wrongful termination.
In an Instagram post, Everlane said the decision to lay off the team members was not about union-busting. “The COVID-19 pandemic is unlike anything we could have predicted, and it has left no person or business untouched,” the company’s CEO wrote. “Everlane is no exception.” He added that “firing as a form of union busting is unethical and illegal” and said the company supports workers who wish to unionize.
Derris, a PR firm that represents Everlane, told Vogue that Everlane’s customer experience team didn’t have enough signatures to establish a clear majority. It categorized the union as “a few employees” who had “formed a committee in November and began vocalizing their plans to form a union,” but it added that, in the four months that followed, they had failed to “bring forth the necessary signatures.”
But CWA organizers dispute this claim and say Everlane never acted to confirm the majority after receiving the union’s letter asking for recognition. “I’m not sure where Everlane got its information that there was not majority support among remote CX workers for organizing with CWA since no one from management ever bothered to reach out before taking action to terminate the employment of the overwhelming majority of the remote CX workforce,” wrote Anne Luck-Deak, a CWA district organizer.
In December, when the customer experience team first announced plans to unionize, they said they had been acting as de facto brand ambassadors, answering complex questions about where materials were sourced and tracking down misplaced orders. Yet, despite these responsibilities, most made just $16 an hour.
In an interview with The Verge, one team member joked that while full-time employees at Everlane’s corporate headquarters received perks like free lunches and massages, customer experience associates received the unique benefit of participating in company “power hours,” where the team would try to knock out as many customer support tickets as they could in 60 minutes.
The company also recategorized customer experience workers from contractors to part-time employees in October 2018, shifting work from at most 39 hours a week to 29 hours. “This job was designed to be temporary,” one former team member told The Verge. “I can’t tell you how demoralizing it is to feel like your job is a sieve for talented people.”
When Everlane’s stores were forced to close due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the customer experience team was aware their jobs might be impacted but felt reassured by a series of upbeat emails sent from company management.
In one, sent on March 23rd, Preysman said the team connection was “stronger than ever.” Four days later, he laid off the vast majority of the customer experience team, along with around 180 workers.
While small in numbers, Everlane’s unionizing effort has already attracted national attention. On Twitter, Bernie Sanders called out the company for using COVID-19 as an excuse to take action against the union. “Using this health and economic crisis to union bust is morally unacceptable,” he wrote. He called on Everlane to rehire workers who’d been laid off. So far, the company has given no indication that this is something it is considering.
“It’s incredibly disappointing,” said one customer experience worker who was laid off. “I think that you find this in many of these blue chip Silicon Valley companies, they expect you to work 110 percent if you want to be a team player. If you’re not making those sacrifices maybe you should ask yourself if this is right for you. We as CX are expected to be a blood sacrifice for the team but we were always treated like Pluto, we’re circling the same sun but not acknowledged as being a part of the same system.”