For the past few weeks, news of staff cuts in the retail sector has been nearly constant, with Sephora laying off its part-time workers while brands including Macy’s and Bed, Bath & Beyond furloughing employees in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
But even among that onslaught, the news that Everlane had laid off the majority of its part-time remote customer experience team still managed to get extra attention—Vermont senator and presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders even tweeted about it. What was particularly notable is that the people affected were members of the same team that recently unionized at the end 2019, citing low pay and few benefits.
Because of the timing of the layoffs, so soon after the unionization announcement, Sanders—among others on social media—accused Everlane of union busting.
The DTC clothing retailer quickly came back with a statement, calling the layoffs the “hardest decision we’ve ever made,” and adding “this was not about the union.” The statement also noted that the company was not profitable, does not have a cash balance and has been “significantly impacted” by the ongoing pandemic.
All part-time associates were laid off, while full-time retail employees were furloughed so they could keep benefits. Forty-two employees were laid off, but 16 customer experience associates were moved into full-time roles with benefits before the layoffs occurred. Laid off employees will receive severance.
“Some have said that Everlane used the COVID-19 pandemic as a way to end internal union-organizing efforts on our customer experience team,” said Everlane founder and CEO Michael Preysman in a letter. “We would never do that. Firing as a form of union busting is unethical and illegal. Everlane has and always will support workers’ rights to choose to unionize via the democratic election process outlined by the National Labor Relations Board.”
The recent unionization announcement adds another wrinkle to the Everlane layoffs, and is the primary reason they are garnering such attention even as layoffs are occurring across the country and across industries. According to one of the laid-off employees (who has requested anonymity, but who we’ll call Megan for this article) the local Communications Workers of America (CWA) union sent a letter to Everlane seeking job reinstatement and union recognition.
The union members asked for formal recognition on March 23, just days before the layoffs. The intention to unionize was first announced at the end of 2019, but because of the “high turnover” rate of the role, according to Megan, they weren’t able to reach a strong enough majority until March. Megan added that Everlane did not respond to the unionization effort before they were laid off.
The news of the layoffs came as a shock to the team. Megan called it a “traumatic” and “heart-wrenching” experience. They had been surprised by the news, which came on Friday, March 27, because the team had been seeing an increased demand online.
“Everlane is an ecommerce brand and so most of the sales—most of the business—primarily does come from online,” she said. “So of course, we’re aware that they’re placed in this difficult situation of having the retail stores be closed indefinitely. But there was no understanding that that would affect our team in any way because we were actually busier than ever. There was absolute need to have this team.”
That, coupled with a lack of warning, made the move so shocking. Every Monday, she said, the Everlane team has an all-hands meeting, and at the most recent meeting prior to the layoffs, there was no warning of upcoming cutbacks. The layoffs were also delivered not by an employee’s personal manager, she said, but someone from human resources that they had no “personal connection” with, and were “hustled off the phone” quickly.
The shock of the layoffs made the situation harder to bear, Megan said, particularly at a company with “Radical Transparency” as its tagline.
“This isn’t a huge corporation or an impersonal workspace; it’s a company that prides itself on having that strong culture,” she said. “This isn’t a company that any of us expected to be fired from in such a dehumanizing and abrupt way.”
Rather than being laid off outright, Megan said the team would have preferred to take a salary cut or be furloughed. Now, customer experience is operating with a “skeleton crew,” she said. The laid-off employees have started a GoFundMe page to raise money for those affected by the layoffs.
“What we wish is that if this truly was an objective business decision, then they could have prepared us for that eventuality,” she said, adding: “I wish they had fought for us.”