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 why they are garnering such attention even as layoffs happen across the country. According to Megan, one of the laid-off employees and a representative of the Everlane union who asked to remain anonymous for this article, the local Communications Workers of America (CWA) union has asked Everlane in a letter to reinstate their jobs as well as recognize the union. She said that if those requests are not met, “we will be taking appropriate action.”
The unionized members had asked for formal recognition on March 23, just days before they were laid off. The intention to unionize was first announced at the end of the year, but because of the “high turnover” rate of the role, according to Megan, they weren’t able to reach a strong enough majority until then, though she said they reached a majority within days. She added that Everlane did not respond to the unionization effort before they were laid off.
Megan said that the news of the layoffs came as a shock to the team, calling 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 dealing with 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.