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Workers Say They Were Manipulated into Free Labor For National Yoga Brand

According to former workers, the glossy, values-driven Yoga to the People studios took significant advantage of people aspiring to be yoga teachers.
October 29, 2020, 4:25pm

Sarah Thomas began her career with Yoga to the People in 2016, after completing the company’s now infamous Teacher Training program. Soon after, she took a position of “caretaker” at the St. Marks studio in Manhattan, which she says entailed up to nine hours of janitorial duties for a flat rate of $50 a night. Thomas, who was 19 at the time, dreamed the job would be a stepping stone to a managerial role or a position as a full-time teacher. But the long hours and low pay, coupled with what she, an Indian woman, describes as the “gentrification” and “cultural appropriation” of yoga and Hindu practices, left her struggling to find a sustainable place within the company culture. “I was being scheduled to teach up to 12 classes a week and caretaking nearly every day,” Thomas told VICE, while getting paid what “amounted to just maybe $1,200 a month.” 

Yoga to the People founder and owner Greg Gumucio was once publicly lauded as a progressive businessman seeking to make yoga more accessible. The studios he founded offered either Hot Yoga, which had already been popularized by his former mentor and one-time good friend, Bikram Choudry; donation based, cash-only Vinyasa classes; or both. A VICE investigation in July uncovered that Yoga to the People’s carefully cultivated image was haunted by roughly 25 years of sexual assault allegations against Gumucio, claims of cult-like company practices, and according to staff, a manipulative culture of silence. 

Now, dozens of former employees have come forward to describe experiences similar to Thomas’s, in which they report working full-time hours while not getting paid fairly. Former staff told VICE that Yoga to the People paid them off the books for years, appearing to fly under the radar of the IRS. The workers VICE spoke claim they  were not issued W2s, even though many of the workers would likely have qualified as employees according to the criteria laid out by the Fair Labor Standards Act and Department of Labor. 

Furthermore, instructors at a San Francisco location indicated that ownership willfully ignored their mandated occupancy level from a local fire inspector, in order to accommodate more students, and bring in more profit. In Manhattan, staff said indoor fires were lit against the landlord’s wishes, in order to host a version of a pooja, a Hindu prayer ceremony, on multiple occasions.

According to a former “salaried” manager, “apprenticing just meant you were asked to teach 25 classes for free.”

To work for Yoga to the People, most instructors were required to first graduate from the company’s Teacher Training program. According to multiple graduates and teachers, the 200-hour course cost each of its 50 participants $3,200, ran three times per year, and earned the company up to $160,000 each session, or, up to $480,000 annually.

Yoga to the People verbally offered graduates of the Teacher Training program (referred to as “TTs”) the opportunity to “apprentice” for the company. According to Josephine, a former “salaried” manager at one of the studio’s New York locations (whose name has been changed out of fear of company retaliation), “apprenticing just meant you were asked to teach 25 classes for free.”

According to Thomas, at Yoga to the People’s St. Mark’s location in Manhattan, once you got scheduled to teach for pay (and not as an apprentice) you weren’t actually guaranteed payment either. “If the class doesn’t open or gets cancelled,” due to low student turnout, “you don’t get paid, despite preparing or cleaning the room,” which Thomas says could take an extra one to two hours of work. “That puts you in this loophole of ‘teaching’ something like 12 classes a week, but not getting paid,” as the classes never took place. Staff teachers at Yoga to the People report being explicitly told they were not allowed to advertise when or where they were teaching classes, which made them unable to encourage attendance. The schedule, they say, was secret from students.

The Federal Department of Labor defines an apprenticeship as a paying job. But the structure of the Yoga to the People’s program that sources have described more closely resembles that of an unpaid internship, which for-profit businesses are legally allowed to utilize so long as the intern in question doesn’t meet specific federal stipulations of being in an “employee relationship” with the business. In New York State, where employees say Yoga to the People frequently engaged unpaid apprentices to teach classes, the Department of Labor has a detailed fact sheet that states that in order to be considered a non-employee, an intern must not displace paid employees with the work they do. 

Josephine told VICE that the “apprenticeship program” meant paid staff got smaller paychecks “whenever there was a new batch of ‘apprentices’ to schedule instead.” Occasionally, Josephine said, the length and frequency of the “apprenticeship program” meant two programs could happen concurrently, with a new one beginning before the previous had ended. This overlap may have ensured a steady stream of free labor for company use. 

Staff teachers reported being paid $35 per class, and assert that Yoga to the People stood to save $875 for every “apprentice” that completed the program, or $131,250 per year per class. Yoga to the People studio documents obtained by VICE indicate that the company may have been fully aware of the money they were saving by utilizing the “apprentices” to teach, instead of paid staff.

“After graduating from teacher training, I began my 25-class ‘apprenticeship,’” said Anna, a former teacher whose name has been changed because she feared her professional reputation would be damaged. When Anna was a class or two away from being paid for her work, she says, she was charged with closing down the studio for the first time. She asked her manager if there was additional protocol to follow. Although she was told no, the next day, Anna says she received a verbally abusive call from the same studio manager reprimanding her for not closing properly. She was never scheduled to teach at that location again. 

VICE spoke with other graduates who became paid instructors for the studios after the apprenticeship program. Several reported other potential violations of state and federal labor laws.

Other former staff who were paid appear to not have made minimum wage. Josephine told VICE that it wasn’t uncommon for her to work up to 80 hours per week while making a monthly salary of $3,200 “off the books,” which amounts to about $10/hour. Since Josephine was based in NYC at a time when minimum wage was greater than that, it appears she was both underpaid for regular hours and did not receive the overtime pay she was owed by law. The FLSA has robust record-keeping guidelines that require accurate time logs of employee hours, as well as personally identifying information one would need to report wages paid to the IRS, such as the worker’s social security number and birthdate. Most of the employees interviewed for this article indicated never being asked for this information, or to fill out any forms for tax reporting purposes.

When asked if they were given any information to document their pay, most Yoga to the People staff seemed amused, and reiterated that they were paid off the books.

Jessica Kulick, 35, did her TT in 2012. Like Josephine, she eventually became a manager. The two both report regularly taking part in the hours-long practice of organizing piles of cash donations from various vinyasa classes, something senior staff nicknamed “stacking.” Josephine was tasked with depositing sums of money at the bank. “I was told by my superior to never deposit amounts close to $10,000, because that’s the amount that would get flagged by the IRS.”

In fact, when Jessica, who worked 60 hours a week and received a monthly salary, requested a W2, she says that a senior manager who was a central figure in operations at Yoga to the People, strongly suggested she not file her taxes. Further, this suggestion came with an admission that the senior manager herself did not report wages earned at Yoga to the People to state or federal governments. Neither Gumucio nor this senior manager responded to numerous requests for comments via multiple venues on any of the issues and incidents described in this piece. (Disclosure: This reporter worked as an instructor and studio staff for the company from 2012 to 2017, and does not maintain any relationship with any of its current leadership.)

Like the other caretakers VICE spoke with, Alcy Sivyer, 28, was paid a flat rate of $50 for the evenings she cleaned the studio. “I would stay for, like, three, four, or five hours sometimes, but they always paid me the same amount.” Another caretaker, who agreed to speak with VICE on the condition that he could withhold his name, said he was also paid this flat rate for up to five hours worked. The studio he cleaned was in NYC at a time when minimum wage was $15 per hour. “They present this beautiful facade,” he said, “But at the end of the day, it’s a business in a capitalist society. They’re trying to keep the business running and they’re trying to make money.” 

According to multiple former staff, Yoga to the People also frequently relied on them to volunteer unpaid hours to fulfill studio needs. It was widely understood, they said, that the more hours you volunteered, the more hours you were likely to get scheduled to teach. According to the Department of labor, “employees may not volunteer services to for-profit private sector employers.”

Employees’ statements suggest that not only did Yoga to the People fail to comply with wage laws, it also fell short on worker’s compensation, which is required regardless of workers’ status. In April 2017, Sivyer, who told VICE she was paid off the books, got sick while cleaning mold at Yoga to the People’s Brooklyn location. Despite expressing safety concerns, Sivyer says her manager insisted she use bleach to remove the mold covering the studio and locker rooms. “My eyes were burning and my throat swelled up,” she told VICE. Sivyer says she was diagnosed with bleach poisoning at an urgent care clinic. She says that she could hardly talk for three days and missed scheduled shifts at her second job. 

After forwarding the doctor’s bill to the senior manager, she says she received an envelope of cash covering the costs. Her symptoms persist to this day. “Had there been worker's compensation,” she believes, “Someone would have explained my options to me with how to seek treatment, so I wouldn’t still have to deal with it now.”

The Worker’s Compensation Board told VICE via email that it had “no record” of Yoga to the People’s Brooklyn, Upper West Side, Queens, or 38th street locations, suggesting that Yoga to the People never filed Sivyer’s incident, and also that the company may not have held Worker’s Compensation Insurance for those studios while they were in operation.

Failure to keep adequate incident records in New York carries a fine of  “$1,000 per every 10-day period of noncompliance, or two times the cost of compensation,” according to the penalties for noncompliance section on workers’ compensation board’s website.

Yoga to the People had no HR department, employees told VICE. “If there was an HR department,” Thomas said, “then you'd have people figuring out how to make practices accessible and safe. There was none of that.” Instead, she says the senior manager acted as a “one-woman Human Resources department. She was the person to report abuse to. So, if she didn't feel like it was abuse, then it wasn’t investigated. You don't even have just a safe side. There's absolutely no one to talk to.”

Yoga to the People would have also been required, at minimum, to communicate a fire prevention plan to its staff. Greg Gumucio may have willfully ignored fire safety compliance law, in both its San Francisco and St. Marks locations. One manager of multiple studio locations, Alexis Penney, told VICE that some studios may have operated “directly against fire code.” According to Penney and a second former manager at the Mission’s San Francisco location, classes often had 100 people practicing in one room, despite the fact, they allege, that fire safety inspectors informed studio management that the space could only safely hold 49 people on multiple occassions.  (VICE contacted the SF fire department and learned that it doesn’t have a record for the studio’s address.)

Thomas reported that at least one instructor would hold her own version of a pooja celebration in the studio, which involves lighting a fire and throwing offerings in. Not only was the practice appropriative of Hinduism (most customers weren’t coming “to pray or to practice,” Thomas said, and these ceremonies are typically free at temples), but the landlords, an elderly couple who Thomas says live above the St. Marks studio, forbade indoor fires out of safety concerns. “We were not allowed to light a fire in that studio.”

Yoga to the People is not the first yoga studio to garner public criticism for allegedly predatory practices regarding the sales of their Teacher Training program. In 2019, CorePower Yoga came under fire when management incentivized staff to recruit students into their version of Teacher Training. Additionally, CorePower settled a collective-action lawsuit for $1.5 million from 2,100 former employees who argued the studios operated in violation of labor laws for failing to pay staff minimum wage. CorePower committed to policy changes to prevent future violations from occurring but at the time of the case’s settlement, continued to deny all allegations. As of this writing, there have not been any legal actions taken against Yoga to the People for alleged labor violations.

Juno Turner, the litigation director at nonprofit law firm Towards Justice, told VICE that “Based on the facts reported, it certainly appears that Yoga to the People may have been violating both state and federal wage and hour laws. The ‘apprenticeship’ program sounds like a profit-generating vehicle for the company, with little in the way of educational components that might make it a genuine internship. And the so-called managers and cleaners both appear to have been underpaid, either in terms of minimum wage, overtime, or both.”

Workers' rights are guaranteed by state and federal government in part to prevent the exploitative practices many instructors appear to have been subject to at Yoga to the People. Although employees say this went unchecked for potentially a decade, it’s still possible for former staff to explore avenues that may bring about some level of justice. “Current and former workers can seek redress either by filing a private lawsuit on their own behalf or as a class or collective action, or by filing a complaint with the federal or state department of labor,” said Turner.

Yoga to the People’s history suggests that a company’s ethos can’t always be taken at face value. “I deeply regret having made that company seem like a safe place for all the friends and students I brought into it,” Penney told VICE. Sivyer expressed a similar sentiment. She moved out of New York City entirely after leaving Yoga to the People. She had “built her home around a place,” she said, only to realize it was not truly “safe. I was just ashamed to be there. I didn't want to feed into it anymore.”