In late December, remote customer-service workers at Everlane announced that they are unionizing, citing low pay, nonexistent benefits, unpredictable scheduling, and the company’s apparent desire to prevent them from organizing. Now, 10 New York “retail ambassadors”—Everlane’s term for employees working at brick-and-mortar stores—tell VICE their experiences mirror those of their colleagues. Among their most serious allegations: that Everlane management attempted to keep them from discussing their wages with their coworkers, which would be a violation of both federal and New York state labor laws.
All of these concerns came to a head at an August all-hands meeting with the staffers at the Prince Street location in Soho. At that meeting, several people told us, one ambassador brought up the subject of a wage increase, which seemed to surprise the managers present. As the meeting proceeded, two people told VICE, Tara Shanahan, the VP of Retail, told the employees “that we were not allowed to discuss wages amongst ourselves,” as one put it. Both the National Labor Relations Act and New York state law say that companies cannot forbid their workers from discussing their wages. Shanahan, whose LinkedIn lists her as a previous regional director at Old Navy, Athleta, and The Limited, would presumably be aware of these laws. She did not respond to a request for comment from VICE.
“One of my co-workers immediately brought up that it was illegal for her to tell us this. Tara didn't respond,” one person told us. Another manager stepped in to “say something along the lines of ‘we would advise that it's best practice’ to not talk about wages with co-workers,” the person told us.
A spokesperson for Everlane from Derris, a PR company that has also represented Warby Parker and Glossier, among other direct-to-consumer brands, responded to questions from VICE on Everlane’s behalf. The company disputes the way the comments were portrayed by the employees, saying it was simply not “the right setting” for the ambassador to share wage concerns.
“In the all hands meeting in August we told an employee that this was not the right setting to share wage information,” the spokesperson wrote. “We apologize if this made anyone feel uncomfortable, and employees are of course free to share wage information if they choose to.”
Everlane has always espoused a commitment to “radical transparency,” wooing customers with promises of sustainably produced products, a clear, well-documented supply chain and humane conditions for the factory workers who make their clothes. Yet the CX employees, as customer-service workers are called, say that transparency wasn’t extended to them, nor did their working conditions meet the high standards Everlane sets for itself. After our story ran, Everlane CEO Michael Presyman acknowledged the discontent in an internal email, which was shared with VICE, writing, in exquisite corporate-speak, “[A]s we have scaled, we've lost sight of building strong connections across our various teams.”
The company has engaged in a concerted effort to keep the CX workers from unionizing, sending out two misinformation-riddled emails about the supposed negative effects of a union. Presyman continued that push in his message, writing, “Recently a few employees on the CX team have felt the need to work with a union to push for worker rights (e.g. full time benefits, etc). I believe this is because we did not create a great pathway for them to be heard by us, which is something we're fixing. Each employee has a right to join a union; however, we want to make sure they are informed with all the facts and we have the chance to move forward on many of the improvements we have planned.”
Meanwhile, the 10 retail workers at Everlane’s New York stores independently told VICE that like the CX employees, the retail team has been trying unsuccessfully for months to improve their working conditions through official company channels. They say that since August, some 30 full- and part-time workers have quit in frustration. (Everlane didn’t directly respond to a question from VICE about whether that number is accurate.)
“In a one-to-one meeting with store leaders, the messaging that we received is that although Everlane is radically transparent when it comes to production, that does not extend to the structural landscape of retail,” another retail ambassador told us. (All 10 workers requested anonymity for this story, saying they feared immediate retaliation or job loss if they were identified.)
Reading VICE’s first story, one retail worker told us, “felt relieving and disheartening … because it makes me realize the negative experiences that me and my co-workers have had is not isolated.”
The retail workers’ main concerns are around pay and scheduling. They say workers are frequently called into work on short notice on days they weren’t scheduled, while often not being assigned the minimum number of hours they’re promised each week. They’re also, several people said, occasionally asked to come into the store in the very early morning—typically between 5:30 and 7 a.m.—to prepare the store for photos sent to the company headquarters in San Francisco, apparently as part of a quality check. “Part-time employees have no choice in being scheduled for these shifts,” one person said.
“Having experienced working both full- and part-time, I can say that working part-time here is the most anxiety-producing job I have ever had,” another ambassador told VICE. (Most of the people we spoke to had worked in retail before and were aware of what the environment is usually like.) “We have absolutely no security when it comes to being guaranteed hours.” Retail ambassadors say they’ve learned from talking to one another that they make different amounts of money for doing the same job; most make between $16 and $18 an hour. New York’s state-mandated minimum wage is $15 an hour. (Everlane responds: “Wages are set on experience and there are 3 types of retail roles: part time, full time and leadership. We pay between $16-$18 per hour for part time employees in our New York locations, depending on experience.”)
The work environment can be difficult, two employees told us, with store management ping-ponging between chastising workers for minor offenses and displaying unprofessional and inappropriate behavior.
“The boundaries feel paradoxical,” said the same worker who described the job as “anxiety-producing.”
Do you work at Everlane, or know anything we should know? Contact Anna Merlan at firstname.lastname@example.org or via VICE's SecureDrop.
“One minute a manager will yell at you about drinking water on the floor and the next they’re asking about your plans for the evening. One manager made an assumptive comment about my socio-economic class in front of other employees that made me very uncomfortable, but there was no one for me to speak to about it. We lack any sort of HR resource—the director of retail has missed multiple phone meetings with ambassadors without an email to let them know.”
(“We have an open door policy for all of our retail ambassadors,” Everlane responded, “with resources posted in all back rooms with direct emails and personal phone numbers for HR, our Head of Retail, Director of Stores and store leaders. This open line of communication is used frequently by our team.”)
“The constant micro-managing and chastising has led to a team of disgruntled brand ambassadors who feel policed for doing our jobs,” another employee told VICE. “We are made to feel bad and uncomfortable for simply standing still near a rack when it is quiet in the store and there is nothing to fix. Many leaders make us feel like we are seen as vessels for productivity rather than human beings. By not even being able to ask a coworker about their weekend without getting in trouble, we have found it increasingly difficult to interact with customers in a way that feels genuinely positive.”
The punishments for incorrect floor behavior can be humiliating. In one incident related to us by two people, an ambassador who needs to take medication at the same time every day was scolded for doing so, presumably because she had to leave the floor. She was later made to scrub scuff marks from the floor.
“Needless to say, this is not a task that is ever given to brand ambassadors, especially as there is a cleaning service that comes every night,” one worker says.
The tension has been building, several people said. “Things feel like they’ve been bubbling up,” one person told us.
Everlane’s retail woes were, in one sense, avoidable: For years, the company swore they’d never open brick-and-mortar stores at all. They reversed that position with little fanfare in 2017, opening a flagship store on Prince Street in New York’s Soho neighborhood, before adding a second location in San Francisco’s Mission District. (Preysman told the Washington Post at the time, "We realized we need to have stores if we're going to grow on a national and global scale.") A second New York store in Williamsburg followed in September of this year. The company now has five altogether: In addition to the two New York stores and the San Francisco location, there’s one in Los Angeles and one in Palo Alto.
In one light, the stores function less as traditional retail spaces and more as brand extensions. Like Reformation, another brand that has aggressively positioned itself as environmentally friendly, the Everlane retail experience is replete with photos of their denim factories and explanations about how much of your purchase will be donated to worthy causes like the ACLU. It sells not just a sweater, but a feeling of virtue.
Yet the rollout of the New York locations, at least -- an attempt to disrupt traditional retail -- has itself experienced some disruption. The past six months have been plagued with problems at both stores, the retail employees VICE spoke to said. The Williamsburg location was severely understaffed for the first two months. The understaffing was the first domino that caused employees to start quitting, one person told us. That, in turn, led to mass hiring of new employees, meaning many people aren’t getting the hours they were promised.
“The high turnover has caused mass hiring, which in ways is beneficial but has also seen a dramatic cut in hours for all part-time employees,” they told us. “Just a few days ago we received a message about our schedules the week of New Year’s, and how ‘you will notice staffing is lighter after the Christmas rush.’ As someone who regularly works 30 hours a week, I was scheduled for 17 hours—this is not enough hours for me to make rent. A full-time ambassador messaged our groupme saying they had been scheduled for only 23 hours, a direct breach of the full-time ambassador contract. Other ambassadors who expect and need 20+ hours were scheduled for the minimum of 12.”
The all-hands meeting in August at the Prince Street location “was meant to address long standing issues and frustrations many of us have had with retail leadership,” the same person continued. Among their major concerns was a manager whom employees say was fired after altering their time cards to make their paid breaks into unpaid ones. (Everlane acknowledged the manager in question was no longer with the company, writing, "Both stores now have new leadership, and we are working quickly to address these issues at the very highest levels of the company." But they disputed that the time cards had been tampered with, attributing the issue to a “manual data entry error.” The company said that it “impacted 26 employees and $240 in total compensation” and was fixed.)
The meeting was not a success. It ended with Shanahan “scolding us,” the person says. “She told us that speaking amongst ourselves and venting our frustrations created toxicity.”
Another employee at the Williamsburg location tells us that while they’ve never been told not to discuss their wages, “it is discouraged in other ways.” One person, after speaking to a coworker, discovering they were paid more than her, and speaking to a manager about it, found themselves given a radically different schedule, one where they no longer worked alongside that coworker.
Unlike the CX employees, retail employees are currently having no clear discussions about taking concerted action, like unionization.
“I haven't heard of any organizing or serious plans to move forward with our complaints,” one person told VICE. “I think because we work in a retail capacity, it's just easy to either quit or move on elsewhere to other retail jobs, so it feels futile to organize something beyond what we've already tried to do, which is get management and HQ to hear us."
Another retail ambassador disagrees. “I’ve reached out to the CX team” to hear more about unionizing, they tell VICE.
“A lot of us wanted to work for this brand because we cared about how our clothes are made,” they added. “Everlane promotes ethical choices—but what are those ethics where we’re concerned?”
Through their spokesperson, Everlane submitted the following response to this article as a whole:
As a growing company, we are well aware that we sometimes make mistakes. We strongly believe that the happiness of our team is what is most important. While we are confident we follow all legal guidelines regarding things like breaks and freedom of speech, that doesn’t mean we do everything right.
In this case, when we were made aware of issues by the team in our New York stores, we completed a full investigation and worked quickly to start making changes where necessary. We are committed to getting better. Both stores now have new leadership, and we are working quickly to address these issues at the very highest levels of the company.
We are continually learning how to support our remote ambassadors, and encourage all of our employees to speak up so that we can create a culture that lives up to our values in their entirety. As we grow, we know we will make mistakes, but are committed to learning, evolving and getting better.