Organizing Online Customer Service Workers in the Midst of a Pandemic

Sarah Smith

When the COVID-19 pandemic first hit and workers at the online clothing company Everlane faced layoffs, they decided to organize. One laid-off Everlane worker describes the difficulties of remote service work in the 21st century, building solidarity among coworkers who never meet in person, and why other online service workers should get organized.

The Everlane storefront. (Flickr)

Interview by
Lillian Osborne

In March, customer service workers filed for union recognition at Everlane, a major online retail clothing brand. Despite its stated commitment to “ethical factories” and “radical transparency,” four days later Everlane laid them off, claiming the layoffs were necessary in light of the COVID-19 crisis.

Everlane workers organized for the same reasons as workers at companies like Uber, Instacart, and Amazon: low pay, part-time work, misclassification as independent contractors, no benefits or job security, and no paid sick time. After the layoffs, the union representing the Everlane workers, the Communications Workers of America, filed a charge with the National Labor Relations Board against their employer for retaliating against the union effort. They also wrote a letter to Everlane CEO Michael Preysman demanding their jobs back and union recognition.

Though the layoffs had a chilling effect on organizing and all but broke the union effort, since then, Everlane has made major concessions to the workers. An emergency ordinance passed in San Francisco in June has forced Everlane to offer jobs back to laid-off workers before it can hire new employees to fill the same positions. And according to Sarah Smith (not her real name), a former employee I interviewed who was offered her job back, Everlane has succumbed to important elements of the union’s demands, offering full-time customer service jobs starting at $19 per hour, with full benefits and paid time off.

And an organized effort of current and past Everlane employees who call themselves the “Ex-Wives Club” recently detailed instances of racism, exclusionary behavior, bullying, and intimidation at Everlane. At the end of June, Everlane issued an apology in response to the allegations on Instagram.

The Everlane workers fall within the crosshairs of service work and professional-styled remote work. Service work and professional office work remain some of the largest, yet least organized, sectors of the economy. That, combined with remote work, made organizing even tougher for the workers and all the more instructive for future struggles in the industry.

Lillian Osborne interviewed Smith, a leader from the Everlane organizing effort, just after she had been laid off and the COVID-19 crisis was spiking in March. Though much has changed within the company and the organizing drive since then, the conversation about organizing in the middle of a pandemic and recession, emotional labor in service work, and the contradictions of low-paid professional work speaks to the experiences of many service workers in the United States at a time of overlapping labor, economic, and health crises.


LO

What was your day-to-day work like as a “customer experience agent” at Everlane?

SS

The bulk of my job was answering customer emails — everything from “I ordered a package a week ago, it hasn’t shipped out yet, what’s the status?” to “I was living abroad, and I shipped my package there, but it took too long and I’ve since returned home, but I still want my package.”

I was particularly fond of doing fit tickets, where someone would write in and essentially say, “Here’s my weight, here’s my size, here are my measurements. I have an interview in a week, tell me what to do.” And you would lay it all out for them. They ranged in complexity, from irate customers who would be satisfied with nothing less than a full refund or an expedited order, to people who really just craved that kind of personal connection with someone that you don’t often find when you’re shopping online.

LO

What were conditions like at work?

SS

Our team was entirely remote. We were scattered across the country and world. Being an e-commerce company, it was important for Everlane to be able to provide 24-7 service. We each had our own schedule, which meant that there are people who you could work alongside for a year and never have any personal interaction with because your schedules don’t overlap.

You could say, “What’s the big deal? You’ve all had this very flexible gig, where you could work remotely.” But it could be an incredibly isolating work experience, because we were all so atomized. And it also makes it an incredibly challenging environment to organize within, because the only communication we had with each other was through Everlane’s official workspace. So the first big challenge we had as organizers was to create our own autonomous, off-record Slack, where we built out our group by adding supporters painstakingly one by one.

LO

What led you all to organize?

SS

The customer experience team at Everlane was originally designed to be entirely remote. And at the time, as a scrappy start-up company, there are many advantages to this. You have less desk space, you don’t need to give people equipment because they use their own. And most critically, you don’t need to pay people competitive Bay Area wages. While paying someone $15 an hour in the Bay Area might be laughable, paying someone $15 an hour in North Carolina is not.

Around the time when I was brought on, we were transitioned from being contract workers who could work upward of forty hours a week to part-time workers, working a maximum of twenty-nine hours a week, because that’s when they would need to start giving us benefits.

LO

Did they ever explain why they made that change?

SS

It was a very abrupt decision. I got a call from the head of HR saying, “We’re switching you all over to part-time employees. You have twenty-four hours to sign this document and receive an onboarding bonus, or you’ll be let go.” And what we suspect is that what prompted that transition was a piece of legislation that would have forced companies to convert gig workers to employees.

LO

It meant continuing to keep wages low and benefits low.

SS

Exactly. I think it was a way of publicly saying, “We’re bringing you into the fold. You’re officially employees now.” But we think there were other motives, like avoiding negative press.

LO

It sounds like a central part of what was wrong at Everlane for you all was this part-time, gig work status.

SS

For me, it’s such a central part, because it’s not to say that there weren’t gripes when we were contract employees. Anyone who has freelanced is familiar with the headache involved with quarterly filings. But it still felt like we weren’t legitimate. It felt like we were the strays who you toss a bone to over the yard fence, and they were saying, “Well, you can come into the yard, but we’re still not going to let you into the house.”

The big impetus of organizing that really led me to push for this and commit to it and fight for this for the last year was looking around me and seeing how many friends were drawing a livelihood from this constellation of part-time work and freelance gigs that cumulatively added up to fifty, sixty hours of work every week with no benefits, no health care, no paid sick leave, no job security, and absolutely no bandwidth left at the end of the day to plan for your future, and just taking stock of that cumulative exhaustion. There’s a constant white noise of wondering, “How long can I sustain this? What happens to me if I get sick? What happens if I have a loved one who has an emergency?”

And looking at a company like Everlane, which is publicly so transparent about every stage of their production process and really prides itself on how thoroughly they’ve done their research with their suppliers and their factories and every aspect of their supply chain, and wondering, “Are we the only part of their business model that’s not designed to be sustainable?”

Because this job was designed to be temporary. The high turnover rate of our job was a feature, not a bug. And it was heartbreaking to feel like our job was a sieve for talented, hardworking people, because you just saw people reach this breaking point, where they had to leave despite their commitment to the company for their values, despite their commitment to the team.

This is where I think you have to look at the greater schism in the economy and the way that gig work is so atomized. This isn’t forty, fifty years ago where you could take that entry level, lowest-rung-of-the-totem-pole job at a company like Everlane, put in your hard work, and expect to be moved up the ladder.

Because in today’s economy, you’re a contract worker, you’re a temp worker, you’re a part-time worker, and that’s the way that it stays. There was never any pipeline for us to progress within the company. The introduction of remote full-time positions [that the company recently introduced] was a direct result of the threat of our unionizing. And so that’s really what it was about for us, fighting for a sustainable future within the company.

LO

The company has this motto about sustainability and radical transparency, and yet look at your working conditions.

SS

Absolutely. And they threw us a few bones. When we made that transition to part-time work, we were given a very meager stipend for our expenses that was meant to go toward internet costs. But we universally lived in fear of our laptops crapping out. It was a great catch-22 that we couldn’t do this job without our own equipment, but we couldn’t afford new equipment working this job.

LO

A lot of people have the same problems at work that you’re describing, but there’s usually a pretty big hurdle between having those problems and deciding to form an organization at your workplace. So what caused you all to take that leap?

SS

We are living through the greatest income inequality in a century. Our generation has now lived through two great recessions. Our earning power has never meant less than it does now. I do not think that should be normalized. And for a company like Everlane that prides itself on radical transparency and on sustainability, there is no reason in my mind why they shouldn’t have taken our union as an opportunity to live by their stated brand values. I didn’t want to wait for market forces to prompt Everlane to give us remote full-time work.

LO

You’re saying you were the people perfectly positioned to create this change at Everlane, but that’s the opposite of what people in “professional jobs” are often told — which is if you do a skilled job or a professional job or office-type job, then you don’t need a union or need to organize at work. Was there a period where you or your coworkers felt that way, and how did you work past it?

SS

Absolutely. There is an incredible volume of union-busting rhetoric that has been integrated into corporate culture, into the way that we onboard employees, into the way we have these conversations about work. You’re encouraged to have a direct line of communication between yourself and your manager, yourself and HR. And unions are considered a threat because they’ll get in the way of that.

I think American individualism manifests through that rhetoric. We had to educate ourselves about unions and whether joining one was the right solution. But the one thing that we never doubted was that uniting our voices would be the best way to advocate for change for ourselves.

I think this is where being a remote team, if you are not building those relationships within your team, the work that we were doing would be incredibly isolating because all this work is emotionally corrosive. You need to have the tool kit to buffer all of those angry and irate interactions that you have with customers — you are apologizing for mistakes that are nowhere near your own. Well, we were asked to do that an average of like seven to fifteen times an hour. It is empathy fatigue. And we were doing it alone from our sofas, probably after doing a second or third job, or being caretakers to families. And so there is an extraordinarily tight-knit community within the Everlane customer experience team because we were more or less left alone by the rest of the company.

The fact that we were able to accomplish all of this remotely speaks to the strength of those connections. We had to work together to navigate things like more stringent internal auditing that was put in place, that had little transparency, and that we couldn’t appeal.

LO

What was the audit system?

SS

There was absolutely no transparency about our pay structure, and none of us were ever given any clarity as to how we could achieve raises. There was never any lack of faith or trust in us coming together and being able to rely on each other. So it was an easy leap then to say, “Well, if only there was some way that we as a group could come together and collectively bargain . . . oh, wait, that already exists.”

LO

When we think about unions, we usually think about them like an insurance policy. But what you’re describing is what building an actual union is about, which is forming an organization with your coworkers and deciding, “We want to address these problems at work and fight to make our lives better.”

SS

Yeah. It just seems like every aspect of our job was designed to be temporary and was designed to further atomize us and act as a prophylactic against collective action.

For our evaluation system, we were all given a “point person.” And your point person was one of the full-time customer service workers working out of the San Francisco headquarters. And you would have a monthly check-in with them, where they would run through all of your stats, how quickly you were solving the tickets, your grammar, the language you were using. You were discouraged from having long, involved follow-ups with customers. They just wanted it to be one-and-done interactions.

And so if you were having an issue where you felt as though the three-strike system that was used for tallying mistakes in your monthly audit or attendance was punitive, and you told this to your point person every month, there was no way of knowing whether you and fifty other of your coworkers had the same frustrations. We used to have a private Slack group within the Everlane workspace that the company created for us. It was called the “room of requirement.” And with no sense of irony, the room of requirement was closed within two hours’ notice abruptly one day. That was when we started our off-record Slack group. What makes union-busting so insidious is that it can take the form of actions that seem perfectly reasonable at the time. But that was a smoking gun.

LO

A few months ago, I was working at a call center–type office job, but in a corporate setting in Downtown Chicago. They made you feel like you were a professional, when in reality you’re doing piecework and getting evaluated based on your production rate. Everything you did was done as quickly as possible and counted and tracked and evaluated. We also had an audit system.

SS

Yeah. Anything that falls under the realm of close interactions with a customer falls under that label of grunt work, where it gives a company a pass to marginalize you within the company, to stymie your professional development, and to underpay you. This was another huge impetus for us organizing, because as an e-commerce brand, we were the de facto brand ambassadors for Everlane. For customers who didn’t have access to a store, we were their source of information for every product.

I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had where we had no idea what we were doing when we were advising people on the fit or product details of these clothes because we couldn’t afford to buy them ourselves. The only way that I knew what the Day Market Tote looked or felt like was because I live in New York City and I went down to the SoHo Store.

So few of us had any experience of what any of those clothes looked or felt like, because we couldn’t afford them.

LO

I really like Everlane clothes and heard about your organizing from Bernie Sanders’s Twitter. How did you feel when you found out that he tweeted about you?

SS

Elation. It was incredible. We were so demoralized, we were so discouraged. All of us were drawn to the job in the first place by our belief and passion for the brand. But we got fired in the most heart-wrenching way. All of us, even people who had been at the company for years, received a robotically scripted five-minute-long call from HR letting them know that they were let go.

We were immediately logged out of all of our accounts, so we must have left hundreds of emails unfinished and un-replied to. If a customer is reading this interview and wonders why they still haven’t received their refunds, that’s why.

It was incredibly heart-wrenching to be let go that way and for all of us to be on the phone with HR while we were getting fired and to feel the vibrations of your phone from all of the Slack messages coming in and from everyone else who was simultaneously being fired with you.

I had this call with HR, hung up, and then I immediately called our representative from the Communications Workers of America to let them know that mass firings were happening. And we were trying to cobble together this plan, but everyone was just shell-shocked. We were all emotionally shell-shocked. We were all reeling from being fired abruptly with no notice in the middle of a pandemic, while most of us are living in major urban areas where the job market has been shut down, staring down potential months of unemployment.

It was very scary. To see our cause amplified and supported by Bernie Sanders meant so much more than I could articulate. It was so important for us to feel like we were being recognized and like we were being seen and everything that we were feeling was being validated because Everlane never fought for us.

If our firing truly had been objectively a business decision, there was never any outreach to try to mitigate that financial strain. There was never any talk about the potential for cutting hours or wages, let alone cutting all of our jobs. And so to suddenly see that sense of injustice, and that wrongness and that unfairness, and that what we were feeling was not only being acknowledged but being amplified on such a large scale, meant everything to us.

LO

It gave you hope.

SS

That’s exactly the right word. And what Senator Sanders called for, for Everlane to rehire and recognize our union, planted a seed. That Thursday, our local CWA sent a letter to the Everlane CEO, Michael Preysman, calling on him to do the same, to recognize our union and to rehire our team. And if CWA did not receive a response from the CEO within twenty-four hours, we were going to take appropriate action. And we received no response. So our union filed an unfair labor practice charge with Region 20 of the National Labor Relations Board.

We know that it could be a very long fight. But it’s one that is very much worth having because we represent an incredible group of people, but also because this is now representative of every marginalized minimum wage worker whose livelihood is treated as collateral damage. A crisis does not give a company the right to treat its workers as disposable. And this is about so much more than a company doing mass layoffs under the financial burden of COVID-19. We were laid off four days after we asked for formal recognition of our union, and that timing speaks for itself.

LO

Lots of retail workers are getting laid off right now. What would you tell other people who are in the same position as you or a similar position?

SS

I would say we have pushed the labor argument forward, and we are not going back. An interesting intersection to me of this Venn diagram between the grunt work of servicing your customers and this white-collar professionalism of sitting behind a screen is that customer service sits at the center of those two things. I was told that when Everlane was first founded, there was an effort to be much more inclusive. Folks living in San Francisco were asked to come in once a week for the all-hands meeting. There was much more outreach, there was much more communication between customer experience and the other teams.

And my personal impression is that as Everlane expanded outward and opened up more retail stores, we were increasingly bundled into retail. There’s a difference between treating your lowest rung of employees as the people doing the undesirable grunt work of dealing with the mess of making your money through a customer base and seeing them as line items in a spreadsheet that needs to be balanced. And in seeing that group of people as talented and hardworking and passionate and full of untapped potential who are temporarily passing through these sorts of jobs as a means for them to grow within their career and get to where they need to go, or people like myself, who graduated in an economy that never allowed me to progress past that stage because I couldn’t afford to do unpaid internships in college.

And so when you come into a job market that every entry-level professional position requires you to have one to two years of experience, and you’ve never been financially fortunate enough or have the connections to acquire that experience, you are getting funneled into service jobs.

You need to have an acknowledgment that your struggles are also your coworkers’ struggles, and that the only way for both of you to approach any kind of a solution is to present a united front because the other side of that, like individualism, is putting your workers in a mindset where another person’s gain is your loss. And you can’t think that way when you’re organizing.

LO

What do you think workers’ response more broadly should be to this crisis, because obviously the crisis is a very convenient excuse for companies to cut people and that creates harder conditions for organizing? What do you think people should do? And do you think that they should be continuing to organize at their workplaces?

SS

I think people should absolutely be continuing to organize at their workplaces because the need is greater now than it’s ever been. These conversations that spark organizing for a sustaining wage, job security — that is greater now than ever. And if you are lucky enough to still be in a workplace, that means that you are considered to be an essential worker. It means that your contribution is considered essential to the growth and the integrity of your workplace.

One of the insidious consequences of the prevailing labor and financial policy for the last few decades has been the normalization of a lack of job growth, the stagnation of wages, trying to break apart worker solidarity. And we cannot allow those pernicious factors to be normalized.

And the greatest thing that we as marginalized workers can do is raise awareness of that and come together. When you see what the Amazon workers are doing when they’re saying, “You are relying on us to be your grocery store, to be your pantry, to deliver cleaning supplies, to be your home pharmacy, and we are barely making ends meet.” Or when you see Instacart workers holding mass strikes. I think that now is absolutely the time for collective action because you will never have a greater awareness of what you are doing and the need on the other side. The need of workers has never been greater.

LO

I think a lot of people right now are thinking very conservatively because there’s a crisis happening: “How do I keep my head down, make it through this?” But what you’re saying is that actually we’re more powerful than ever, and now’s the time to take action.

SS

Absolutely. If nothing is done to reverse the decline in workers’ collective power and potential, then this fissure will just continue to widen.

LO

Where do you see things going forward?

SS

I want to hammer home that this was not a typical mass layoff. This is not like the other patterns we’re seeing with businesses under financial pressure laying off their workers due to COVID-19. The timing of our firing speaks for itself. This was deliberate. I think that this had been in the works for a long time and that COVID-19 gave them a very convenient timeline to do it.

Everlane wants making the right ethical choice to be as easy as putting on a great T-shirt. And we have given them every opportunity to live by those brand values. And consistently at every turn, they have minimized us. They have degraded us, and we have been treated as expendable.

Our hardworking team that were the de facto brand ambassadors for their company, that over the years have saved them hundreds of thousands of dollars in fraud orders, have created the meaningful moments that keep customers coming back to the brand. Our treatment was a complete departure from those stated values. And we are taking this as an opportunity to hold them accountable because if we don’t, then who will? And if we do not set this precedent that you cannot use a crisis as a smoke screen to union-bust and treat your workers as collateral damage for maintaining your bottom line, then who will?

I think we are seeing a resurgence in the labor movement. I think we are seeing a revitalization of unions as our generation rediscovers them as a means of restoring that sustaining wage and security net that the gig economy disrupted. But we’re not going to go quietly. We know that this is not going to be an easy fight. We know that it is going to be hard. We know that it is going to be a difficult, most likely an indeterminately long time. But we’re ready for that.