Weight Watchers employees were busier than ever these past few months, as the coronavirus pandemic heightened eating issues for many people ― from those locked down at home obsessing over what to eat, to essential workers turning to food for comfort and to soothe anxieties.
A doctor who spent her days tending to COVID-19 patients, many of whom died, was among those who talked with Erica Stein. Until recently, Stein, age 50, was working online chat shifts for Weight Watchers, or WW as it now calls itself. The company offers a 24/7 online support feature for paying members.
“At the end of the day, she reached for a pint of ice cream and potato chips,” Stein said. And the doctor, who’s on the front lines of a pandemic, said this (extremely relatable) eating episode made her feel like a failure. A heartbreaking notion, familiar to all of us who rate ourselves on how “good” our eating has been instead of, well, any other metric.
“I said, ’Oh my gosh, you’re not a failure. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Show yourself some kindness,” Stein recalled. The doctor thanked her for the support. “I felt like I was doing something worthwhile,” Stein said.
Not anymore. Weight Watchers unceremoniously dumped Stein and many others last week in audio-only Zoom calls that lasted mere minutes. Employees logged on and listened to a manager read from a script. Their voices were muted so they couldn’t ask questions. They were told not to talk about it with anyone, some of those now-former Weight Watchers employees told HuffPost.
When the call was over, they were shut out of all WW employee websites and their emails were closed down by the weekend. Some of those who were laid off had worked decades for the company and had started out as members trying to lose weight themselves.
WW would not say how many employees were let go worldwide when asked about an anonymous post on TheLayoff.com that claimed thousands were fired. But the company reported to the federal government that it had 17,000 employees, a majority of whom are part-time, as of December 2019. And last week it said in public filings that it would be cutting its workforce amid the pandemic-driven economic downturn and that it expected to spend $12 million in employee termination payments and related costs.
“As the COVID-19 crisis has forced the closure of our physical studios around the world, we have had to make some difficult decisions that have directly impacted the lives of some of our valued team members,” the company said in a statement provided to HuffPost. “We thank them for all of their efforts on behalf of our members during their years of service.”
The pandemic has accelerated the company’s big plan to move more of its services online, in an appeal to a younger demographic. WW has 3,000 studios around the country. Amid the current crisis, it has taken the 30,000 weekly workshops held there and put them online, USA Today reported. It recently said it would start reopening some physical locations ― but many would not reopen.
WW declined to answer specific questions as to why it fired those who were already working remotely. Instead, it told HuffPost, “Our digital transformation also includes the evolution of all our customer interfaces and coaching platforms and we are reorganizing as such.”
HuffPost talked to five former employees, all women, all 50 and over. They said a number of their laid-off co-workers are also older. They hail from a generation that didn’t talk about “self-care” or “wellness” or “body positivity,” but like the company’s iconic founder, Jean Nidetch, just wanted to look slim.
“We are from the era when there were a lot of housewives who wanted to stay home and raise kids. Single-income families,” said one former employee who is in her 60s from New Jersey. “Now women, thank god, have evolved to have careers. No one young would stay there for that kind of money.”
Stein, and other former employees, said that they didn’t think the layoffs were “ageist.” They said some younger women had also been let go.
But Stein did think the company’s transition to digital has been hard for its most devoted members, who she said have struggled as the company has switched its guidance from, say, tracking your food intake on paper to tracking it on your phone.
“They were trying to be hip-trendy when their core group is senior citizens. Rather than adapt and have both, they were shutting one out,” Stein said. “They weren’t respecting the true loyal fan base.”
And those are the people who “love their Weight Watchers. They wouldn’t miss a meeting,” she said.
Zoom Layoffs Are Trendy Now
Socially distant layoffs have become the thing to do during the pandemic. Scooter company Bird laid off 400 employees in a two-minute Zoom chat that the company’s CEO later said he regretted. Uber fired 3,700 workers via Zoom earlier this month.
The coldly remote firing method is leaving people reeling at an already stressful time. The Weight Watchers employees told HuffPost they were devastated by the way the layoffs were handled.
For these women, working at Weight Watchers was less a job than a mission. They’d all started out as members trying to lose weight. They’d managed to reach their goal weight and stayed around to help others do the same. There were bumps along the way. Several mentioned the challenge of maintaining your weight while going through menopause.
The idea that the company would let them go en masse in just minutes, they said, was like being abandoned by a spouse or betrayed by a best friend.
“I started the program really hard in 2014. I was 285 pounds and decided it was time,” said Nancy, a 51-year-old former employee on Long Island. Before then she’d been going to meetings but kind of “floundering,” she said. “Then I really dove into it. I was active in my meetings and became really good friends with members, and they were all like you need to be a leader. It became my goal.” (Nancy asked that HuffPost not publish her last name for fear of retaliation from the company, which still owes her another paycheck.)
“Every pound I lost was another round closer to working with Weight Watchers,” she said. “That’s why this is so emotional for me. They took that away. I worked so hard for it.”
Not getting to say good-bye to members also really hurt, she said. One of the women she worked with had died of COVID-19. The woman’s sister called to let her know.
“I was the first person she called,” Nancy said.
She contrasted that with the way the company handled the firings. “Here I am being told, ‘You’re expendable.’”
Stein, who lives in Manhattan, has depressive disorder, among other conditions. The abrupt firing was a “shock,” she said. She cried for days afterward and scheduled an emergency appointment with her psychiatrist. “As someone who suffers from a mental illness, to be fired like that felt very difficult for me.”
She said working for the company part-time had been a sort of perfect job for someone with her health issues.
She started working for Weight Watchers about six years ago ― after losing more than 100 pounds, she said. The work got her out of the house to meetings around New York City. Stein did standalone meetings at WW properties and she went to other companies, like NBC and Google, and worked with employees there who wanted to lose weight.
When the pandemic shut down in-person meetings, Stein started doing customer service for WW online. During a time of such uncertainty in the city, she said, “The one thing in my life that stayed the same was I still had my work.”
What Happened To Wellness and Empathy?
In recent years, especially since Oprah Winfrey bought a stake in the business in 2017, Weight Watchers has tried to rebrand itself as being less about body image and more about wellness.
That made the layoffs even more galling. They came just two days before the start of an online event with Oprah about how people can “find clarity in both your physical and emotional well-being during these challenging times.”
Empathy was one of the most crucial principles that Weight Watchers taught its coaches, said Nicolle Nordman, age 53, who worked for the company for 18 years. “It was literally drilled into our heads. Empathy, empathy, empathy. No matter what the member’s problem is. If they call in angry, you are so empathetic that by the time you’re done with the call, you’re their best friend.”
“They fired us in the least empathetic way possible,” she said.
Nordman joined Weight Watchers as a member in 2001 and wound up losing 55 pounds. They asked her to start working the meetings, acting as a coach to others following the program. At the time she was home with her four kids; the oldest had cystic fibrosis. The work was flexible and part-time ― ideal for her situation.
The pay was terrible. As a part-time coach, she made about $25 per meeting, which could amount to about $4 an hour, Nordman told HuffPost. And the pay hadn’t risen in many years, former workers said.
Nordman switched to working online about seven years ago, once her kids were out of the house. She managed to turn it into a full-time job. The pay was still low. Nordman earned $14 an hour, a little more than the minimum wage where she lives, doing online support and meetings.
She made about $500 a week; unemployment will pay $278 a week. The layoff means she doesn’t have health insurance anymore for herself or her son who’s in college. She doesn’t know what she’ll do.
“I’ve been doing this for 18 years,” Nordman said. “I don’t know where I can combine something that helps people like this with a flexible schedule that I have.”
Still Watching Their Weight
Former employees are still worried about their weight.
“I’ve seen a lot of people come and go, and every single person I know that’s left has gained all of their weight back and more,” said Joanne Patten, a 59-year-old Houston resident who’d been with the company for nearly 11 years. After the layoff call last week, maintaining her weight is now her “biggest worry,” she said.
Though she’s upset with how the layoffs went, Patten still thinks she’ll stick with the program. “I was thinking the other day, you know, we’re not cured,” she said. “This is still my journey and yes, they fired me but I’m still gonna go [to meetings].”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mistakenly said the email accounts of WW employees were immediately shut down when they were laid off last week. In fact, the email accounts were closed by the weekend. This article also previously overstated Nordman’s weekly salary as $1,000; she earned about $500.