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07/05/2020 2:46 PM AEST | Updated 07/05/2020 2:46 PM AEST

Rent The Runway Is Risking Workers' Lives To Ship Designer Dresses In A Pandemic

Twenty-two current and former employees are speaking out against the billion-dollar startup, which continues to operate through an executive-order loophole.

YENWEI LIU AND FREDY DELGADO JR. FOR HUFFPOST

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Martina stood outside the Rent the Runway warehouse where she works in Secaucus, New Jersey, in mid-April and took a deep breath. She was dreading going inside — there were rumours that several of her co-workers had fallen ill from the coronavirus as it ravaged the tri-state area, causing, by that time, 2,443 deaths in New Jersey alone. But she needed the money, and management had given warehouse workers two options: Work without hazard pay, or stay home and don’t get paid at all.

So Martina put on her gloves and a homemade face mask and walked through the doors to find anxious employees doing their best to keep their distance from each other while sorting through dirty clothes. Her boss dismissed her a short time later because there weren’t many orders to fill, meaning she would earn two hours’ pay for the day, minus commuting costs.

The 43-year-old mother of two couldn’t understand why her employer — a billion-dollar designer clothing rental service — was still taking orders as usual. Why would anyone rent a Vera Wang gown or a Christian Siriano blouse in the midst of a pandemic? All nonessential businesses in New Jersey had been directed to shut down weeks earlier under an executive order. In New York, just five miles from Secaucus, the death toll had soared past 10,000. 

Fearing for their safety, Martina and a group of her colleagues had reported the company to the New Jersey government in early April for violating the order, but they never heard back. The state directive — and a similar order issued in Texas, where Rent the Runway’s only other warehouse is located in Arlington — have exemptions for fulfillment center operations, which are primarily intended to ensure the distribution of necessities.

Rent the Runway’s warehouses are distributing shipments of high-end fashion apparel to be rented and worn in isolation. Although Rent the Runway has given its customers the option to pause their rental subscriptions during this time, many have rejoiced at the chance to take photos of themselves wearing items from luxury brands that would normally be unavailable, as Refinery29 noted in its April 15 essay, “I’m Still Using Rent the Runway — Here’s Why.”

The company told HuffPost that it is considered to be an essential business under the fulfillment center carve-out and that it is providing “continued employment opportunities while ensuring the short and long term future of our business.” To make sure its operations are not disrupted, it has even drafted documentation for certain Secaucus warehouse employees to carry around in case police officers or government officials question them about the nature of their work: “Our operations are not covered by New Jersey Executive Order 107 and this employee is needed to provide on-site services,” those letters claim. 

“They found a loophole they could take advantage of,” Randy, a 58-year-old clothing cleaner, said of his employer. “It was very sneaky of the company to remain open in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic so that women could order dresses and wear them for mirror selfies.”

INSTAGRAM/RENTTHERUNWAY
On social media, Rent the Runway has been actively encouraging people to continue renting through the outbreak to “lift [their] spirits” and look good for Zoom meetings.

Behind the scenes, members of the largely immigrant workforce tasked with fulfilling rental orders feel like they’ve been forced to choose between their paychecks and their health. Some, like Randy, have started burning through the limited vacation days and sick leave they’ve accrued, trying to maintain their earnings from home. Others have forfeited their wages altogether. An employee named Kevin stopped going to work in early April, after the virus killed his great-aunt, out of concern for the welfare of his partner and child.

Many of the workers staying home for such reasons have found themselves trapped in an unpaid state of limbo for weeks, even as millions of laid-off and furloughed Americans collect unemployment compensation. In New Jersey and Texas, employees’ refusal to accept available work from legally operating businesses can render them ineligible for such benefits, just as quitting their jobs would. So instead, they’ve been waiting out the crisis — in some cases, skipping bill payments and rationing their food to do so. Every worker who spoke to HuffPost said they wished Rent the Runway had just closed down its warehouses.

“It’s like they just don’t care,” said Kevin, who reluctantly returned to work after running out of savings to live off. “It’s heartless. It’s really heartless.”

Rent the Runway is widely revered as a progressive champion of workers’ rights, where all employees receive the same benefits regardless of title, and, most important, “we show that we care about each and every member of our team equally,” in the company’s words. But inside the rapidly growing startup, workers say that reputation masks a relentless, profit-chasing work culture that has left them feeling used.

HuffPost spoke to 22 current and former employees and three former contractors — ranging from entry-level associates to managers in the warehouses, call centers and retail stores — who accuse Rent the Runway of treating them like cogs in a machine while publicly preaching the importance of workplace morality. Laid-off employees signed non-disparagement agreements as a condition of receiving severance payment, and, unless otherwise noted, all sources quoted in this story are identified by pseudonyms to shield them from possible reprisal, including Martina and Randy. (Kevin agreed to use his real first name; three others have gone on the record with their full names.)

“We’ve always been expendable,” one said. “I guess it took a pandemic to bring that to light.”

Growth At All Costs

In early March, as other retailers started closing their doors due to the coronavirus outbreak, staff inside Rent the Runway’s five brick-and-mortar stores — where customers pick up, return and hunt for rental items in person — were growing increasingly uneasy. 

The company had put out a statement a week earlier noting that it had “no reason to believe” its clothing cleaning processes were ineffective against COVID-19. But the employees still felt unsafe at work — especially given how often women would come into the stores to drop off their rentals after traveling abroad. So they voiced their concerns to management in hopes that the message would be relayed to corporate executives, who had already abandoned their office in Manhattan’s SoHo district to work from home, according to multiple sources. Nothing changed.

“They were hellbent on staying open,” said Lauren, a former retail associate. “Everyone was on edge. I would even have these tough conversations with customers who would ask, ‘When are you guys gonna close? It’s unsafe for you and for us,’ and I’d just have to be like, ‘I honestly don’t know.’” 

As the coronavirus devastates the American economy, it threatens to blunt Rent the Runway’s meteoric rise in the startup world. Harvard Business School classmates Jenn Hyman and Jenny Fleiss co-founded the company in 2009, envisioning a sharing-economy business model that would democratize access to designer clothes for women from all walks of life. Instead of buying dresses that retail in the thousands of dollars, customers could briefly rent them for a comparative pittance. It was a near-instant success: In under a decade, Rent the Runway flourished from a campus pop-up shop into a retail unicorn with 11 million rental members, including prominent figures such as politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

In addition to visiting the retail stores, members can browse Rent the Runway’s online selection of clothing to choose what they’d like to rent. Those items will be sent to them along with reusable garment bags and prepaid shipping labels, making returns to the warehouses — where the clothes will quickly be cleaned and prepared for the next renter — relatively simple. This “closet in the cloud” concept has earned Rent the Runway an array of accolades, includingrepeated placement on CNBC’s Disruptor 50 list and Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies list.

In 2017, Fleiss left to launch a new venture while Hyman stayed on as chief executive officer. Rent the Runway has expanded at a breakneck pace under her leadership, with a goal to “be the Amazon Prime of rentals and reach every single person in the U.S. and the world,” as she told CNBC last year. The startup hit its billion-dollar valuation in March.

I shouldn’t have to be a seamstress, therapist and retail employee.Naomi, a former assistant retail manager

From the beginning, however, many employees say they suffered under Rent the Runway’svoraciouspursuit ofgrowth.

Madalyn, a 22-year-old college senior, started working as a retail associate at Rent the Runway’s New York City store last spring. She said shewas proud to join a company known for its commitment to social responsibility and thrilled to enter a workforce that was racially diverse and predominantly female. It seemed like a “utopic retail space,” she recalled, with competitive benefits and perks including free rentals. So it came as a shock when a wave of other associates quit in her first few weeks on the job.

“In retrospect, that should have been a sign,” Madalyn said. 

Rent the Runway’s system of sharing an ever-expanding wardrobe among a massive network of women, paired with an overworked warehouse staff in charge of rapidly cleaning and inspecting the clothing between rentals, led to a stunning number of damaged and soiled garments getting shipped to customers — who’d often storm into the store in a rage.

Madalyn saw it all: clothes stained with menstrual blood, sweat, vomit and just about every other bodily secretion, she said. One customer reported finding a large cockroach in her dress bag. Another had a panic attack right in the store when the bridesmaid gown that she had planned to wear to a wedding the next day arrived late and without a zipper, and there was no replacement to be found in the location’s limited inventory. A shaken associate tried to fix the dress herself as the customer looked on in tears. Calming down “criers,” as staff called them, became part of the job.

PROVIDED BY A FORMER CUSTOMER SERVICE EMPLOYEE
Former employees say customers regularly lashed out at them after receiving damaged and soiled garments. One woman reported finding a cockroach in her dress bag.

“I shouldn’t have to be a seamstress, therapist and retail employee,” said Naomi, a former assistant manager who quit at her “wits’ end” last year.“Rent the Runway sells women this dream, and when it falls apart at the last minute, someone has to take the blame.”

Executives extended little help to the store staff, who were often “flailing,” she added: “Corporate would tell us, ‘We don’t understand what’s going wrong.’ And constantly we’d reach out for help and say, ‘Come down here. Witness what is happening.’ Nobody ever did.”

That lack of support “drove a lot of talent away,” agreed Ariel Zorilla, a former senior employee identified by his real name who oversaw retail operations and who recently aired his grievances about the company in a Medium post.

Rent the Runway adamantly disputes this. The company says that its corporate team has been readily available to aid staff as needed and that some executives, including Hyman, have even picked up the phones to help with customer calls during particularly stressful periods, like last September.

That was when the New York City store turned into “an all-out war zone,” said Lauren.On Sept. 27, Rent the Runway announced that it had temporarily stopped accepting new orders due to a software upgrade issue. It’s still unclear what exactly happened and when it occurred, but by that point, Rent the Runway had already been inundated for weeks with complaints about missed deliveries and last-minute delays — which resulted in ruined weddings and a slew of other “horror stories,” Vox reported at the time. 

As the wait times to get through to the customer service departmentstretched past three hours, irate customers descended on the stores in droves. It was “a total shitshow,” said Lauren, recounting the emotional toll it took on employees — some of whom would run into the store’s bathroom to sob amid the chaos. “People would literally scream in our faces.”

In the end, the company gave every affected customer a full refund in addition to $200 in cash. Retail associates — hoping for their own gesture of appreciation in the form of spot bonuses or even a visit from their CEO, who lived in New York — got a box of sugar cookies. 

“It was a slap in the face,” Madalyn said. So when employees felt that Rent the Runway was neglecting their safety amid the burgeoning pandemic, some of them revolted.

Mass Layoffs

After trying to communicate their concerns about COVID-19 to corporate leaders from within the company to no avail, Madalyn said, she and other frightened retail associates decided to take them public. They started writing on Rent the Runway’s Instagram account, begging the company to close its stores. Workers in Arlington and Secaucus also beganto flood the account with similar pleas to shut down the warehouses, and before long, Rent the Runway disabled comments on its Instagram posts.

Instagram/renttherunway
Employees and their family members have turned to social media to beg the company to shut down its warehouses.

A handful of retail associates in New York City — the worst-hit part of the country — also made a plan over group text to simply stop going into work. But the next morning, to their relief, Hyman sent out an email informing staff that the stores would shut down on March 16 for at least one week, which was then extended to twoweeks. Retail employees were paid for their previously scheduled shifts as they awaited updates. Then, 11 days into the shutdown, they got an email with a pre-recorded video of Hyman sitting alone in front of a white-curtained backdrop.

“We need to make some gut-wrenching decisions today,” she announced, adding, without getting into specifics, that “non-business critical” workers would be furloughed, “some” roles would be eliminated and all corporate salaries would be temporarily reduced. 

“Emotionally, this is eating me up inside,” Hyman continued. “All of you are everything to me.”

A short time later, around noon, puzzled retail employees received another company email with an invitation to a mandatory Zoom meeting at 12:30 p.m. Even store managers were unsure what to expect, though the assumption was that their staff would be furloughed through the crisis. Upon logging on, employees realised that their cameras had been turned off and their mics were muted. Executives appeared on screen, announced that all retail positions would be eliminated, then ended the call.

“We were all completely shocked,” said 27-year-old Shanice, who had worked at Rent the Runway for two years. “There was no compassion.”

Within 30 minutes, Rent the Runway locked laid-off employees out of their work emails, then sent a memo to their personal accounts with documents explaining that their health coverage would expire at the end of April. It also offered them severance amounting to less than one month’s pay, conditional on their willingness to sign an agreement forbidding them from disparaging the company, including through “comments or statements on the internet, [and] to the press and/or media,” according to a copy that HuffPost obtained and reviewed.

Provided by a former retail employee
Rent the Runway CEO Jenn Hyman sent retail employees a pre-recorded video of herself before the company laid them all off over Zoom.

Rent the Runway has publicly acknowledged that it laid off all of its retail workers. But that’s not the full picture. The company also quietly axed the majority of positions in its customer service departments in Arlington and Denver that same day — blindsiding employees there who had already been working from home for more than a week due to the coronavirus and leaving their counterparts at the Secaucus call center to handle the brunt of customer communications.

“The rug was completely pulled out from under us,” said Claire, who worked in Denver and said she wept in shock upon losing her job. “It felt so contradictory to what we were hearing from the business up until that point.”

Unlike the retail layoffs, which happened all at once, the customer service terminations were executed haphazardly, in waves of small groups called into separate Zoom meetings throughout the day, according to those affected. Some employees got the email with Hyman’s video in the middle of being let go — only to lose access to their email accounts before they could watch it.

Their department had endured a round of terminations just a couple of weeks earlier, in which a number of customer service workers, including 29-year-old Diallo Chavez, were all fired at once for reasons purportedly related to their performance.

“It didn’t make any sense, because up until that point, my [performance ratings] were the highest in the office,” said Chavez, who agreed to use his real name. His team in Denver operated out of a temporary workspace in a windowless college basement, which workers called “The Dungeon.” (The company had promised month after month that it would soon move them into a permanent space, multiple sources said, but that never happened.)

On March 27, the same day her company shed a significant portion of its staff, Hyman tweeted (then deleted) an enthusiastic message of gratitude to Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) for his role in establishing the CARES Act, a massive financial support package in response to the coronavirus crisis.

Twitter/jenn_rtr
Hyman deleted this tweet, which she posted shortly after laying off a significant portion of her staff.

“To my fellow founders,” she wrote, “help is on the way.”

For laid-off employees, who were still reeling from losing their jobs just hours earlier, the tweet was a final blow.

“First she tells us we’re a family and we’re in this together. Then she lays us all off and immediately celebrates a new bailout package for businesses,” said Claire. “It really solidified how little we actually meant to her.”

Rent the Runway told HuffPost that it has not applied for a loan under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.

‘They Don’t Care About Us’

Inside the warehouses, workers watched in despair as Rent the Runway closed its retail stores “to prioritise the health and safety of our members, our employees and the general public” during the COVID-19 pandemic. Didn’t their health and safety matter, too?

The next day, the company Instagram account shared a post playfully suggesting rental members should order ball gowns in lockdown to “make #WFH [working from home] and video calls WAY more interesting” — which at least one woman has actually been doing.

INSTAGRAM/RENTTHERUNWAY
Warehouse employees say they feel like they have to put their health at risk in order for women to rent designer dresses in lockdown.

Rent the Runway “cares more about its business than the people who make it run,” said Lucia, a 34-year-old shipping associate who has spent the past year working in the Secaucus warehouse. That facility is an uncomfortable place to be in general, she said.

Much older than the Arlington warehouse, it lacks an adequately functioning air conditioning system, causing chemical fumes to become overwhelming in the heat, according to those who work there. (Rent the Runway disputes this.) Last spring, a man with disabilities who had worked in the Secaucus warehouse for almost three years filed a discrimination case against Rent the Runway, alleging that the company had wrongfully fired him after he took a medical leave due to health issues arising from “being exposed on a continuing basis to chemicals used in the cleaning process.” Rent the Runway settled.

Now, with the added threat of a deadly and highly contagious disease, the warehouses are minefields of dirty clothing and potential virus carriers. Employees say they’re unprepared. 

Rent the Runway did not implement social distancing in its warehouses until late March, according to multiple warehouse employees in Arlington and Secaucus. The company says this is untrue and claims that it introduced measures including enhanced cleaning protocols as well as rearranged workspaces and common spaces in mid-March. But time-stamped photos and video provided to HuffPost show crowds of associates packed into the Secaucus break room without masks or gloves on March 19 — three days after retail stores had closed.

Employees say face masks were not provided until mid-April; Rent the Runway noted that this happened in accordance with the government’s own guidance and timelines, and that it had been encouraging workers to wear their own masks since March.

Provided by a warehouse employee
Photos and videos provided to HuffPost show Secaucus warehouse employees sitting side-by-side without gloves or masks in the midst of the pandemic.

Sam, who worked in the Arlington warehouse as a clothing cleaner, still felt that the danger was too great. The 26-year-old didn’t want to work for a company that he thought was putting him — and, by extension, his two baby daughters, who have asthma — at risk of contracting the virus, so he quit in the final week of March. His wife, Meredith, worked next door, in Rent the Runway’s Texas call center, until she was laid off that same week. She has since applied for unemployment benefits but says that she has yet to be approved.

“It’s hard right now. I don’t mean to get emotional, but it’s been really hard,” Meredith, 25, said through tears. The couple hasn’t been able to keep up with their bills, they said, and last week their lights were shut off.

“[Sam] didn’t want to quit because he wanted to provide for us. He was even willing to sleep downstairs, but, you know, there’s still a risk he could come into contact with the girls,” Meredith said. “I just couldn’t risk losing him for some $12-an-hour job for a company that doesn’t give a fuck about us.”

In both warehouses, Rent the Runway uses a demerit points system to track employees’ absences, which can lead to termination. Those who choose not to work during the outbreak are required to call in every day to avoid getting points, as a warehouse supervisor reminded a subordinate in mid-April through emails, which HuffPost obtained and reviewed. 

We’re touching dirty clothes all day. ... How is that safe?Kevin

At first, the option of calling in to stay home from work without penalty was set to end on May 1 — causing many workers to count down the days in fear, dreading their mandated return to the warehouses. After HuffPost reached out, Rent the Runway said that it had extended that deadline by at least two weeks and that it had long been planning to do so. 

The company declined to say whether any employees have contracted COVID-19. Workers say they have received no communication about that.

“We all knew people were getting sick, but the company never told us anything,” said Monique Evans, a mother of twin toddlers who have sickle cell disease, rendering them especially vulnerable to harm from COVID-19. She was hired through a staffing agency to work in the Secaucus warehouseuntil her contract was terminated on March 23.

“The fact that they’re still operating during this time is so irresponsible,” added Evans, who agreed to use her real name. “And why are people still renting high-fashion clothing?”

Rent the Runway declined to share its rental numbers. Although many women renting during this time simply may not be considering the people who clean, package and ship their items, others are renting under the assumption that the warehouse workers are well cared for.

“I go back and forth with thinking about the amazing team that is in the warehouse preparing my items for me to just wear around the house, and if it is really worth it for them to go in,” a customer who was featured in Refinery29′s essay about using Rent the Runway during the outbreak told the media website.“I pray that those in the warehouse are being [treated] like royalty in this time as they are putting their lives at risk while keeping the company going.”

Provided by a warehouse employee
Rent the Runway has equipped certain warehouse employees with letters stating that they are essential workers.

Warehouse employees say it’s the nature of the work they’re doing that makes them especially anxious.

“We’re dealing with clothes, man. We’re touching dirty clothes all day,” said Kevin. “The average human being accidentally touches their face a billion times a day. How is that safe?”

Sofia, a grandmother who works as a shipping associate in Secaucus, can’t afford to pay this month’s rent. She already had to ask her landlord to use some of the funds from her security deposit just to cover last month — she didn’t know what else to do. She’s been taking every shift she can get, but lately that has added up to around nine hours of work per week, spread out over three days, at $12 an hour.

Until recently, Rent the Runway guaranteed a minimum of just two hours’ pay per shift. The week HuffPost reached out, the company doubled that to four hours, meaning Sofia will now earn at least $48 for each shift she works. Rent the Runway said it is also trying to improve scheduling so that employees will not come in on days that there is little work to do.

Those changes come not a moment too soon, though there is still not a guaranteed minimum number of shifts per week. Sofia’s situation has become so dire that last month, when she came down with coronavirus symptoms — including a fever, chills, dry cough and loss of smell — she felt that she had no other option but to keep going to work without reporting her sickness while taking extra precautions to prevent the spread of germs. She said she still feels unwell but has been unable to get tested for the coronavirus.

“They don’t care about us,” Sofia said, asserting that the company has put her in this position. “We come from other countries, but we have rights. They have to treat us like human beings.”

A Carefully Cultivated Public Image

Rent the Runway stressed that it is doing its best to respond to an entirely unprecedented situation while supporting the economy and keeping its warehouse workers employed. It maintains that it is an essential business and plans to continue operating through the pandemic in compliance with state laws.

“Like most businesses across the globe, Rent the Runway continues to navigate the unprecedented impact of Covid-19,” Hyman said in a statement shared with HuffPost. “Our employees have always and will always be the cornerstone of our business. We will do everything we can to protect our teams and offer them continued employment opportunities while ensuring the short and long term future of our business.”

This isn’t the first time Rent the Runway employees have publicly criticised the company.In 2015, up to seven executives quit or were let go in a span of 10 months. Five former senior employees told Fortune in anonymous interviews at the time that the exodus was a result of a toxiccorporate work culture. At that point, nearly 100 ex-employees had already formed a private Facebook support group called “Rent the Runaways,” which was created because “everyone who leaves there has the same PTSD,” one member told the magazine.

Hyman denied those allegations and suggested to Fortunethat its reporting was sexist: “Substitute me with any male founder, and would this even be a story?”

The 39-year-old, who was featured among Time magazine’s 100 most influential people last year, is outspoken about the sexism she has overcome to get where she is today. In interviews with HuffPost for a 2017 profile, she recounted a few glaringly misogynistic workplace incidents from her past: A male colleague at a previous job allegedly tried (unsuccessfully) to take credit for her work, then called her a “cunt” in an email to other employees, for example. Years later, she said, a male investor attempted to sabotage her career at Rent the Runway after she rejected his sexual advances.

I’m a person who needs a job. But that doesn’t mean that I’m willing to risk my family, that I’m going to risk my health.Martina

Hyman’s success in spite of such challenges is inspiring to many; several former Rent the Runway employees told HuffPost that it was her vision of female empowerment that had attracted them to the startup in the first place.

“When I first started at Rent the Runway, I loved that it was run by women for women,” Shanice said. “But once you got in there, it really felt like no one actually cared about us.” 

Hyman’s public statements to the contrary have grated on people inside the company. In May 2018, after she published a viral New York Times op-ed titled “Treating Workers Fairly at Rent the Runway” — which sparked a media frenzy, with glowing segments on MSNBC, Bloomberg and CNN — a group of retail associates wrote a furious response to the Times, according to Naomi, the former assistant retail manager. They never heard back.

“The article was so fucking wrong,” she said. “[Hyman] was only telling a quarter of the story.”

In the op-ed, Hyman touted her decision to equalise all workers’ benefits — including family bereavement, parental leave, paid time off and sabbatical packages — as a step toward “creating a more human workplace,” and implored other CEOs to follow her lead.

“It’s time for business leaders to step up and fulfill ... their moral duty to society to treat every worker equally,” it reads. “Don’t I owe it to the team that got me here to take care of them?” 

Martina, the 43-year-old mother of two who prepares rental orders in Secaucus, stopped working in April as the number of coronavirus deaths in the U.S. surged and her shifts dropped below three hours — unwilling to put herself at risk while the rest of the state sheltered in place just so Rent the Runway’s customers could wear designer dresses in a pandemic. She tried applying for unemployment benefits but was denied, she said.

“I’m a person who needs a job. But that doesn’t mean that I’m willing to risk my family, that I’m going to risk my health,” she said. “Tell me, what do I do?”

Roque Planas contributed reporting.

This story has been updated to note that Rent the Runway said it has not applied for a loan under the CARES Act.