The Goods

The Tyranny of Customer Service Jobs

Luxury luggage company Away’s labor problems have a lot in common with fast food, Amazon fulfillment, and call centers.

A large pile of suitcases
Employers’ cost-cutting can leave harried workers with a pileup of tasks. Giuseppe Cacace/Getty Images

Away—a company that sells luggage directly to consumers via sleek Instagrammable ads—is having issues spackling over a crack in its impractical hard-shell casing. It all started in December when an investigation at the Verge (titled “Emotional Baggage”) revealed how the popular brand was held together by a team of bedraggled and emotionally manipulated lower-level employees. The company fostered “a culture of intimidation and constant surveillance,” wrote Zoe Schiffer, a statement she backed with extensive screenshots of internal communications. Managers intimidated customer service staff to work holidays, for periods of time refused to accept requests for future paid time off, and forbade staff from communicating privately with one another. In one instance, CEO Steph Korey insisted that someone must be “brain dead” for an error involving monogrammed luggage tags (and this did not seem like a one-off outburst). In the outrage-filled days that followed the publication of Schiffer’s piece, the company announced that there would be a new CEO, and Korey stepped down. The allegations about poor working conditions—for store personnel, for tag monogrammers—kept coming.

On Monday, the New York Times reported that that’s now only half-true: Korey will continue to lead the company as co-CEO, now with help from Stuart Haselden, formerly of Lululemon. In explaining their decision to reverse course, “the members of Away’s board say they feel as if they fell victim to management by Twitter mob,” writes Andrew Ross Sorkin in the Times. “The company now says it disputes The Verge’s reporting,” Sorkin writes. (The Times doesn’t explain which parts the company disputes.)

Leaving aside the awfulness of reducing righteous outrage over worker abuse to a “Twitter mob,” of course Away’s board appears comically unconcerned about Korey! Korey was only doing what so many other CEOs do. Much of the hardships at Away revolved around responding to customer service emails in a timely manner, and always picking up the phone when a customer called. There are, essentially, two options for dealing with the ever-growing line of customer needs that naturally accompanies a fast-growing direct-to-consumer company: hiring plenty of people to attend to them, or stretching a few people as thin as possible to ensure that they are working to their absolute limit. The latter practice is practically becoming the American way, as journalist Emily Guendelsberger illustrates in her book, On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives America Insane.

Published last July, Guendelsberger’s book chronicles her experience working for several months each as a picker at an Amazon fulfillment center, as a cashier at a register at McDonald’s, and answering calls from AT&T customers at a third-party call center, Convergys. At each of these jobs, software tracked Guendelsberger’s every move, including, but far from limited to: how long it took to grab a customer’s order from a storage bin at Amazon, how satisfied a customer was with her resolution of their problem at Convergys, how long it took her to fulfill a customer’s breakfast order at McDonald’s. By each system, she was pushed to work past her absolute limit—until her legs couldn’t move, until she was forcing back panic after a customer screamed at her or threw something at her. Away deployed its own surveillance tech to allow managers and the CEO to reach employees at all hours and to monitor their conversations. It might have been a trendy chat app—Slack—but it was surveillance tech all the same. At Guendelsberger’s jobs, as seems to be the case at Away, there simply weren’t enough employees to allow for things like “sitting down to take a breather” outside of tightly regulated break times. Away might not have tracked each time an employee left their desk, but Korey did push back on one manager on Slack who noted that employees weren’t responding to customers as quickly as she expected because of bathroom and mental breaks.

To do the front-line work of fulfilling consumer’s needs, Guendelsberger writes, is to have “a feeling of desperation and hopelessness—being unable to catch up, even though you’re working as fast as you possibly can.” This is exactly what the Away employees described to Schiffer. One reason the Away scandal seems shocking is because the company is deliberately marketing itself as upscale—it’s a lovely, trendy startup that focuses its sales pitch on some sort of travel lifestyle and community that its suitcases supposedly enable. (One of the truest things about this story remains journalist Dylan Matthews’ observation that this company is merely in the business of selling luggage, not changing the world.)

The pay and prestige might be different, but the same underlying principle of keeping up a façade for customers with fewer employees than humanely necessary governs many jobs in America, from Away to Amazon to even journalism. “I personally could see this tyranny of metrics, and sensitivity to the consumer overall, that made bosses of mine more interested in making sure we got enough clicks,” Guendelsberger told me in a phone call about her time working in a newsroom. “I think everybody can see this sort of thing invading their lives in their jobs.” The solution, then, isn’t (just) in removing Korey, or even purchasing your luxury hard-shell suitcases from a different vendor. Guendelsberger told me the goal of her book is to “get people to see the way this is all sort of the same fight. People need to get together with other people who are not in their industry, or even their class.” That entails large-scale stuff like voting and supporting unions. But it also means that, should you find your new $475 carry-on to be comically delayed, when you call the company to complain, remember to be kind. Somehow even that price point doesn’t translate to humane conditions for employees.