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Mass fire at zoom is the latest sign of unease among weight watchers

On the afternoon of May 14, Joanne Patten sat at her computer in her Houston home and logged in on a zoom call to her employer, WW International, the company formerly known as Weight Watchers.

She listened to her boss, who was reading a script, saying that she and the other Zoom call staff were being released with effect from the end of the three-minute session. It was one of numerous zoom calls made simultaneously across the country that resulted in the dismissal of an unknown number of WW employees.

“I thought what just happened?” said Ms. Patten, 59, who worked part-time for almost 11 years. I called my area manager and said, ‘What was that? Are you kidding me? So will you fire me after all these years? “

“This is supposed to be a caring wellness company,” said Ms. Patten, who would have preferred to be fired in a one-on-one interview with her boss. “The way they did it was just heartless.”

Nick Hotchkin, WW’s chief financial officer, declined to say how many people were fired from the zoom calls. The company had more than 17,000 employees at the end of last year, most of them part-time.

“It was not practical to have all the conversations individually,” said Hotchkin. He added that employees were encouraged to contact their managers after the zoom meetings to take follow-up action.

At the end of April, WW announced plans to reduce the cost of the coronavirus pandemic by $ 100 million. The layoffs and likely permanent closings of some locations are part of these savings, Hotchkin said.

“Even if we start to gradually reopen some of our locations, we know that our business will continue to be affected by this crisis,” he said. “In this context, we decided to restructure our studio business and fundamentally change our corporate structure and workforce.”

Ms. Patton and other employees said the company’s wellness strategy in recent years has not been adopted by some long-time members who, like millions of people, have registered to lose weight over the years.

When the pandemic forced personal studio meetings to switch to zoom calls, attendance declined, several former employees said.

“It was cancellation after cancellation after cancellation,” said Nicolle Nordman, 53, who worked in various jobs for the company for 18 years before being released for zoom. “Those of us who work in customer service joked every day:” How could anyone else cancel? “

The company said it saw no increase in cancellations. In the first quarter, which ended in March, subscribers to the more expensive studio and app plan decreased by 5 percent, while subscribers to the cheaper, only app plan increased by almost 16 percent.

Before the pandemic broke out, about a quarter of the company’s members paid $ 44.95 a month to access workshops in its 800 branded studios or 2,500 locations such as community centers, places of worship, hotels and other spaces. The other subscribers pay $ 20.95 a month for the WW app. The company had made its digital platforms a priority, and Mr. Hotchkin said it is accelerating this shift.

The program’s points system – three for a boneless and skinless chicken breast or ten for a chocolate-glazed donut – gave them a road map to follow when eating. The group meetings and considerations provided support and accountability.

“I believe in the program because it worked for me,” said Jennifer Remedi, a mother of three from La Grange, Illinois, who joined in 2000 and lost £ 70 in 10 months. She then worked part-time for the company for 19 years as a receptionist or “guide” in WW usage at multiple locations, earning $ 25 to $ 35 per meeting for the two or three meetings she worked on on Saturdays. Members she had seen for years had become friends.

“Weight Watchers was about community,” said Ms. Remedi, 52. “It was a community of support, encouragement and friendship. They helped people achieve their goals and ultimately helped them to be healthier and happier. That’s why I stayed there. “

But the company struggled for years when consumers switched from diet programs to natural foods and health instead. The competition from free or low-cost apps such as the Under Armor MyFitnessPal also attracted customers.

Ms. Grossman acted quickly to reposition the company as a lifestyle and wellness brand. In 2018, Weight Watchers changed its name to WW and said that while it would remain a weight management company, it would also strive to be the “world’s partner in wellness”.

In June 2018, WW’s stock peaked at more than $ 101 per share.

Soon there were group reunions that were free in nature and focused on topics like strategies for eating in Mexican restaurants – just take 14 tortilla chips out of the basket, break them into small pieces on a napkin in front of you, and don’t touch the basket again – have been replaced by broader topics such as stress or exercise. Employees who once asked members about their vacation or family had to adhere strictly to the scripts.

“Members no longer had to weigh themselves up, and we moved from topics about what to do or how to deal with the real world to those delicate, warm, and blurry issues that sometimes made me uncomfortable because I wasn’t I’m a psychologist or a psychiatrist, ”said Lynn Allred, 58, a teacher who worked part-time at Weight Watchers meetings in California for 15 years before being released for zoom. She said attendance at meetings where she worked has decreased.

By spring 2019, WW’s stock had fallen below $ 20 a share after Ms. Grossman said marketing efforts in January – WW’s largest subscriber month – had no connection with customers.

“I think there had to be more focus on weight loss,” Ms. Grossman said in a conversation with Wall Street analysts in February 2019.

Since then, the company’s executives have managed to align WW’s wellness push with its weight loss mission in marketing, and have found the company reached an all-time high of five million subscribers by the end of last year .

“When this crisis ironically occurred, we had a strong start to the year,” said Hotchkin. “We launched a new program and did a multicity tour with Oprah Winfrey that had a huge impact on the business.”

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