When Monica Davis, a Southern California barre and cardio class instructor, teaches a group fitness class, it takes her about an hour to commute to the gym, an hour to put together a playlist, another hour to plan the class itself, an hour to teach it, and another hour to commute back home.
Davis works for Equinox, an international chain of high-end gyms with more than 80 locations across the US, Canada, and the UK. Before the coronavirus outbreak hit, she was being paid $60 a class. When the gyms closed, Equinox paid Davis 75% of what she’d been making while teaching.
Now, gyms in the US are beginning to reopen despite rising COVID-19 cases nationally, meaning group fitness instructors like Davis are facing the prospect of teaching classes indoors, to sweating, panting students — many of whom, instructors like Davis say, aren’t bothering to wear masks.
Columbia University health policy professor Irwin Redlener said during an interview with BuzzFeed News earlier this spring that even if gyms spaced out equipment, there would still be a lot of close contact between members and staff, which could spread the virus further.
Redlener said that without sufficient testing and contract tracing, gyms won't be safe. As gyms reopen, he said, "if the virus actually ends up being still prevalent and we're not aware of who has it, who doesn’t have it, we worry about the safety of both the employees of the gym and the customers.”
But despite the risk, Equinox is asking its group fitness instructors to come back to the gym and teach classes at a discounted rate, keeping the teachers at their 75% pay, rather than restoring their pre-COVID-19 rates. Instructors have also been asked to help clean the group fitness studios after classes, without additional pay, as part of an effort to more frequently deep-clean the studios, according to company emails shared with BuzzFeed News.
BuzzFeed News interviewed three instructors based in California and Washington, DC, and reviewed nearly two dozen emails, which include ones from instructors sent to Equinox management raising their concerns as well as company responses and announcements, and Facebook conversations between instructors. The messages show an overwhelming nervousness and frustration from instructors being asked to return to work before they feel safe — and to do so not only without hazard pay, but for a reduced wage.
“Everybody was like, Okay, record scratch. What?” Davis said during a recent interview with BuzzFeed News. “Now I'm working for $45 for five hours of work. That comes out to what, $9 an hour? Now in essence I'm under minimum wage.” (Minimum wage in California, where Davis works, is $12 per hour, but she is paid on a per-class basis and her prep work isn’t accounted for.)
Another Equinox instructor who has worked in both New York and Washington, DC, gyms, who asked to remain anonymous to protect her privacy, put it simply: “I honestly think it's ridiculous. I think it's absolutely ridiculous.”
"I was kinda like, What the fuck, Equinox?"
The instructor now lives in DC, and when she was asked to come back to work she said she wasn’t comfortable.
“Everyone's kind of loosened up a bit, but I don't think that means that I can go into a sweaty, hot environment where, you know, part of my job is like touching people. I'm obviously not going to do that,” she said. “When [the manager said] ‘You’re going to be be paid 75% of your normal rate until Equinox gets back on its feet,’ I was kinda like, What the fuck, Equinox?”
The DC instructor was told that if she didn’t come back to teach within two months of her location reopening, she would be considered an inactive employee and be required to reaudition for her role.
“I am really leery about going inactive and being kicked off the payroll, and they’re already kind of being sketchy about it,” she said. Instead, she said she believes no instructor should be considered “inactive” if they don’t immediately return because of the pandemic.
Liz Levitan, a spokesperson for Equinox, said the DC employee had received inaccurate information. “After 8 weeks we simply rehire an employee who goes inactive in payroll. No audition is required,” she wrote in an emailed statement to BuzzFeed News last Thursday. “In our clubs that we have reopened, we have welcomed back close to 100% of our teams.”
But that same morning, Equinox’s executive chair Harvey Spevak announced that the company was furloughing some instructors and other employees who have not returned to work, including the DC instructor and Davis. According to a source close to the company, 1,500 employees were furloughed.
According to Spevak’s announcement, which was shared with BuzzFeed News by two Equinox employees, active employees of open clubs will continue to receive their “initial opening compensation,” and some employees at closed clubs will stay on as active employees, including “Group Fitness Instructors with greater than 14 classes/week.”
But the announcement made no mention of inactive employees at open locations like Davis and the DC instructor who had not yet returned to teach out of fears for their safety. They both soon learned via email that they were among the furloughed group.
Three days later, neither employee had received any more information about if or how they could return to teaching when they felt safe.
“I’m pissed,” the DC instructor wrote in a text message to BuzzFeed News. “I’m pretty mad that no one called me before I got the email and that STILL no one has reached out.”
Levitan said in a statement that Equinox was proud to compensate its employees for as long as it did while gyms were closed.
“We have already welcomed back 95 percent of our team in the markets in which we have reopened, and it is our hope and our intention to welcome back as much of our team as possible as we reopen nationally,” the statement said. “With city and state governments in New York, New Jersey and the Bay Area unable to give us any certainty regarding reopening, we have no choice but to furlough certain members of the team in our unopened markets.”
In a follow-up statement after BuzzFeed News asked for clarification on the terms of the furloughs, Equinox spokesperson Samantha Bonizzi said, “As markets reopen, instructors have been and will continue to be welcomed back with no re-audition necessary.”
"I'm a poor person, and you're asking a poor person to now earn 25% less."
But Davis is an instructor in a market that has reopened and, prior to being furloughed, she’d had a conversation with her manager about returning to the gym. She said she was given just two days to sign an agreement that would lock in her pay cut and bring her back to work.
“[I said,] ‘You guys are asking the people at the bottom of your food chains to take this hit and bear the breadth of lost revenue, and I just kind of want you to know that like, I'm a poor person, and you're asking a poor person to now earn 25% less,’” she told BuzzFeed News. “I just don't get how they're comfortable with those losses happening at the bottom. It's just so weird and greedy to me.”
Another Southern California instructor wrote an email to Spevak on June 13 calling the pay cuts “disappointing and devaluing.”
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“In addition to the hourly rate decrease, our duties have been expanded and most important so [has] our vulnerability to the virus,” the instructor wrote. “The increased measures are not a safeguard to being in a room of breathing, sweating people even with social distancing.”
The instructor signed off, “On behalf of myself and all group fitness instructors who have devoted years to Equinox (16 years personally), it is only fair to pay us our original teaching rate. Please let me know that we can return to work as a valued employee.”
Spevak never responded.
Although she’s young and healthy, Davis is still nervous about the safety of returning to work, even if she were to be paid in full.
“Gyms are, if nothing else, recycled air and body fluids,” she said. “Even on our best day — I'm somebody who is in really good health and I have really strong lungs because I exercise for a living, I take a multivitamin — but I also get sick all the time.”
Equinox has said it intends to follow all guidance from the CDC, which Davis said is good in theory, but she thinks it’s unlikely to happen in practice. “I'm thinking, yeah, that's great, you know, that's great in a vacuum. But when you start dealing with Equinox clientele, it's like, these are really spoiled, entitled people,” she said.
Already, at least one Equinox member has tested positive for COVID-19 since gyms have reopened. One employee shared a notification they got from the company announcing that a member at the Beverly Hills location who tested positive had been in the gym the mornings of June 20 and June 22. “The member was primarily in the Group Fitness Studio, cardio area and strength floors,” the email said.
Only people who were in the gym at that time got the notification, and many instructors learned about the positive case in the Facebook Group.
“What a shitshow,” one commented.
Levitan confirmed the case, and said the company had only notified people out of “an abundance of caution” and hadn’t closed for cleaning because the gyms are cleaned three times throughout the day and once more overnight.
On Thursday, July 2, another instructor shared a similar notification they’d gotten after an employee at Equinox’s Century City location had tested positive. (Equinox did not respond to a request for comment on the case.)
"Oh, we're supposed to have stayed in good shape for the past three months? Our world was shut down."
Another Southern California instructor, who teaches yoga and asked to remain anonymous so she could speak freely about Equinox, said she felt the way instructors were asked to return was handled poorly.
“I got an email from my manager basically saying, ‘I hope you guys are still in great shape, because we're opening Tuesday.’ The email was so blasé,” she said. “Just, oh, we're supposed to have stayed in good shape for the past three months? Our world was shut down.”
She said she was also frustrated because there was no personal check-in when employees were asked to return. “It was just sort of an HR letter, and there was no reach out for managers or like, ‘Hey, checking in. Are you high risk? Do you want to come back to work?’ That type of thing. ‘Do you have childcare?’” she said.
She said she feels like managers have been “guilt-tripping” employees to come back to work because they were paid 75% of their fees during the shutdown. “People pushed back, and the manager said, ‘Oh, but we paid you for the past three months,’ and there was a whole guilt trip going on.”
The instructor also said she was upset because while Equinox paid instructors their discounted rate while the gyms were closed, it did not do so for maintenance staff. “So we got 75%, but the [maintenance staff] … were not paid for three months, which I find disgusting,” she said.
Levitan, the Equinox spokesperson, confirmed that maintenance staff was not paid during the shutdown.
“Despite the pressure of having no revenue during club closure, we have kept much of our workforce with as minimal reduction in pay as possible and are continuing health coverage for all employees enrolled,” she said in an email. “A subset of employees unable to work have been furloughed, and that decision was made based on a variety of factors, including new government legislation passed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Now that employees are returning to work, it’s still unclear to them whether members and staff will be required to wear masks in the gyms or in the classes they’re teaching. It’s something that’s been a frequent topic in a Facebook Group of Southern California Equinox group fitness instructors, screenshots of which were shared with BuzzFeed News by two employees.
“I wear a mask and constantly think I should drop my classes,” one instructor recently wrote. “Better spacing at [Equinox’s] Hollywood [location], but does that really matter when [a] student sneezes?”
Several other instructors wrote in the group saying they’d been the only person in their group class wearing a face mask.
“I felt [the students] didn’t actually love that I was wearing one, but maybe I’m projecting and was uncomfortable because they weren’t wearing masks,” one posted in the group. “One girl asked if I preferred they wear masks. I said I preferred they wear them, but if it’s too uncomfortable that’s okay. So, no one wore them.”
While it was nice to teach people in person, she wrote, “their sweat freaked me out,” and it took extra energy to pretend it didn’t bother her.
In a June 19 email to group fitness instructors, a West Hollywood manager clarified the rules.
“You do not have to wear a mask when you teach,” the manager wrote. “But, if you are walking around the club before or after your class, please wear a blue mask or the black Equinox mask. We are trying to keep everyone looking the same who works here.”
Levitan said in an email to BuzzFeed News July 2 that Equinox’s rules adhere to local law.
In California, where masks are required, Levitan said, “Our teams are provided with face masks and gloves and as mandated by local law, members are required to wear a mask and gloves at all times.”
Last Thursday, after gyms in California had been open for about a week, one member posted in the Facebook Group to ask how instructors have been feeling and whether they feel safe. “Do I feel safe? Do I feel like [Equinox] is looking out for me with managerial support? Not really,” one instructor responded.
Another instructor outlined his concerns in a June 24 email to Spevak and Equinox’s head of HR, noting that he was told that gloves, too, were optional in the gym.
“How are gloves ‘optional’?” he wrote. The instructor wrote that he teaches in several locations in the Los Angeles area and that at some locations, “inadequate social distancing is glaringly obvious.”
The instructor attached photos of spin bikes that were stationed just 3 feet apart, only half of the CDC’s recommended 6 feet of distance to help stop the spread of the virus. “If there were to be an outbreak of Covid 19 at Equinox, given the current conditions, it will happen in the group fitness space,” he wrote.
The instructor said he is at high risk for severe illness should he contract the virus, so he’s been hypervigilant, but when he’s raised concerns in the past to management, he was “met with excuses as to why things will not change.”
“When I suggested to members that they should wear a mask because I had taught a lot of classes that day and probably a high risk for exposure, I was called by management and told not to say anything as it was perceived as offensive and that members signed a waver [sic] so it is at their discretion,” the instructor wrote. “I was told in confidence from one manager, that bikes (specifically) would not be moved and house rules, masks ect [sic] ....would not be enforced because their primary concern was revenue not on member safety. If there is any indication that the gym is not safe, then members might cancel, new members might not join and refunds might be requested.”
Levitan, the Equinox spokesperson, said in an email that any bikes in use in cycling studios are spaced 6 feet apart, and if any bikes are closer than 6 feet, it’s only because they are not in use. To ensure that, Levitan said the saddles on unused bikes are removed. The instructor attached two pictures of the cycling studio to his email, which showed the saddles on all bikes.
Davis said the situation has been personally devastating to her after dedicating years of her life to the company. Before, she said, she felt safe because of how many LGBTQ people and people of color she worked with. She referenced Equinox’s owner, Stephen Ross, who also owns the spinning brand SoulCycle and faced calls for a boycott of the brands after he hosted a fundraiser for President Donald Trump last summer.
“I'm a woman of color. I just feel like my workplace, Equinox, who I devoted three really loyal years of my life to, who I stuck by after some Stephen Ross Trumpy bullshit, it's like I just always felt so supported,” she said last week. “This image that Equinox is feeding is so far and away opposite once you start sort of peeling back the layers. Once you start getting to like the executive level, it is all, trust me, Trumpy, greedy, capitalist-y bullshit.” ●