Jennifer Hudson and Jessica Simpson make millions appearing as their whittled-down selves in Weight Watchers advertisements, but hundreds of the weight-loss program's real champions — the meeting leaders who help recruit and retain members and run the nearly 50,000 face-to-face meetings the company holds each week worldwide — say they work overtime with little to show for it. Some of them believe that's because they're women.
"We are not working for a charity or a nonprofit corp," one Weight Watchers leader posted on an internal company website where pissed-off employees can complain about poor wages and unpaid work. "This is a multimillion-dollar company with enough cash to advertise relentlessly on TV, and pay celebrities tons of money to lose weight."
They're probably onto something, Sharon H. Mastracci, an expert on women's employment at the University of Illinois at Chicago and author of Breaking Out of the Pink-Collar Ghetto, told the New York Times. "It's a female-dominated job, it's in the service industry, and it's caring work," she said. "Caring work is undervalued, and they're taking for granted that you care so much you're going to be there no matter what.
Weight Watchers doesn't have the best track record when it comes to treating its staffers right; the company reached a $6.2 million settlement two years ago to end a class-action lawsuit in California in which employees described minimum wage violations, unpaid overtime work and confusing paychecks.
Executives say they're paying attention this time, even though the company reported a 15.6 percent decline in earnings last year. The company's chief executive, David Kirchhoff — who made $2.96 million in 2011 according to Forbes — wrote to workers earlier this month, saying, "One of our top priorities is to improve your working life at Weight Watchers, and in particular, the way we reward you for the incredible work you do." The company's communication director said most employees earned "significantly more than minimum wage" for their meetings through sales commissions and that the idea that wages were low because most employees were women was nonsense.
But numerous leaders echoed the frustrations of women like Tammy Williams, who became a Weight Watchers leader five years ago after losing 97 pounds in the program, said she was paid just $7,600 last year for leading four meetings a week in Wichita Falls, Texas:
While the company pays for two and a half hours of work to run a meeting, Ms. Williams, who is planning to quit, said it could take three hours or more to set up chairs, weigh in members, give talks, sell products and clean up. (For meetings that attract 50 or 60 members, several leaders said that they received around $60 instead of the $18 base rate, and that receptionists for meetings received a base rate of $12 before commissions.)
Like many leaders, Ms. Williams said she worked many hours unpaid - ordering products, delivering them to meetings, counting and banking the money collected, and preparing her remarks for meetings.
What complicates matters is that most of the leaders love helping other women follow in their footsteps to achieve their weight-loss goals; that's why they work so many hours even though they're paid so little.
"They know my love for the program, but I can't say we're treated right," Williams said. "We are professionals, we have to dress nice, but we are paid less than kids who work at McDonald's."
"Other than the financial problems, it's probably the most rewarding thing I've ever done," said Teri Weatherby, who leads meetings in Hartford, Connecticut. "That's what they prey upon. It's like an abusive relationship. You know you should leave, but you stay because you love it."