Despite recently assuring customers that a very safe reopening was on the horizon, SoulCycle is one of the latest fitness companies to resort to significant layoffs. According to a report by VICE, the company laid off five percent of its employees, including some long-time workers who were not offered severance. VICE reports that several employees were offered a choice between three months of continued health insurance coverage or a one-time payment of $1500, a far cry from SoulCycle’s motto of “find your soul.”
It shouldn’t come as a surprise when companies owned by billionaires treat their employees as disposable. Yet here I sit, surprised that a company that refers to instructors as “rockstars” and describes itself with the
narrative of the“SoulCycle family” is acting like, well, a business. Cutting employees with scant resources is a behavior that’s antithetical to the gospel SoulCycle preaches in every single one of its classes—a narrative that kindness and unity can be derived from a shared experience. It’s also a bad move long term: While brands attempt to email blast their way through these uncertain times, their customers are hyper-aware of how their favorite companies are treating their employees.
It’s especially precarious for those boutique fitness brands that have risen by turning their instructers into micro-celebrities. Exercise freaks aren’t in it just for the fitness; they’re in it for the unique sensation that comes from having the right person shout at them about pushing harder. Attendees aren’t just supposed to enjoy a class, they’re supposed to feel an emotional connection to their instructor, which is maybe why studios like Barry’s, Rumble, and Title Boxing have had some success in pivoting their most popular instructors to online workouts. But with no solid date as to when brick and mortar studios can reopen, it’s impossible to bank on finite goodwill. These studios that tout equipment specific workouts and specifically crafted physical spaces can only last for so long online. Is Barry’s really Barry’s without the Red Room? Are Title and Rumble the same workouts without a punching bag? How can you do hot yoga without the wet heat?
When all the positivity is stripped away, a SoulCycle or a Barry’s is just a form of exercise–no more, no less. But the way that these classes are packaged to feel like a small family is what makes attendees so adamant about where they work out. Fitness culture is an all-consuming arena, where the gym you attend subs in as an extra personality trait. Where you sweat signals to others who you are, just ask anyone who does CrossFit. Studio memberships are a status symbol.
Now, as brands walk the line between protecting the bottom line and protecting their public image, customers have to consider what it will mean to continue patronizing businesses that have been unable to care for their employees. There was only a brief outcry when customers had to contend with SoulCycle and Equinox co-owner Stephen Ross, hosting a fundraiser for Trump. But perhaps the stakes are higher for spin lovers. Politics can be pushed aside for 45 minutes, but this latest move is more than a faux pas: Lay-offs without severance is an inhumane choice. If studios reopen, gym-goers will actually have to consider the human cost of their personal brand.