Stories from Healthy Mind

Wellness is a $4.5 trillion industry—here’s how COVID-19 is affecting its workforce

Kells McPhillips

Kells McPhillipsMarch 27, 2020

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Graphics: Well+Good Creative

Boutique workout studios, fast-casual healthy eateries, and holistic wellness hubs throughout the country have closed their doors for the foreseeable future—and that makes sense: With more than 85,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States alone as of Friday afternoon, social distancing and sheltering in place has rightfully become priority-number-one. This has created an uncertain future for workers in the wellness sphere, however, with many employers having no viable option other than to lay off their teams or pivot business models completely. Amid these uncharted waters with no endpoint in sight, there is one clear and present truth: “Business as usual” has been replaced with “business according to COVID-19.”

In the past week, a record-breaking 3.3 million Americans reportedly applied for unemployment benefits. And while there’s no statistic available to indicate how much of the wellness workforce has been let go, we do know that the industry accounts for a large number of jobs. As of 2017, the spa industry alone employed 2.5 million workers worldwide, and as of 2018, the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that about 308,470 people worked as fitness and aerobic trainers (another figure that’s likely since grown, thanks to the boutique fitness boom) and more than 1.5 million had positions in the food-service industry.

Of course, COVID-19 hasn’t negatively impacted every job supported by the $4.5 trillion global wellness industry in the exact same way: For some, it’s been a ripple; for others, it’s a tidal wave. Below, leaders across the holistic health, fitness, beauty, and food industries break down how they’re shifting their service offerings during this time when the world is supposed to stay home.

Holistic-health purveyors and practitioners are investing in their employees—and asking their communities to do the same

Much of the holistic wellness industry (think: acupuncturists, energy healers, massage therapists, and the like) has replaced its hands-on services with online content designed to help you emulate those experiences from home. New York-based self-care spot Chillhouse, for example, announced via Instagram that it’ll be turning its attention to online sales for self-care items like incense, eye masks, and candles, and started a GoFundMe to support its retail staff. Chillhouse declined to comment regarding the number of employees laid off, so it’s unclear if the GoFundMe will replace the entirety of their usual income.

Other companies are trying to find solutions outside of crowdfunding. Michelle Larivee, CEO and co-founder of New York City acupuncture practice WTHN, says that—for now—the company’s focus is to equip its specialists with new tools in their healing toolkits that they’ll be able to use once they come out on the other side of COVID-19. “We are using the time when the studio is closed to gather digitally as a community and dedicate time toward training and personal-professional development of our team,” she says, adding that—like Chillhouse—WTHN is working to migrate its offerings into the digital realm (on Instagram and other platforms) as best as it can.

For now, Larivee says her plan is to pay her team of 31 employees as normal: “It is honestly unclear what the long-term impact of COVID-19 will be on our industry. But for now, our goal is to come together as a team, pivot, and find new, creative ways to connect and help our clients heal from home during our studio closure,” she says.

But even for holistic practitioners who haven’t had to confront the decision to lay off employees, COVID-19 has still caused a financial strain. Acupuncturist Stefanie DiLibero, LAc, has been forced to close down her own business: acupuncture studio Gotham Wellness in New York City. “I am a one-woman show, so fortunately, I haven’t had to let anyone go. I voluntarily closed on March 14, because I had a sense that things were escalating, and I work so closely with people, that I didn’t want to risk being a carrier and unknowingly pass the virus on,” she says. “I only get paid when I work with clients, so not being able to see anyone meant that my income dried up overnight. It’s difficult not knowing when I will be able to return to work, while still having the same monthly business expenses…It’s been difficult to reschedule people, because I don’t know if I should be planning for a few weeks, months, or a year.”

The fitness industry’s new status quo? Digital, digital, and more digital

Less than two weeks ago, boutique fitness studios began closing their doors en masse and firing up seldom-used Instagram Live capabilities instead. Now, if you have access to a digital device and the internet, you can work out with just about any trainer in the world simply by plugging their name into your IG search bar. But a free workout for you isn’t exactly a financial win for these professionals: Both Solidcore (more than 430 employees) and Flywheel (around 174 employees) announced temporary layoffs of nearly their entire staff, the latter company writing in an email to customers: “Due to the ongoing shutdown of our studios nationwide, we were forced to make the difficult decision to temporarily lay off 98 percent of all Flywheel employees. A small team will remain for continued operations of the business. This team will all be taking significant reductions in compensation during this time.”

Being cut loose from a steady source of income is scary in the best of times, but as we move into what experts predict will be a COVID-19-ignited recession, these are clearly not the best of times. That said, being laid off rather than furloughed or subject to reduced hours while the situation persists does provide employees the option to file for unemployment rather than to simply burn through their savings as they wait for their full-time job—and their paychecks—to begin arriving as usual.

But trainers—many of whom up until recently spent their time zipping from studio to studio to make a living—aren’t sitting still. Whether on their own or backed by studio efforts, many are hustling to work and collect money for their services.

For some employees of some studios, like yoga studio Y7, the transition certainly doesn’t translate to job security, though. Y7 is now offering abbreviated class schedules via Instagram Live in a donation-based format, but Ellen*, a yoga instructor for the company until few days ago, tells Well+Good that—to her knowledge—the entire front-facing staff (including front desk associates and teachers) have been let go.

“It feels like it happened so fast, one day teaching regularly scheduled classes, then dropping to half capacity, then Sunday evening getting an email deciding to close altogether. At that point, we were given resources and links to help file for unemployment and notice that we would be given a one-time payout sooner than later, so that we could start the unemployment process,” says Ellen. “Then on Wednesday, we were given official notice that this is considered a temporary layoff, [the email] stating, they are ‘hopeful to restore our prior position at a future date,’ but it cannot be guaranteed based on their business status and needs.”

Ellen adds that, although she’s lost her job, the Y7 team was immensely compassionate and helpful in helping her and other affected team members file for unemployment. “I filed right away. I asked for rent suspension, credit card payments to do away with their late fee if this month’s is not paid, and I’m also doing my best to start online classes through Zoom,” she adds. “Our Instagram community has been so supportive, it takes my breath away. This transition has opened most client’s eyes to how appreciative they are for their health and wellness outlets and I feel their love virtually. ”

“It feels like it happened so fast, one day teaching regularly scheduled classes, then dropping to half capacity, then Sunday evening getting an email deciding to close altogether.” —Ellen*, yoga instructor at Y7

For digital-first fitness companies, like audio workout streaming app Aaptiv, a strategy change isn’t quite as drastic as that of brick and mortar competitors—and as such, its employees may not be hit as hard. According to an Aaptiv rep, the company has sent recording equipment to its yoga instructors, HIIT experts, and run coaches so they can continue creating video. (Aaptiv declined to comment about whether those whose previous roles involved recording or directing content have now been laid off.) “Our users are looking for workouts that are able to be completed at home,” says Aaptiv CEO and founder Ethan Agarwal. “They are searching for classes that will maximize their time and space.”

The general theme here? What can be moved online will be moved online. But given that one digital class can be played millions of times while an IRL class can only host a set amount of people in a given time slot, the fact of the matter is that a digital model can satisfy more users with fewer trainers. And as such, it’s not clear what fitness pros can expect for the long-term. The online space is highly scalable, and that might not be a good thing—financially speaking—for people who normally make their income by teaching many individualized classes with specialized in-studio equipment each day.

The beauty-service industry is struggling to find an online opening

With the estimated 2.5 million workers worldwide working in the spa industry, and the fact that manicures and facials and massages can’t be performed over the Internet, many companies, like facial boutique Heyday, have been forced to lay off employees. “As the COVID-19 situation continues to escalate, we’re faced with a gut-wrenching decision and the realization that our Heyday team needed more support than we were able to provide with our shops shuttered for the foreseeable future,” says Michael Pollack, co-founder of Heyday. “This affected about 300 retail workers in total, from shop hosts to estheticians. Shop managers are remaining on staff to be a conduit to our team and help prepare the business for reopening. Our number-one objective is to reopen our shops and create a path back to Heyday for our team.”

Heyday is now raising money online for these let-go employees via the Heyday Faces Fund. “Members [who pay for a monthly subscription] will have the option of contributing directly or donating their April charge toward the fund,” says Pollack. Fifty percent of client gift cards and 10 percent of online purchases through Heyday will go toward that fund‚ which at time of publish has reached just over $20,000 of its total goal of $100,000.

“With our team’s best interest in mind, we temporarily laid off our retail employees to allow them the stability of accessing government assistance.” —Michael Pollack, co-founder of HeyDay

Garrett Bryant, hairstylist and owner of Hawthorne salon in New York City, says that he feels fortunate that he rents out chairs to independent stylists. Meaning, he didn’t have to let anyone go, but he also isn’t generating any income to cover expenses. “I think the hardest part for me right now and my team is just the uncertainty,” says Bryant. “Do I need to plan to be closed for a month, for two months, for three months?” A semi-independent contractor, Bryant has been saving money for tax purposes for over a year, but that sum won’t last forever to cover costs associated with paying for his storefront.

While Bryant—and all of us, for that matter—waits for a more definite timeline for the course of the next few months, he plans on finishing long put-off projects and keeping his team of stylists optimistic. “On my end, I’m just trying to keep everybody motivated because I think the most important thing for anybody who’s not working right now is to stay busy,” says Bryant.

At-home meal kits are thriving, but that won’t keep the food industry at large employed

The meal-kit delivery service industry was predicted grow by almost $16 billion between 2020 and 2024, and it looks like COVID-19 might just make it so companies like Fresh Direct, Blue Apron, and SunBasket hit that figure early. CEO and founder of Hungryroot, another purveyor, Ben McKean says that, lately, orders have been on the rise. “Performance has been up since late last year, but we’ve seen a substantial uptick in both new customers and reorder rates over the past week, which we believe is a direct result of the coronavirus. We expect the demand for our online deliveries to continue in the coming days and weeks as consumers continue practicing social distancing.”

A spokesperson from meal service HelloFresh says its sales have similarly been on the up and up. “We are seeing an increase in demand but there are currently no disruptions to our service, and we’re working very closely with our network of suppliers and partners to ensure we keep delivering fresh and reliable meals to our customers,” says the representative.

Thus, Hungryroot and HelloFresh employees have relative job security in a time otherwise marked by grave uncertainty. “Our operations team has been working especially closely with our growers and suppliers to enforce heightened adherence to our rigorous food and safety standards, as well as increasing sanitation measures across all our facilities,” adds McKean. The corporate team remains working from home.

The National Restaurant Association predicts that between 5 to 7 million restaurant workers will be laid off over the next three months.

Sadly, this same kind of security just doesn’t extend to the entirety of food-services workers. Despite no-contact pickup allowing many eateries to keep the lights on, The National Restaurant Association predicts that between 5 to 7 million restaurant workers will be laid off over the next three months. “We are revising our business model to provide meals in different ways—takeout, delivery, safety-enhanced dine-in—but the majority of our restaurants do not have this capability today,” Sean Kennedy, the association’s executive vice president of public affairs, writes in the release. “As the restrictions continue, we are facing economic headwinds that will lead many restaurants to shut down operations, lay off workers, and end service in our communities.”

To help ease this immediate burden in income and livelihood, the New York City labor department, for one, waived its usual seven-day waiting period to apply for benefits, but as Eater lays out in a recent article, the average New York City waiter would be earning about half their normal wage under unemployment. And for the undocumented restaurant workers, of which there are many in New York City, not even this will be an option.

Some companies are working to help laid-off employees in alternative ways. Large private companies like Starbucks made headlines for stating it’ll pay employees who aren’t working, and some smaller health-focused, fast-casual chains are similarly finding ways to maintain employee benefits. Regional Mediterranean eatery Cava laid off a number of employees after closing some of its stores and reducing hours and operations at all others, but in addition to offering to rehire affected employees upon reopening, it is “working to outplace affected team members in grocery focused businesses currently experiencing high demand for hourly workers.”

So where does the wellness workforce go from here?

Only time can really answer this question; however, spiritual empowerment coach and Reiki master Kelsey Patel, author of Burning Bright, says she believes—despite the massive amount of hardship wellness-industry employees now face—we have never needed trainers, beauty experts, bodyworkers, service workers, or healers more than we do now. And once we’ve had time to understand, adapt, and come to terms with this new—albeit temporary—way of living, the wellness industry will hopefully evolve in such a way that allows for doing the work we need them to do, while still compensating them fairly.

Really, there’s no denying or sugarcoating the fact that right now is hard. But Patel says we have the opportunity to come out on the other side as a workforce that’s united in both experience and our vision for the future. “I see this as a time for a fundamental shift and hopefully realigning for us all,” she says. “I’m asking my community what they’re willing to receive from this pause and I’m asking the same of myself.”

*Name has been changed. 

Update 4/1: Y7 Studio reached out to Well+Good with a clarifying statement regarding it’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Here is a truncated version: “When we decided to close all studios…we cut Executive Leadership salaries (retroactively to the prior pay period) to be able to offer all part-time hourly employees (90% of staff) with a week of full pay. We created unemployment resources guides to support our staff in the process, and our small HR team was available for support 24/7 as a direct and empathetic resource for all employees…We made the heartbreaking move to lay off 95% of our staff — where all full-time employees were provided generous severance — in order to have the best shot of rehiring those individuals once we reopen our doors. Our team is now made up of 12 employees who are committed to fight and grind for the Y7 community.”

Now is a really good time to be supporting your small businesses—here’s how to do it. And if you’re on the search for healthy pantry meals to whip up on the fly, we got you on that one, too. 

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