'Like a kid whose parents are withholding critical information': How workers feel about virtual layoffs

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When Sunny Dreyer got a text from her boss in late March to jump into quick Zoom call, she had a sinking feeling she knew what was coming.

The 32-year-old L.A. resident had just heard news that Bird, the e-scooter company, laid off hundreds of employees in an effort to save the business as the pandemic left the world, and consumer spending, at a standstill. The delivery method of choice? A two-minute Zoom video.

As a sales associate for Casper, Dreyer had been working remotely since the March 15 closures of the mattress company's brick-and-mortar locations. Dreyer had also just wrapped her tenure at one store and was supposed to be part of a team opening a new location. For about two weeks, she was directed to instead spend her workdays reading about the company, listening to interviews with the founders and watching documentaries about the science of sleep — activities she would keep track of and email to her supervisor to monitor.

By March 30, Dreyer had a feeling it was coming to an end.

'I feel like a kid whose parents are withholding critical information'

In a first Zoom call, Dreyer was joined by a handful of other senior-level store associates, and their supervisor informed them of Casper's decision to furlough all 500 retail employees at 62 brick-and-mortar locations. In a follow-up call, the store supervisor delivered the news to the remaining 20 or so new-store employees.

"She wanted to tell us first before corporate sent out a mass email about the news, which I appreciated," Dreyer tells CNBC Make It. That didn't make it any less tense, Dreyer notes, especially among the junior sales associates who had just been hired by the company for the new store launch.

Many of her new colleagues, at least the ones who had their sound and video on, were visibly upset and crying.

"One person had a complete meltdown," Dreyer continues, "because he had just quit his previous job thinking he'd be set for this new one."

Following the video calls, Dreyer received a company email stating non-exempt and exempt retail employees were to be furloughed on April 6 and April 13, respectively, and they would retain any health-care benefits through the beginning of June.

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A spokesperson for Casper tells CNBC Make It that affected employees were suspended from their work email accounts as of their furlough date. Dreyer says it was difficult for her get in touch with HR and gather the information she needed to file for unemployment.

"I feel like I'm getting more information from our Casper marketing emails than from internal memos," Dreyer says. "They claim they're trying to treat us like adults, but I feel like a kid whose parents are withholding critical information. It's just such a bummer."

Despite the direct-to-consumer brand's once-promising future, Casper announced on April 21 its decision to lay off 78 employees, or 21% of the corporate team, and wind down its European operations. A statement from the company says these cuts will result in "more than $10 million in annualized savings, and are part of the company's overall focus on achieving profitability," Fast Company reports.

Though Dreyer remains a company employee on furlough, she says she's not hopeful about sticking with the brand, especially given how it's handled internal affairs during the pandemic.

"I wish they thought about us in a more realistic way and not a numbers way," she says.

Small businesses aren't above impersonal layoffs

Unfortunately for many workers, even working for a smaller organization doesn't come with the security in regards to how layoffs during the pandemic will be handled. That's something Ashley Miltenberger of Indianapolis experienced when she was let go from her job as a sales associate at a family-owned jewelry business.

The 26-year-old had been with the company for nearly two years when, on March 24, the business's network of stores closed. For a month, Miltenberger answered customer emails from home and met with her team over video to discuss the logistics of the store closure, its future reopening and generally how everyone was doing in their personal lives.

She even had her regularly scheduled monthly check-in with her supervisor to discuss her career goals and what she hoped to accomplish once the stores reopened.

So when she got an invite for a company-wide Zoom meeting on April 24, she was under the impression that the "future of the company" agenda would discuss how stores would begin to reopen soon.

"It was messy," Miltenberger says of the call. "I think that says enough."

The first thing she noticed was that the entire company wasn't on the call. Then, she realized it was being led by the regional manager, who she didn't have a close working relationship with; her own store manager wasn't present; and the participants all joined the call on mute.

"When the meeting started he began to read a script, which I never actually got to hear because I couldn't get my sound to work." Though it took Miltenberger just a minute or two to get her audio up and running, by the time she connected to the call, all she heard was "we're really sorry, and now we're ending this call."

"And then it was over," she says. Miltenberger texted a coworker she saw in the meeting and finally learned the details of the scripted, three-minute message: The company was cutting about one-third of its workforce, their email access would be shut off, they would be paid out any earned vacation time and their personal belongings from the office would be mailed to them.

"It was not personal enough," she says of the one-sided call from an organization she'd come to consider like family. "That's the worst part. It's such a small group of people that even though it's retail, it's not like any other retail job I've worked. It's like a family, so everyone in that group I talk to every single day, we were definitely close in and outside of work."

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She's since had to rely on former coworkers to get in touch with HR for remaining information so she could file for unemployment. While they keep in touch, and she's also found support in friends and family members, Miltenberger hasn't heard from her former supervisor or any other decision-makers of the company to help her figure out what happens next.

She's also heard rumors from former coworkers that the company hopes to hire back as many laid-off team members as possible when operations resume.

"At this point I don't know that I'd want to go back," Miltenberger says. "I think I'd have a lot of trust issues there.

"I think the company had a lot of integrity during the time before quarantine. I don't know what happened in these past two months to make them lose it, because what happened when they laid off part of the company was not coming from the company I knew."

Getting it right

Dreyer, the furloughed Casper worker, also recently lost her part-time job as a marketing and events coordinator for The Music Center, a performing arts nonprofit, which she says she fully expected, as the pandemic forced cancellations and postponements for her line of work.

Despite coming to terms with that reality, Dreyer says the experience of being let go from the nonprofit was a surprisingly humanizing experience.

"I got a call from my boss saying, 'you'll get a letter saying you'll be let go because we just did not have the capacity to hang on to everybody,'" Dreyer says. "I was totally OK with that because I had the other job at Casper at the time."

When the letter arrived, it outlined everything she needed to know about her final paycheck, how to file for unemployment and ways to contact HR for any remaining questions.

Since then, Dreyer says her former boss calls about once a week to check in and actively sends the team emails listing various aid associations in L.A. "If we have a question, she's been open to helping us figure out the next steps."

"They treated us incredibly well," Dreyer continues. "If they can offer me a full-time gig, I'm going back to them before considering Casper. They've just been fabulous. It's been a night and day experience."

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