Low Pay at Weight Watchers Stirs Protest as Stars Rake It In

March 24th, 2013

Wendy Carlson for The New York Times

Teri Weatherby, a group leader in Hartford, says the company uses the leaders’ commitment to the work to exploit them.

Tammy Williams became a Weight Watchers leader in Texas five years ago after losing 97 pounds in the program. The supplies that she handles fill a bedroom in her home, and she holds four meetings a week advising more than a hundred customers about the diet regimen.

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Stuart Isett for The New York Times

Patricia Sorlien, a Weight Watchers group leader outside Seattle, says despite their skills, most leaders get the minimum wage.

The problem, Ms. Williams said, is that she works so many hours and is paid so little. “They know my love for the program, but I can’t say we’re treated right,” she said. “We are professionals, we have to dress nice, but we are paid less than kids who work at McDonald’s.”

As the highly competitive weight-loss industry continues to suffer from the sluggish economy — Weight Watchers reported a 15.6 percent decline in earnings last year — hundreds of its rank-and-file workers are waging an open rebellion that management is scrambling to address.

This frustration reflects a growing discontent among low-wage workers, as seen in the recent protests at dozens of Walmarts, at high-end retailers in Chicago and at fast-food restaurants in New York. Low-wage workers have become more assertive out of dismay that while corporate profits have rebounded to record levels since the recession, wages have floundered.

Many also feel trapped as the gap between haves and have-nots has widened. Some employees at Weight Watchers expressed irritation at being paid the minimum wage while the company lavishes millions of dollars on celebrities like Jessica Simpson and Jennifer Hudson to advertise its weight-loss program.

Executives at Weight Watchers say they are paying attention to their employees’ concerns, and have hinted they will increase compensation.

The company’s chief executive, David Kirchhoff, wrote to employees 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.”

Employees — many of them leaders like Ms. Williams who run meetings — have inundated an internal company Web site with complaints about poor wages and being pressured to work many hours unpaid.

Some leaders say that the $ 18 base rate for running meetings has not increased in more than a decade, and many complain that they receive no mileage reimbursement for the first 40 miles driven each day. Some also assert that a major reason Weight Watchers keeps its pay so paltry is that the overwhelming majority of its employees are women.

“We are not working for a charity or a nonprofit corp,” one Weight Watchers leader posted on the Web site. “This is a multimillion-dollar company with enough cash to advertise relentlessly on TV, and pay celebrities tons of money to lose weight.”

The restlessness over low pay extends across the weight-loss industry to Weight Watchers’ rivals, including Jenny Craig and Nutrisystem. A pending lawsuit asserts that Jenny Craig’s employees in New York State typically work through their lunch hour, but are not paid for that time — a claim the company denies. That comes after Weight Watchers reached a $ 6.2 million settlement two years ago to end a class-action lawsuit in California in which employees complained about minimum wage violations, off-the-clock work and receiving paychecks that did not explain how wages were calculated.

”People feel they did everything right. They’re working hard, they have higher levels of education than ever before, and they find the job market is offering them a wage that they can’t live on,” said Janice R. Fine, a professor of employment relations at Rutgers University.

For Weight Watchers, one of the world’s oldest and largest dieting companies, keeping its leaders happy is crucial to the company’s future, because it relies on them to recruit and retain members through the nearly 50,000 face-to-face meetings the company runs each week worldwide.

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