What has happened at Away, what continues to happen in the rest of the country, is yet another symptom of capitalism and its violence.
TW/CW: worker exploitation, racist micro-aggressions, and mentions PTSD
Earlier last week, the Verge released an exhaustive report that detailed a toxic work environment at Away, a direct-to-consumer travel startup. The report described the emotionally manipulative tactics deployed by CEO Stephanie Korey in Slack channels, where employees were berated publicly for operational errors and reprimanded through last-minute revocation of allocated leave.
One of the more disconcerting examples of Korey’s manipulation occurred in response to a spike in customer correspondence over call and live chat that could not be met by the small number of customer experience employees available at the time.
“I am going to help you learn the career skill of accountability,” writes Korey. “To hold you accountable… no more [paid time off] or [work from home] requests will be considered from the 6 of you.”
Guised as a lesson in “accountability” designed by the benevolent Korey, it instead placed the six Away employees under constant surveillance. Paid time off and work from home requests would be disregarded until the customer experience team fulfilled “5 consecutive days” of answering to each of Korey’s “attempts to reach [customer experience] on live platforms.”
The Away report, for many, did not carry shock; it felt uncomfortably familiar. The heightened fixation on productivity under late-stage American capitalism has meant that the worker is evaluated on an unattainable standard of performance and output.
This has been true in my career, as well. I live beside PTSD, and I, ultimately, do not and cannot function in accordance with the neurotypicality characteristic of American capitalism.
I regularly experience anxiety attacks, daily, and therefore even as I work—which I have developed coping mechanisms to address. But there is a shame that arrives, as you do not meet that unattainable standard. And you are reminded that you do not meet it with each passing day.
When I first disclosed my mental health to my employer, there was affirmation. There would be support, I had been explained. But, as it became more and more evident that in my mental illness I do not meet the expectations dictated by capitalism—my employer’s contempt became equally evident.
This contempt crept into small and large parts of my work life.
For example, as I started to take the full hour for lunch, which I needed to recenter myself and my mind, I realized that I was met with disdain; that most arrived to eat their lunch by their desk—as a symbolic testament that even in the midst of a break, they chose to work.
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If I chose not to attend a Sunday “junior board” meeting, which required an hour commute on the NYC subway and remained unpaid, I was seen as uncommitted.
I would take an hour and a half each Thursday to see my therapist. I worked a half-hour extra each Thursday. But, it did mean that my heart raced, as I walked to my superior to say that today’s lunch would be spent in therapy. This became another example of ineptitude.
When I chose to take the paid time off that I earned from four months of employment, it was met with, “But, you were just hired!” It was always made clear that a day off is to be “earned,” as in you had to come in early, stay late, eat lunch at your desk, attend Sunday meeting after meeting, and be consistently available on Outlook. I came on time, I left on time, I ate lunch outside, I did not attend one Sunday meeting, and I logged off of Outlook in the evening and on the weekend—those are boundaries that I maintained to feel healthy. I also naively believed that these boundaries would be afforded and understood by the employer. Instead, the boundaries which I had put in place to protect my personal wellbeing, were set aside to meet the needs and wants of the employer.
These slight (although seen as large under capitalism) deviations in how I chose to work meant that I was reduced or silenced, in other aspects of the workplace.
There had been rampant implicit and explicit racism, which I would try to regularly address. Because I chose to not “work hard,” any opinion that I sought to voice became discarded or ridiculed.
When I called for increased diversity on the board, a coworker responded, “What do you want? Are we supposed to just ask all the Black people we know?” The same coworker would ask to see Obama’s birth certificate. Another coworker would show “pity” on delivery workers that brought office lunch, since, in her words, these workers were “illegals.” That coworker went on to mock a board member’s son and his mental illness.
I could not, for this employer, meet the level of performance or productivity that they required (for 40,000 dollars a year). Therefore, if I were to have a say in any of the -isms that I saw perpetuated, I needed to first meet the neurotypicality of those that surrounded me. I also needed to set none of the boundaries, which even neurotypical people should have with their work.
What has happened at Away, what continues to happen in the rest of the country, is yet another symptom of capitalism and its violence. Your worth becomes equated to what you produce. I have had too many conversations with friend after friend, where we affirm one another’s choice to take a personal day. The guilt that arrives, in capitalism, to choose yourself over the company is penetrating and violent. When you look at the bigger picture of capitalism and what it does to us, it becomes easier to see that Stephanie Korey is not at all an anomaly, rather she is only one of the unfortunate apexes of an exploitative labor system.