Hello Alfred, a casual butler startup that caters largely to affluent people in large cities, is battling internal unrest as it continues operating during the coronavirus outbreak.
The “Alfreds,” the workers who perform the housekeeping, delivery, and errand services offered by the company, are carrying out a reduced slate of tasks in New York City, the epicenter of the outbreak in the Northeast.
“I just do not see how we can classify ourselves as an essential service during a pandemic,” said one longtime employee, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. “It is by and large an amenity for wealthy people only.”
The coronavirus outbreak, which has infected at least 30,000 people in the U.S. and killed more than 14,000 worldwide, has upended the gig economy, one in which workers often have continual contact with customers.
Unlike Uber and Lyft drivers, Alfreds are full-time employees—a fact CEO Marcela Sapone touts to market the company. But many of the dozens of Alfreds employed by the company have been furloughed or placed on unpaid sick leave, current and former employees told The Daily Beast.
They painted a picture of the coronavirus pandemic having clarified a caste system at the company, as corporate employees work from home and they face potential exposure on the outside. It’s a familiar dynamic in the tech world, but one that was showing signs of boiling over at their shop in the face of a national crisis.
“If we are truly ‘equal’ within the company (the company culture often communicates in terms of #oneteam), it should not only be the front-line field staff that feels the brunt of this pandemic,” one Alfred in New York wrote The Daily Beast in a text message.
The buzzy startup offers a service not unlike its namesake: Batman’s butler. Subscribers (starting at $279 per month in 2018, according to The Wall Street Journal) have long asked their Alfreds to go grocery shopping, pick up laundry, buy flowers, move boxes, set up technology, walk dogs, deliver packages, grab dry cleaning, and clean their homes. Luxury apartment buildings also partner with the company to offer the service to residents, and Hello Alfred closed a $40 million seed funding round in 2018.
Up until the weekend of March 14, business continued as normal. Alfreds entered clients’ residences, changed their sheets, took out the trash, and so on, employees told The Daily Beast. “Our shopping lists were so long during that week because of all the hoarding going on that I spent multiple hours shopping for just one client,” one Alfred said. “We were being put at risk while everyone who had a job in the office had the option of working from home.”
Around that time, the company stopped housekeeping services, according to an email sent to all the Alfreds. Since then, one Alfred said their tasks had primarily been grocery shopping, dry cleaning pickup, and miscellaneous deliveries.
Then, on Friday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued an order for all nonessential workers to stay home starting March 22. But an email sent to all Alfreds in the Tri-State area and reviewed by The Daily Beast carried a printable letter apparently meant to be shown to authorities should anyone question their need to be on the street.
In other words, the “human-powered help,” as their site describes it, must go on.
When reached by text message, Sapone, HelloAlfred’s cofounder and CEO, reiterated that her Alfreds’ role was an essential one.
“We are delivering food, medication, cleaning products, baby and personal care products that families need—we source from multiple local stores,” she said. “These goods are needed, especially our quarantined and elderly members who can not leave their home.”
She also noted workers were trained in safety measures.
The company has offered all Alfreds the option to take unpaid sick leave and retain their health benefits for up to 12 weeks, spokeswoman Hannah McWilliams explained in a separate note to The Daily Beast. She added that those who were required to be quarantined for two weeks would be paid. The company has also set up a fund to funnel donations to employees who have lost wages.
“We switched to remote service nationwide over a week ago, limiting our operations to delivery only and declining to provide any service in the home,” McWilliams continued. “Prior to discontinuing service, we enacted CDC precautions (which we are able to enforce, unlike companies with 1099 contract workers) and equipped all staff with recommended gear and supplies (gloves, booties, hand sanitizer),”
But a pandemic overwhelms even the best-prepared systems.
One Alfred who recently complained of illness said the company placed him on unpaid sick leave and told him to file for unemployment, though he could still retain his health benefits. Even though the company told him he could eventually return to his job, he felt abandoned.
“Within a day I went from having what I thought was a stable job to seeking unemployment,” the former employee said. “I understand that part of their response is to save the business, but it feels like the Alfreds are an expendable part of the business.”
Employees also seethed at what they described as dubious attempts by leadership to suggest they were on their side.
“I feel taken aback by the CEO and the COO going out on the field to ‘show solidarity’ when to me it comes across as a tone deaf PR,” one current employee said. Hello Alfred co-founder and COO Jessica Beck tweeted when she joined the butlers Thursday, as they shopped.
Of course, the economy is careening into a potentially vast recession, and millions of Americans may lose their jobs in the weeks to come. But Hello Alfred employees couldn’t help bristling at the idea that their work amounted to a public good, one they might be risking their lives to provide.
“If the company does in fact elect to stay open, I believe non-essential tasks like Nestle water refresh should be eliminated,” one active employee said.