SoulCycle, the cult stationary cycling phenomenon that swept the nation in the late-2000s, has always preached a mission of bringing “soul” to all people. When the company faced backlash in August 2019 after consumers discovered that investor Stephen Ross was planning a major fundraiser for Donald Trump’s reelection campaign, parent company Equinox Group released a joint statement with SoulCycle reaffirming its adherence to “tolerance and equality.”
However, according to a recent pregnancy discrimination lawsuit filed by employment litigation firm Wigdor LLP on behalf of former SoulCycle senior director of instructor programming and talent Jordan Kafenbaum, these promises are “in stark contrast” to the brand’s “alleged commitment.”
As stated in the complaint against SoulCycle and its interim CEO Sunder Reddy and chief people officer Adrienne Gemperle (who has since left the company), Kafenbaum was fired from her job overseeing almost 400 SoulCycle instructors just 32 days after giving birth to her first child. The complaint also alleges that three other female employees who had just returned from maternity leave or were expecting—area managers Thea Keeling and Nikki DeMarzo, and senior director of buying and merchandising Julie Lieberman—were also terminated under “suspect conditions.”
According to a SoulCycle spokesperson, the company offers paid parental leave for all full-time employees, and Kafenbaum was “unfortunately laid off as part of a necessary restructuring due to the impact of Covid-19.” Moreover, the spokesperson said that she was paid for the entirety of her maternity leave and was offered a severance package.
The complaint, however, blames SoulCycle’s workplace culture, and claims the company seized upon “the horrific Covid-19 crisis as a pretextual opportunity” to dismiss Kafenbaum.
Kafenbaum alleged that in August 2019, former CEO Melanie Whelan—who departed SoulCycle in November 2019, shortly after the Ross controversy led to a massive boycott—told a colleague that “paternity leave is for pussies.” Whelan purportedly made this comment to Gary Gaines, svp of global operations and studio experience, in response to his planned paternity leave. The context of the alleged conversation is not disclosed in the complaint, but it does indicate that the message soon became public knowledge for “all levels of SoulCycle employees.”
“SoulCycle pitches a brand of ‘tolerance and equality.’ But there is nothing inclusionary about firing a female employee because she became pregnant,” said Jeanne M. Christensen, partner at Wigdor LLP, in a statement. “This suggests allegiance to the bottom line over a ‘safe community.’ Recent allegations about a lack of commitment to diversity and inclusion by several female instructors creates even more questions about SoulCycle’s culture.”
The complaint goes into detail on some of these other recent allegations that, though not brought up expressly by Kafenbaum, may characterize the workplace culture at SoulCycle. The complaint quotes Mary Kate Hurlbutt, a former SoulCycle instructor, who announced her resignation on Instagram on July 22 due in part to the company’s “lack of response to the ongoing oppression, disenfranchisement, and endangerment that Black, Indigenous, and POC, and LGTQIA+ members of our community face daily.”
“Whether SoulCycle marginalized and subjected female employees to ‘less than’ treatment because of their skin color is directly relevant to whether senior management similarly fostered or allowed bias to exist against female employees that became pregnant,” the complaint notes. “A work culture that intimidates employees from speaking out about one protected class is more likely to silence and bully employees from speaking out about other perceived discrimination.”
Kafenbaum is seeking damages, plus prejudgement interest, in an amount to be determined at trial to compensate for any professional derailment.