On-demand massage app Zeel reportedly failed to protect its contract workforce of massage therapists from its customers' creepy and inappropriate behavior
A new report from Gizmodo on Wednesday found Zeel, an on-demand massage startup, repeatedly ignored therapists' complaints about sexual harassment and misconduct from its customers.
Zeel, like Uber and Lyft, relies on a workforce largely comprised of contractors, who aren't afforded all the benefits of full-time employment.
One Zeel therapist told Gizmodo that a client had offered her a $100 tip after requesting an abdomen and upper thigh massage. Another claimed that a client had offered her a drink and asked for a groin massage. Yet another said that she was sent to the hotel room of a male client on parole for sexual assault.
One Zeel massage therapist told Gizmodo that one customer made inappropriate comments about her appearance, and even masturbated in front of her during a session. She says that after she reported the issue, she got fewer customers from the app — and that the client got a warning, but remained on Zeel.
Zeel cofounder and CEO Samer Hamadeh said the Gizmodo article contained "numerous inaccuracies and distortions" in an emailed statement to Business Insider, but did not give specific examples. Hamadeh also said that the incidents in the Gizmodo report were before it had hired its trust and safety team.
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Zeel, an on-demand massage startup, is facing allegations of failing to protect its contractor workforce from abusive customers, Gizmodo reported on Wednesday.
The report suggests that Zeel repeatedly ignored its massage therapists' complaints about sexual harassment and misconduct from customers, with one such worker claiming that she was retaliated against after reporting inappropriate behavior from a client.
One Zeel therapist told Gizmodo that a client had offered her a $100 tip after requesting an abdomen and upper thigh massage. Another claimed that a client had offered her a drink and asked for a groin massage.
Zeel cofounder and CEO Samer Hamadeh said the Gizmodo article contained "numerous inaccuracies and distortions" in an emailed statement to Business Insider, but did not give specific examples. You can read Hamadeh's full statement at the bottom of this story.
This makes it the latest on-demand app to come under scrutiny for the treatment of its contractors —like Uber or Lyft, Zeel's base of massage therapists are independent contractors, not full-time employees.
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Zeel was founded by a husband-and-wife team in 2010 and was most recently valued at over $76 million in January 2018, according to Pitchbook data. The New York-based startup is backed by Slow Ventures, Emil Capital Partners, and Hemisphere Ventures, among others. Hamadeh is currently an entrepreneur in residence at Lightspeed Venture Partners.
Gizmodo spoke with Ilene Antelman, a Zeel massage therapist based in Manhattan, who said that one client would routinely comment on her appearance, and on one occasion, masturbated in front of her. Antelman says that after she reported the customer, she was given fewer customers on the app, which accounted for roughly half her weekly income. She said that Zeel told her that the client had received a warning, but wasn't removed from the app.
The app's terms of service bar customers from making sexual or inappropriate requests, according to Gizmodo, and encourages therapists to leave any sessions that make them feel uncomfortable. However, the therapists that spoke with Gizmodo said the power dynamic between themselves and their clients prohibited them from outright leaving any sessions that took an inappropriate turn.
One of those therapists was reportedly sent to a hotel room of a male client that was out on parole for sexual assault. In his statement, Hamadeh says that "with respect to the allegation that we knowingly sent a therapist to a registered sex offender, nothing could be further from the truth," and that while Zeel asks customers to verify their identity with a photo of a driver's license, it doesn't conduct background checks or other queries into their history.
Hamadeh said that Zeel had recently hired a director of trust and safety, but that the incidents referred to in the Gizmodo report occurred before that team existed. That team now includes 10 employees and contractors, he said.
"Together, they are focused on ensuring we have best-in-class security practices and software tools to address safety matters," Hamadeh said of the trust and safety team, which he said includes former law enforcement officials.
Read Hamadeh's full statement:
The article contains numerous inaccuracies and distortions, and does not reflect the reality at Zeel today. But it does focus on a matter our leadership team takes very seriously, the safety of the therapists in our network. Since we launched our business in 2012, we have had protocols in place to provide security for our therapists and our clients and we continually work to do more. Last year, we hired a Director of Trust & Safety to build an expert Trust & Safety team. Today it numbers 10 employees and consultants, including former law enforcement. Together, they are focused on ensuring we have best-in-class security practices and software tools to address safety matters. Unfortunately, the incidents described in this article happened before our Trust & Safety team was in place. Their work to continuously strengthen our protocols and execution is ongoing, and it reflects our absolute commitment to safety and security across our business.
With respect to the allegation that we knowingly sent a therapist to a registered sex offender, nothing could be further from the truth. We ID and mobile phone verify consumers; we do not conduct a background check, do a Google search, or run a sex offender search, which could require customer consent and is by no means standard protocol in the massage or any other industry.
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