When Ilene Antelman arrived at a client’s Manhattan duplex in December of 2016, she was in a good mood. She was a veteran massage therapist, and he was a repeat client, a former actor who booked her through Zeel, the largest and most popular on-demand massage app service. In their previous sessions, she said, he had generally been a nice, if very enthusiastic client.
“He’s very comfortable with his body,” Antelman said. “He enjoyed the work, would be like ‘ahh’ as you worked on him.” Still, there had been a few instances that made her uncomfortable. “He would make comments,” she said. “‘Oh, you’re too pretty to be working for the service.’ Sexualizing it a little bit, but not anything actionable.” That day’s hour-and-a-half-plus session—the client usually extended them—was a typical one, until it was over.
After finishing the massage, Antelman had stepped into the bathroom to wash her hands and to allow the client to get dressed. When she returned to the room, he was naked on the table and masturbating in front of her. Antelman was stunned. “He was just going at it,” she said. She told him she was leaving and fled.
When a Zeel representative called in response to the text, and Antelman described the client’s actions, the company’s response was muted.
“It was sort of like, ‘well, you know, it can be a grey area, some people can get more comfortable’,” Antelman said. “And right off, they weren’t really concerned, they were like ‘oh darn, that’s a shame’—they weren’t like ‘that is, per policy, not even a question.’ It was not like ‘you should make a police report’—it was casual,” she said. “And I talked to the manager and said, ‘you know who this guy is?’ and she was like ‘oh yeah.’ The manager had worked on him herself, had not had any problems with him—he was a long-term client.”
Antelman says Zeel management issued a perfunctory apology—“It was like ‘so sorry you went through that,’ and basically, ‘we’ll take care of it’”—and Antelman figured they would. “I assumed that he had been terminated. That was policy.”
But the client’s account was not terminated. Despite Antelman’s testimony of the client’s misconduct and her clearly voiced concerns, Zeel allowed him to remain on the platform for years and continued matching him with therapists without giving them any knowledge or warnings of his past behavior. (Zeel did not answer any of our questions about client removals or its warning system.) The only thing that appeared to have changed was Antelman was blocked from bidding on his requests—and before long, the rest of her clientele would mysteriously dwindle, too.
According to interviews with a half-dozen current and former massage therapists, a review of correspondence between community management, and a trail of accounts posted in online forums, Zeel is failing to uphold its own “no-tolerance” policy to protect its vulnerable workforce from predatory and inappropriate client behavior. Zeel has routinely ignored reports of sexual misconduct, often with the effect of protecting long-term clients, and appears in some cases to be penalizing the workers who file such reports by blocking their clients or downgrading their account status. Further, Zeel’s meager screening process has resulted in the company booking therapist appointments with misbehaving and predatory clients. In at least one instance, a therapist was dispatched to the hotel room of a man with a criminal record for a sex crime, whom she says proceeded to grope and sexually harass her.
Zeel did not directly comment on many of the allegations made by current and former therapists who used its platform, nor did it respond to our multiple requests to make anyone in a leadership position at the company available for interviews.
With 11,000 massage therapists in its network nationwide, Zeel is the largest player in a burgeoning segment of the on-demand app universe that aims to provide health care and bodywork services to users in their homes, offices, and hotel rooms. Crunchbase estimates the company to be worth between $50 million and $100 million, and that its revenues are around $23 million annually. (A Forbes writer places the figure at $50 million). Last year, in April 2018, Zeel raised another $10 million in a Series B and continues to grow its user base. Per its website, Zeel operates in nearly 90 cities and regions across the U.S., from Los Angeles to Oklahoma, to the New York tri-state area. Soothe, the Lyft to Zeel’s Uber, recently raised $31 million, and other companies such as Urban and MassageBook are competing for territory in the space.
Originally launched in 2010 as a hub for connecting users to alternative medicine practitioners, Zeel pivoted to focus exclusively on massage therapy in 2012 after its founders noticed that most users were requesting massage services. The company was started by husband and wife team Samer Hamadeh and Alison Harmelin—Hamadeh is an early internet entrepreneur known for founding Vault.com, and Harmelin is a prominent TV news anchor for CBS in New York City.
These on-demand massage and home healthcare apps have been subjected to little scrutiny in the years they’ve been on the market—when they’re covered at all, it’s usually in the form of puff pieces that emphasize the convenience and luxuriousness of the experience.
Like Uber and many other on-demand app companies, Zeel classifies the massage therapists who work for its app as independent contractors, and functions largely as a booking agent. To these contractors, it provides no employee benefits, threadbare human resources, and pays therapists per session. Each massage therapist that works for Zeel must already be licensed, obtain their own insurance, and pass a background check, in addition to completing an in-person interview. Users, meanwhile, must be “verified,” which typically means providing a phone and driver’s license number.
Once admitted to the Zeel network, massage therapists receive alerts for nearby job requests, which include the location, gender, and initials of the client’s name. Therapists can then “bid” on a job they’d like to accept, and a number of factors that are mostly opaque to the therapist—likely their combined user rating, past frequency of accepting requests, location, and so on—will algorithmically determine if they receive the appointment. The therapists, therefore, choose which jobs to bid on, though many wind up bidding on most if not all nearby jobs due to their relative scarcity and the number of competing bidders on the network.
The most common complaint listed on job rating forums like Indeed and Glassdoor regard that opaque booking system, which can leave therapists bidding on jobs to no avail for days on end. Clients can also prioritize massage therapists on the network, and the requests will be sent to those workers first. Among the on-demand massage apps, Zeel’s pay is considered the highest. According to Forbes, Zeel expects to pay out $100 million to its therapists by the end of the year.
There’s another kind of complaint that stands out. In a Glassdoor review titled “If just 1 male client lies in a review, they cut you. Sexism prevails,” posted on April 27th, 2019, a user who identified herself as a former Zeel worker describes being terminated when a client gave her a low rating after she did not respond to his flirtations during a session. “They didn’t even tell me they were terminating me until I flat out asked, a week later,” the user wrote. “If you are female, be prepared to have MGMT believe the client over you.” In an otherwise positive Indeed post published on March 4th, 2019, a massage therapist working in Miami wrote, “I’ve reported clients who have acted inappropriately and yet they’re still allowed to continue booking appointments—placing other therapists at risk.”
Those complaints stand out because Zeel has made a point of emphasizing how safe its service is for clients and massage therapists alike. In a profile for Health Transformer, co-founder Alison Harmelin said, “We put the safety of both our therapists and customers first and have a strictly enforced no-tolerance policy for inappropriate behavior.” Hamadeh echoed that point in Inc. magazine: “Safety for both the customers and therapists is key,” he said.
This concept is crucial not just for Zeel or its on-demand massage competitors, but for this expanding segment of the gig economy in general. As recently pointed out in a Brookings Institute study, the segment of the economy some economists sometimes call “wealth work”—jobs that cater mostly to the affluent—is growing rapidly. The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal calls it “the servant economy.” That growth is being fueled by largely unregulated on-demand app companies like Zeel, TaskRabbit, and DoorDash, where users enjoy convenience and expediency, often at the expense of worker protections.
A growing number of workers are being sent by apps into the homes of the affluent to provide them personal services, in other words, and the companies that facilitate those services claim minimal liability. They offer their contractors minimal support—only the consolation that the company will uphold its own terms and services, and discharge offending users. If Zeel, which asks its therapists to enter users’ homes and hotel rooms and come into close physical contact with its clients, isn’t willing or able to protect the safety of its workforce—who will be?
Ilene Antelman continued to use Zeel for the next two years—the pay was solid, if a bit unpredictable, and it came to provide around half of her income. Then, in 2018, she noticed requests for a massage therapist at an address that looked familiar, under a profile with a last initial that did not. Once, when she tried to bid on the request, it was accepted, then abruptly canceled. She further investigated the address and the profile, and she determined that it belonged to the same client that she had reported in 2016.
“I first wrote to a bunch of other therapists, and they were all just horrified,” Antelman said. Then, when she reached out to Zeel to ask about the user profile, the company confirmed that the client had not been removed from the service. A representative told her that he had been given a warning. (“Warnings” are never mentioned as a possible outcome of client misbehavior in the company’s lengthy terms of service.) Antelman was livid. “This was prime Me Too time. I said, ‘How could you do this?’ And they basically did not get back to me. They said, ‘we can’t do anything.’” Antelman was incredulous, and she continued to try to escalate the issue. The spokesperson told her to contact Debbie Rios, a senior community manager for the region. (Therapists working in the Zeel network in different cities are overseen by different regional community managers.)
So Antelman wrote a detailed account of everything that had transpired, including the details of the incident of misconduct, mentioned Zeel’s zero-tolerance policy, and sent it to Rios. The response Antelman received is remarkable in its callousness and brevity—after a couple of sentences of boilerplate, Rios told Antelman, “You always are encourage [sic] to end any session that you don’t feel safe or comfortable and can block any client.”
And that was it. For nearly a year, that would be the end of Zeel’s correspondence with Antelman regarding the matter—the company apparently refused further communications.
In a phone call, she was told that Zeel’s “Trust and Safety department” had the client sign a document stating he would not further violate any rules.
“I said, ‘why don’t you send me to him if you think he’s safe.’ They won’t respond to me in writing about this,” Antelman said. “And then that they’re sending people to this person without letting them know. There are a lot of younger women who may feel like they’ve done something wrong, in a situation like that.”
“They’re putting people at risk for their pocket and it’s inexcusable.”
Zeel responded to repeated requests for an interview and an outline of questions about their policies regarding misconduct and background checks with the following statement, provided to me by a PR firm that specializes in crisis and issues management, working on the company’s behalf:
“We are deeply committed and take seriously the safety of the therapists in our network. Beginning when we launched in 2012, we have had protocols in place to help ensure the security of our therapists and have continually enhanced our efforts including, most recently, bringing expert security consultants in-house as part of our Trust & Safety team. That team is evaluating our policies and practices on an ongoing basis and making improvements to ensure we have best-in-class security in place to protect both the therapists we work with and our customers. Our current programs include ID verification, use of the latest technologies and artificial intelligence, and other methods with the goal of identifying any potential problems before they happen, as well as immediately and thoroughly addressing any safety matters that may arise.”
Antelman tells me that since she reported the incident and called attention to the company’s inaction, Zeel has retaliated against her.
“They pretty much have kicked me off the site,” she says. “They told me that tons of my clients have blocked me and have given me low ratings. Which I just do not believe.” She was told she would only be able to keep clients who had specifically prioritized her. Previous to this, she was popular; she had a rating of 4.62 out of 5 across hundreds of sessions—a high score.
(Zeel says they do not retaliate against therapists and denies doing so against Antelman. It maintains that a large percentage of Antelman’s clientele blocked her. Antelman, meanwhile, says that she has reached out to her former clients herself, and each one she contacted said they did not block her.)
In the course of a single month, Antelman “went from making $1,000 a week to zero.”
Antelman’s story is not unique.
Teresa has been working for Zeel for four years. (Teresa is a pseudonym; she has asked to be granted anonymity for fear of retribution from Zeel. Gizmodo has independently confirmed her identity and employment status with the company.) A year into her tenure on the Zeel circuit, she accepted a request in New York’s affluent Tribeca neighborhood. The client was a wealthy publisher of a luxury magazine empire.
“He asked me to start with a lower abdomen massage and then the thighs,” she said. “It’s a fine line when you’re a therapist, obviously, I know. But that’s a red flag. Still, I thought, let me give him the benefit of the doubt.”
“Next thing I knew he had a full erection, and his dick hit the back of my hand,” she said. “I said, ‘I’m done’.” He told her he would behave and to finish the massage. Flustered and angry, she did nonetheless.
“He gave me a $100 bill as a gratuity and I reported him to Zeel immediately, which is what they told me to do,” she says.
“They said, ‘oh I’m really sorry that that happened, and you’ll never see him again, don’t worry.’ I haven’t—however, I wonder if someone else has.” Teresa says Zeel would not tell her if it had terminated the man’s account, and she soon spoke to another therapist who had been matched to work on him.
“Certain people think the rules don’t apply,” Teresa says. “People have a sense of entitlement when they’re in a certain financial bracket. He didn’t feel bad. He thought he was going to buy me so it wouldn’t bother me. Does he fuckin’ care what he does?”
Teresa grew animated as she continued to talk. “I’m very upset with Zeel for being so fucking ass-kissy to the client and not caring about their therapists,” she said. “Without us they wouldn’t have a business.”
“With Zeel, safety is my biggest issue,” said Anne, another massage therapist in New York. (Anne is not her real name—she asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution from Zeel, and Gizmodo has confirmed her identity and employment status.) “Anyone with a credit card can order a massage. What’s been apparent and very concerning to me is the number of men being inappropriate.”
“I have done on-call and in-room and in-home appointments my entire career,” she said. “They were always through personal referrals or hotel concierges or through physical therapists or chiropractors. And I’ve been doing this over 25 years now. Three years ago, I started picking up some work through Zeel. In those first three years, I’ve had more incidents of men being inappropriate than I had in the 25 before it, combined.”
Anne says that the most unsettling of those incidents took place just this summer, in 2019, when she was summoned to a hotel in Manhattan. “I had one client in particular, while I was working on him, who kept trying to push down the draping that’s on them,” she said. “New York state has draping laws that requires therapists to drape the client and only expose the part they’re working on. Almost 80 percent of the males I’m working on through Zeel will push that limit or say, ‘I’m not modest you don’t have to drape me’, or say ‘I’m hot’, or exposing, even, their buttocks region, and I’ll have to pull the sheet up.”
This client repeatedly insisted he did not need to be covered by draping, Anne said. When Anne refused to remove it, he went so far as to say he had texted his attorney about the matter, and he’d said she was wrong, they could in fact remove it if there was an agreement between the parties. She still refused; she replaced the drape and continued working on him.
“After I said ‘face up’, he grabbed my thigh as I was stretching him,” Anne said. “I didn’t say anything, because at this point I had 15 minutes left in my session, and just wanted to get out of there.” He also made offers to take her traveling with him, implying that performing certain services would be rewarded. “He was pushing the envelope to see what he could get away with,” she said. “To me, that was crossing the line.”
Anne did not report him—she said she did not feel physically threatened—but she left the session feeling uncomfortable. (Zeel’s terms of service, it should be noted, do not require that a therapist feel physically threatened in order to constitute grounds for reporting a client or having them removed from its service.)
The client had told her he was a commercial real estate professional named George Bibb. In 2015, a commercial real estate professional named George Bibb was arrested and charged with sexually assaulting a 24-year-old woman in New Jersey while she was asleep. Anne confirmed that the man pictured in news stories about his arrest was the man Zeel had sent her to work on. When I Googled his name, it was the first item returned. The Bergen County prosecutor’s office confirmed that Bibb had been charged with assault and pleaded guilty to criminal sexual contact in 2018. Bibb was sentenced to three years of probation. Zeel booked a therapist to go into the hotel room of an admitted sex crime perpetrator, while he was on probation for those crimes, without giving them any foreknowledge of his record. Anne said she found this “very disconcerting.”
Anne wanted to know why a person with Bibb’s record was not flagged in the ID verification process. (Zeel says that it performs “customer ID verification,” in which a new user’s ID and phone number are verified by an independent company before they can book their first appointment.) So did I.
I asked the Zeel representative how it could be that a “best-in-class” security program that includes ID verification and the “use of the latest technologies and artificial intelligence” could overlook a man whose history of sexual assault becomes obvious with a single Google search, and how a company whose aim is to protect its therapists could continue sending them into a private hotel room with this man without warning.
The representative reiterated Zeel’s previous statement and added, “These protocols meet or exceed the standards in our industry and those in the sharing economy with respect to vetting customers. Regarding the specific instance you raised, when a therapist filed a complaint about the client in question, he was immediately removed from the platform.”
Note that the question of why the ID verification failed to pick up such an obvious case remains unanswered. (As mentioned, Zeel declined to make management available for interviews, and it refused to comment further.) The company may, however, be right in asserting that its security protocols meet the standards of the gig economy, where there are often few, if any, worker protections to speak of.
“It makes me feel that they’re more concerned about their income statements then they are about quality of work and safety of practitioners,” she said. “Clearly I was not the first person to ever work on this person, because he had a rating before I responded to a request.” (Bibb did not respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment.)
Anne said before she started at Zeel, she had signed up for an account to test it out. “There’s no security or check in place,” she said. “All there is a credit card and a driver’s license.” She decided that she would only accept jobs from female clients, or from referrals, or at hotels where she already knew the concierge. The incident with Bibb took place at one such hotel.
Another Zeel therapist who works in the Washington, DC, area told me of an incident where a man had offered her a drink, suggested she perform the massage without a top sheet while he was naked, and repeatedly tried to get her to massage his groin. (This was the first negative encounter in an otherwise positive work experience at Zeel, she said.)
“I remember having to calm my hands from shaking,” she told me. “In hindsight, I should have refused to complete the session. Zeel does have a policy where if you feel uncomfortable for any reason, you have the option to leave, and Zeel will retrieve your equipment from the customers home. In reality, though, that’s an extremely uncomfortable thing to have to do for everyone involved, and the power dynamic to make the decision to end a session when a client is being inappropriate in your office is completely different than when you are in their home.”
There is also the risk of receiving a low rating and subsequently being offered fewer clients, a concern routinely cited by gig workers across the spectrum, and by Zeel therapists in particular. They felt that if they abandoned a session, it would open them up to be downrated by the client, and thus deprioritized for future work. The app, in other words, may be incentivizing therapists to put themselves at greater risk. This therapist did say Zeel immediately investigated the incident and told her the client would be banned but said she did not have any way to verify that had actually been the case. She too said the encounter raised issues about its screening policy.
“Zeel’s screening process is not as good as it should be,” she said. Zeel had assured her that when she was hired that a background check was performed on all clients, but one of her male clients told her that wasn’t the case, at least for him. “He informed me that they took his driver’s license number but didn’t do a background check and he was able to book the same evening,” she said. “I was a bit alarmed to hear that, but at that point, I had been working through Zeel for a while and had not run into any issues.”
While she felt Zeel had acted properly in her case, the idea that Zeel would fail to ban clients who had engaged in misconduct was nonetheless worrisome—especially because badly behaving or dangerous clients can freely enter new markets where their requests will be seen by a new host of therapists.
“I’ve seen at least two customers through Zeel in hotel rooms that were traveling in DC from NY,” she said, “so in reality regardless of which network it is, if Zeel is keeping any ‘terminated’ accounts active, it really would be putting the entire Zeel network at risk nationwide.”
Like most on-demand service app companies, Zeel’s business model relies largely on convenience—users knowing the service will be fast, safe, and reliable—and low margins. That means classifying workers as independent contractors instead of employees who would require benefits and doing away with, or only relatively lightly staffing, costly departments like human resources. In Zeel’s case, this makes it difficult for any workers who have endured abuse to contact the company directly—many of the Zeel therapists I spoke with were united in their complaint that their only recourse after a harrowing incident was to send a text through the app; there was no easy way to call for or obtain immediate support.
Zeel’s problematic client vetting methods and its apparent willingness to violate its own “no tolerance” policy with regards to inappropriate behavior is a potent example of the dangers the burgeoning on-demand model poses for in-home work. Therapists and others who have done in-home work that left them vulnerable have historically relied on references from health professionals, therapists, and other clients, and pre-session meetings in an office to vet new clients—procedures that the on-demand system makes nearly impossible. For a company like Zeel, it would require considerable resources to satisfactorily protect workers who are regularly entering unknown homes and private spaces for service work, especially work as intimate as massage therapy.
Most, though not all, workers I spoke with said Zeel had at least responded quickly to complaints of impropriety and misconduct. But seriously investigating and adjudicating claims of harassment, abuse, and worse requires a commitment and dedication of resources at a level that is in direct tension with the “frictionless” decentralized peer-to-peer model that makes Zeel and similar in-home on-demand services alluring to investors. And it is there where Zeel’s failures are most apparent.
“There’s no HR,” Ilene Antelman said, in reference to the resources available to therapists in its system. “I kept pressing this point, and then they kicked me off. They say whatever they want—they say people don’t like me, and even though that’s not true, there’s no recourse. There’s no person to call. There’s no accountability.”
Furthermore, because onboarding those independent contractors requires little investment—workers provide their own insurance and license, which can take hundreds of work-hours to obtain—and there is a steady influx of new labor, the model tends to favor satisfying users over protecting workers. “It’s my license, and Zeel uses our insurance—we have to be insured and add them to our insurance—so they don’t have a license to lose,” Antelman said. “They have no skin in the game.”
Thus many Zeel therapists feel the company errs towards siding with clients in most matters, from mundane service disputes to charges of inappropriate behavior. “I think what happens when people such as myself say, ‘Hey you’re not doing the right thing,’ then you have that reputation for being difficult, they don’t always give you the job,” Teresa said. “They’re always looking for someone who’s willing to be a sucker. We’re like second class citizens at Zeel.”
“They treat service workers like a commodity,” Anne said.
There are some Zeel therapists who reported being happy with the level of support they receive in their regions; where accounts of offending users are terminated upon report, for instance. But many, especially in larger markets, feel isolated, with nowhere to turn in the event of an incident. And a number of Zeel therapists I was in contact with were so afraid of jeopardizing their standing, as determined by an already fickle algorithm at an opaque company, that they decided against sharing their stories of misconduct and harassment with me—even with assurances that their names would not be made public. One told me she was sorry, but she has two children to take care of.
As I was finishing this story, weeks after I’d first spoken with therapists across the Zeel network, Ilene Antelman reached out to me. She said that out of the blue, a new Zeel representative had informed her that the company was no longer giving out warnings and that the client’s account had finally been terminated. She also saw a trickle of new requests, though they soon again disappeared. She says that she’s left wondering about her future, and what’s next.
The problems that plague Zeel are the problems bound to plague the latest wave of under-regulated, app-enabled in-home work: the built-in propensity for bypassing worker concerns to please affluent customers, the toleration of serious misconduct because the algorithm can easily enough find new and willing labor, and the woefully insufficient support system available to workers putting their bodies on the line. Each of these problems is amplified by the fact that the work is done in private, where workers have less control over their environment and are often at the vulnerable end of a lopsided power dynamic. These problems will no doubt plague the expanding ‘wealth work’ economy, and the TaskRabbits, and Soothes, and DoorDashes, and the actual in-home Uber-for-butlers like HelloAlfred—and whatever app services that will send workers into strangers’ homes after them.
For now, with Zeel, perpetrators of sexual misconduct, including at least one user who was convicted of committing a sex crime, have been allowed to continue to use a service that puts women (and men) directly into their homes and hotel suites.
“What it says to those people and to anyone else is, ‘there are no repercussions’,” Antelman said. “So go ahead.”