Abbie Harper, a former volunteer and staffer on the for Helpline at the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) saw her coworkers overwhelmed, burned out and woefully understaffed and decided to do something about it. Harper and her fellow Helpline Associates made their demands clear and fought back against union busting tactics and harassment but were eventually fired for their successful union drive and replaced by an AI chatbot.
Harper lives in Astoria, Queens, where, like many struggling New York creatives, she worked “approximately one million freelance jobs … while earning a degree in theater and dance all while being a certified nutrition consultant.” All of her part-time work, from teaching music classes to working as a poll worker, gravitated towards helping people.
“I also grew up struggling with an eating disorder,” said Harper. “In my own recovery, I found a great deal of validation, strength, and healing in the unique understanding that comes from connecting to other folks with lived experience.”
She had been volunteering on the Helpline for more than two years before she became a full-time employee in January 2022. She and her coworkers worked full-time on a set schedule, training and supervising around 150 volunteers, fielding calls, overseeing online chats and texts, and taking over for volunteers in emergency situations as mandated reporters. Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Helpline saw a 107% rise in contacts.
“The intensity of the conversations also increased,” she said, “as shelter-in-place escalated abuse and/or neglect for both adult and minor Helpline contacts, and it’s not uncommon for eating disorders to occur along with thoughts of self-harm and/or suicide.”
Burnout Among Workers
Harper saw signs of burnout and expressed her concerns to management regarding the normalization of trauma and provided ideas and insights about improving the workplace. She felt her insights were well received by her supervisors, but they failed to follow up with any meaningful action. Working remotely also provided unique challenges. She spoke with her coworkers individually and discovered that they seemed to feel the same way.
“We began meeting up for Zoom happy hours,” she said, “and discovered we shared even more of the same workplace concerns about a lack of transparency and opportunities to grow within the organization, consistent understaffing, inadequate training, and insufficient mental health support we were receiving.”
Harper and her co-workers agreed: they needed additional training to provide the safest and most ethical support they could. However, their concerns again fell on deaf ears. Requests for workplace mental health support were dismissed or answered with constant reminders to “self-care.”
After reaching out to the nonprofit workers union, Harper came across EWOC.
“I emailed my state assemblyperson Zohran Mamdani for advice,” she said. “He replied back less than 30 minutes later with the information for EWOC. I remember the first time I visited the website and saw, ‘Thinking of quitting your job? There’s another way!’ I was like … OMG that’s us.”
Building a Campaign
Although they had made their needs demands clear, the workers at NEDA did not officially start organizing a union until June when NEDA began implementing a “Summer Friday policy,” giving half of the Helpline workers the day off while the already understaffed other half were hopelessly overworked. By August, Harper recalled the Helpline feeling overwhelmed and woefully understaffed.
“We refused … , which resulted in the closure of the Helpline for those days,” she said. ”While we celebrated this small victory, it was obvious that NEDA would never accept their responsibility to provide us with a psychologically safe and sustainable workplace, so we drafted a petition to be delivered in a virtual march on the boss.”
Harper and her co-workers worked closely with an EWOC volunteer organizer drafting a list of demands which included more training, adequate staffing, organizational transparency, prioritization of our mental health, and opportunities to grow within the organization. These demands were directly “handed” to NEDA management, including then CEO Liz Thompson. In their demands, they made a point to highlight their dedication and passion to their work, emphasizing how crucial support services were in providing a safe, sustainable, and effective Helpline.
“Everyone who worked at and/or volunteered for the Helpline at the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) cared enough to help,” she said.
By October, NEDA’s management team failed to meet all but one of their demands and even escalated their Helpline crisis procedures without providing them with additional training. By that point, Harper and her fellow coworkers were completely burned out.
“Just showing up to work every day felt traumatic in and of itself,” she said, ”and it was not always easy to tap into the resilience required to continue our fight for a safe and dignified workplace.”
To make matters worse, NEDA began a vindictive union-busting campaign a week after they delivered their petition. By November, she was called into a meeting with upper management where the CEO informed her that she was “no longer a good fit” and was placed on a two-week probation. In that time, she said she was bullied, micromanaged, given conflicting instructions, isolated from her coworkers, and given unfair, negative feedback and evaluations.
“These tactics implemented by management,” she said, “some with advanced degrees in mental health, deliberately targeted my ADHD, a ‘disability’ (ahem, superpower) for which I had self-identified many months before.”
In defiance of management, Harper did everything in her power to trigger an internal investigation including using her paid time, taking unpaid days off, and filing a whistleblower harassment complaint with a human resources consulting firm NEDA uses. The company was eventually forced to conduct an internal investigation, which appeared to lead to the conclusion that Liz Thompson should step down. Despite the announcement of her departure in a full company wide staff meeting in January, she continued to work at NEDA for six full months before eventually stepping down.
On June 1, 2023, NEDA fired every newly unionized employee and replaced them with a chatbot named Tessa, which it later removed after it gave weight loss advice to constituents struggling with eating and body concerns. Harper made herself explicitly clear however, their struggle was not against AI but rather union-busting by NEDA executives.
“Tessa is not designed as a replacement for human support,” said Harper, “nor was it designed to replace the Helpline — and that’s according to its lead developer, Dr. Ellen Fitzsimmons-Craft. I’m of the immovable belief that we were all fired for unionizing.”
She hopes that her experience will inspire other organizations to leave empathy and critical thinking to workers, from NEDA to the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP).
Despite the outcome, Harper is still very enthusiastic and hopeful about the rise of the current labor movement.
“I feel it on the streets in my community and with just about every worker I meet,” said Harper. “Not only are we coming together to demand dignity in our workplaces and respect for our time outside of them — we are normalizing it.”
Harper maintains however, that in order to facilitate effective labor struggle, stronger legal protections need to be put in place to protect workers from retaliatory abuse and harassment. She emphasized that while regulations exist to protect workers from environmental hazards and physical abuse, workplaces do not have psychological safety laws.