Confessions of an LA Fitness employee, racism is real

I thought long and hard about telling my story, and just recently made up in my mind to let bygones be bygones and move my unbelievable experience with LA Fitness to the recesses of my mind by focusing on new opportunities. I had finally gotten myself to a place of peace. But now, I must speak. I must tell my truth because it’s not just what LA Fitness has done to me–it’s what they continue to do to members that disturbs me.

It was almost four years ago that I went to Chicago’s downtown East Loop Signature Club for an audition with LA Fitness to teach one, or maybe two classes for them. My friend encouraged me to go there because they offer free continuing education credits to their instructors, which is a huge perk in the world of fitness. I was just like any instructor would be: excited and hopeful. Instantly, the fitness regional manager and I hit it off and I was hired on the spot to not only teach one or two classes, but also to manage an entire region of clubs as an activity director. To say that I was over the moon is an understatement. It seemed that the pieces of my life were finally coming together since I’d been in the fitness industry at this time well over ten years with umpteen national fitness certifications and a graduate degree in exercise science to match. My career was finally headed toward the moon as I’d always dreamed.

But slowly, my rocket of excitement and enthusiasm began to lose its power as I would come to quickly see the truth about the aerobics/fitness department.

For starters, nobody in management looks like me–and by me I mean, there are very few minority managers in the group fitness department in full time positions higher than the one I was hired to do as an activity director. I would come to learn that ADs are a dime a dozen, but getting to the upper echelons of regional director is out of the question, and if your rocket should get high enough to land you one of those spots, best believe you won’t spend the majority of your time coaching and managing instructors as one would think. No. At LA Fitness, the biggest workout you will ever experience is that of using all your strength to keep your mouth shut because it is common practice for management to yell at you, berate you, and talk down to you, and practically almost dare you to say anything in return.

In the beginning, I was fine working with my regional director, but once she let her managers know she was pregnant, the downward spiral began, and I’m assuming since she hired me, I was a casualty of war by default. My poor manager cried daily, and not because of her hormones as so many people are quick to assume, and as they even tried to get her to admit, but it was because of their treatment, or should I say, mistreatment of her. She was expected to be in any random part of the state of Illinois to teach a class on any given day, and when she had no “solutions” for open classes, she would be verbally berated. Her managers are, as I later explained to human resources, the “mean girls” you warn your daughters to avoid in high school.

Ultimately, my boss went on maternity leave and although she enjoyed teaching and had a huge following with members who loved her classes, she has vowed never to return. This is common for many instructors who work for LA Fitness. The irony here is that she was white and she was harassed–but at least she had the opportunity to make it to the upper echelons of full time status with the company which meant she had a salary and benefits with health care to afford her labor; and yet, last I spoke to her, she still cringes at the thought of her work experience with them.

Once she left, my buffer was gone. I had to work directly with another regional who was stationed in Arizona and once that happened, I felt like poor Dorothy who finally got to see the truth about the wizard  once the curtain was pulled back in Oz. I wasn’t pregnant, and if I would have allowed her to, my manager would have made me cry and leave to never return also. But I was not to be dissuaded. I’d earned my graduate degree in exercise science and I was bound and determined to work my butt off to show them my seriousness and desire to “grow with the company” as they liked to put it. So when I went from managing seven to ten or more clubs throughout IL, I was ready. I was going to show my worth.

I drove all over the city teaching classes, with no mileage reimbursement mind you, and my phone rang constantly. It was nothing for me to teach ten or more classes in one week because there is constant turnover and instructors quit in a cinch because they can go to any neighboring club and make more money and have better equipment in a heartbeat.

And that’s when I became like another Dorothy, only this time it was Dorothy Vaughan, esteemed NASA engineer, from Hidden Figures.

I was so excited to see that movie during the holidays eager for entertainment and inspiration. What I wasn’t prepared for was to see my current work experience played out in real time as if racism and discrimination are acts of old and things are different now. I am the modern day version of Dorothy who nicely asked, reminded, prayed, and worked her ass off for promotion, only to be overlooked time and again, all while doing the job of a supervisor. Her story had a much nicer ending that mine. Mine has ended with no resolution or closure. I just had to get myself to the peaceful place I mentioned at the beginning for my own sanity. But trust me when I tell you, racism is alive and well at LA Fitness and it doesn’t just end with employees. I see this upfront and in person with their mistreatment of members also.

Recently, I watched the District Operations Manager go to a group of exercisers at the Morgan Park club to inform them how he is contemplating revoking all of their memberships. These are all hardworking men who are either cops, firemen, or union employees. My point being: they all have jobs, they are all paying members and they have never had any problems or issues in that club. Why do they want to revoke their memberships? Because they play a wireless bluetooth speaker while they exercise. Now, this might seem like a problem if they are playing it as if they are having their own private party, but many other people are doing the same thing–as a matter of fact, on the same day that the manager told the men this, there was another member in the aerobics room playing his music loudly, and there was another woman in the shower playing Celine Deon singing to the high heavens as if she were at home.

The issue here with these men is that they are big and that they are black. How do I know this? Because the scrawny DOM told them,

“You guys are intimidating.”

These men also frequent other LA Fitness clubs, as do I, and see members doing the same thing in other diverse communities. For instance, at the Alsip location, you can find pockets of members playing salsa, another group playing gospel music, while others play hip hop. The DOM’s response to that, “Oh, that’s not my club.”

But it goes even further than that.

These men I’m telling you about are not pant-sagging men. These are hard working men who come to the gym to exercise and encourage one another. To me, they bring the gym life and energy, and with everything going on in Chicago, I personally feel safer knowing they are there. So how did it come to be management versus members? Because when the manager who originally received a complaint from a member about the crew, instead of having a civil conversation with them to correct the issue, they just decided to post signs to ban music and work to revoke their membership. So in reality, what we’re dealing with here is HOW managers handle conflict, versus WHAT members are doing.

It would seem to me that there could be many other alternatives for creating a peaceful environment besides waging war against members by revoking their memberships–when mind you, you have women walking around in the shortest shorts and butt cheeks hanging out, which is a violation of LA Fitness’s gym attire code. You have male members having sex with each other in the sauna which they are able to do because gyms are so short staffed there isn’t anyone watching anything. And you have constant theft from lockers. So how management came to be focused on being the music police is beyond me. It seems to me that there are more pressing issues they could be focused upon.

And yes, you read that correctly.

Men are having sex with each other in the shower stalls and sauna.

As for me, I am no longer a manager at LA Fitness because in December they pulled the proverbial final straw when they promoted someone who was hired after me to work over me, and I’d personally seen with my own eyes that the woman can not even follow directions in a fitness class.

You know those free trainings they offer? Well, as God would have it, I would just so happen to be standing right next to her and when we were cued to go right, she would go left EVERY TIME and practically come crashing into me. When I found out about her promotion, after I’d done everything short of groveling for the position, I was devastated. What gave her the edge? She is size 0 Asian woman who must do a better job of biting her tongue than I did. Add to that that Louis Welch, the owner of LA Fitness is Asian, and it’s easy to see she has an advantage I can never have, despite her not having the credentials or experience teaching classes.

As a matter of fact, when I told my former regional who’d gotten her coveted position, she remembered when she hired the woman who was a member turned instructor simply because the club didn’t have anybody else willing to fill in for some classes so that was her “solution” to some open Zumba classes for the floundering Lake Zurich club so she wouldn’t have to drive all the way to the northern suburbs to have to teach classes. Zumba, mind you, requires no formal teaching instruction, just a willingness for a person to have fun. For heaven’s sake, you don’t even have to talk to teach the class. Is it any wonder that the woman has no clue how to take, let alone teach, a kickboxing class?!?!?!

The DOM, who rarely says anything to me or any other employee who doesn’t directly report to him, asked me about the men at the gym thinking I was still in a managerial position, and why did he ever do that. I told him,

“Well since you asked…I don’t find the gentlemen to be an issue at all. As someone who observes situations and tries to consider all persons involved, what this really boils down to is managers at the club being frustrated with the men. I think the personal training director and former operations manager at the club somehow believed that those men affected their ability to do their job, which is really just a matter of perspective and (lack of) experience. The PTD could see them as an asset to his job by encouraging potential training clients that he could help them train hard like they do; and the OM could have enacted the old adage ‘If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em’ and use them to her advantage as well. To me, with 68% of Americans struggling with obesity, having a group of big, black, fit men exercising is a good problem to have, and a good problem is no problem at all.”

But you see, that’s understanding how to manage employees and deal with unique members, something LA Fitness provides no training to employees whatsoever.

I won’t even get into how the personal training area is roped off at clubs with predominantly minorities while at other clubs, white members can just walk right up and use TRX bands, the bosu, kettle bells, and all the other “toys” the PT area has that are off limits for minorities. And, I won’t even get in to how there is zero written documentation on the steps for promotion and advancement at LA Fitness. Plus, the Group Fitness Instructor’s employee handbook is so vague and obscure, nothing is detailed or outlined for career advancement. It’s all just a matter of who the “mean girls” like.

As a mother of six daughters who has taught them to know their strength, we are unintimidated by girls and women like this. They didn’t scare me in HS and they don’t scare me now. And they also don’t frighten the men I affectionately call “the gridiron gang” either. It would seem to me that management would be better served by focusing on more pressing issues like the gazillion complaints they have for membership scams, filthy gyms, and unskilled fitness instructors who couldn’t motivate a squirrel to get a nut right in front of its face. At this point, we are all just trying to workout in peace and do our Rodney King thing and “all get along.” As the saying goes, “Don’t start none, and there won’t be none.”

As Forrest Gump put it, “That’s all I’m going to say about that.”

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About Me: I’m a wife and mother of six daughters who loves teaching, writing, singing, dancing, and exercising. I love helping strive for optimal health and wellness by tapping into their full strength and coming to know their resilience and power. I have taught fitness classes all over IL and been blessed to teach several times at Jamaica resorts under the sun, stars, and moon. I know all too well how it feels to be at odds with your body and getting rid of “baby weight” and have helped dozens of people get back into their ideal shape and weight. For information on how I did this, you can visit my website. Plus, don’t forget to subscribe to my blog so you can always have my latest posts sent directly to your email. It’s free and there’s no spam.

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    Elana Anthony

    I am a wife and mother blessed to have six daughters who fill my home with love and laughter. My passion is writing and teaching, but most especially inspiring people to live healthy lives in my faith-filled fitness classes. My dream is to have my own faith and fitness TV show where people from all the world collectively join together on our "temple" building project of enjoying optimal health. I am a certified group fitness instructor by the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA), and earned graduate degrees in Writing from DePaul University, in addition to a degree in Exercise Science and Health Promotion from the California University of Pennsylvania. I have seen and experienced the hand of God work and move in my life, and consider it an honor and blessing to be saved to serve.

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