Walmart, labor group clash over employee app
For Walmart shoppers, some Black Friday deals are starting today.
A new smartphone app that aims to educate Walmart employees about company policies has put the nation's biggest retailer at odds with the labor group responsible for the app.
WorkIt, which hit the Google Play store Monday, gives users information on workplace rights at Walmart. Questions entered in the WorkIt chat function are answered by current and ex-Walmart workers.
Walmart has told its employees to be wary of the app because it is not software authorized by the company. “Our associates already have anytime-access online to the company’s most current and accurate Paid Time Off policies and there is no way to know if the details this group is pushing are correct," the company said in a statement sent via email from Walmart spokesman Kory Lundberg. "Our people are smart and see this for what it is, an attempt by an outside group to collect as much personal and private information as possible.”
But members of OUR Walmart, the not-for-profit labor group focused on Walmart employee rights that launched the WorkIt app, say Walmart is holding meetings to intimidate employees to not download it. Currently, employees say they must log onto a terminal at work to check company policies -- right now, there's a lot of questions about Walmart's new paid time off policy.
"It is really hard to get time to access the computers at work to look things up," said Betsy Marler, a Walmart employee in Mobile, Ala. "This puts it in your hand and you can use it any time you want to."
Last year, Walmart raised worker wages after years of protests about employee compensation. And last month, the world's largest retailer gave raises to some managers in advance of new labor regulations on overtime pay.
In the past, OUR Walmart has fostered a robust discussion on Facebook and employees connect on social media to discuss workplace issues, too. But that can lead to workers only getting part of the information, says Joanna Chambers, a Walmart employee in Amory, Miss. "This is going to allow you to narrow it down specifically to you asking a question to somebody who can help you to that correct information," she said.
Managers are worried that this app "is going to help associates connect with each other," Marler said. "They want to keep the power to themselves and they don’t want us empowered and to be able to access this on our own."
Added Chambers, "at that point, we are no longer able to be manipulated."
A screenshot showing the WorkIt smartphone app for Android devices.
OUR Walmart, which split last year from the United Food & Commercial Workers International Union, began working on the app several months ago.
The company enlisted New York's Quadrant 2 to develop the app and licensed IBM's Watson artificial intelligence tech for the app. "Employees said we need someplace where we can get advice (and) information about our rights and about Walmart policies," said Our Walmart co-director Dan Schlademan. "They said, 'We need someplace when I’m sitting at work and I’m facing a supervisor telling me this or somebody doing this to me, that I can get some advice on what to do'."
Current or former Walmart employees volunteer to answer questions that users pose through the WorkIt app. Along the way, the Watson AI learns the questions and subsequent answers so eventually it "can give it that answer (more quickly)," Schlademan said.
As for concerns about personal data and privacy, Schlademan says that the app only asks for access to the Internet and the device's camera should you want to add a profile picture. "It doesn't ask for location or contacts," he said.
Our Walmart plans to add more features to WorkIt -- an iOS version is expected before Black Friday -- and is making it available elsewhere, including among workers in Australia, he said. "This really does have a broader application."
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