Walmart, labor group clash over app that connects employees

A new smartphone app whose creators say they aim to educate Walmart employees about company policies has put the nation's biggest retailer at odds again 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, but IBM Watson-powered artificial intelligence works in the background, too, and is expected to eventually answer queries more quickly.

The group behind the app, OUR Walmart, also helped organize nationwide protests for better pay and working conditions at Walmart stores and at the retailer's Bentonville, Ark. headquarters in 2012 and 2013. The United Food & Commercial Workers International Union, which had attempted to unionize Walmart workers in the past, supported OUR Walmart in those efforts. The not-for-profit group split with the union last year.

"OUR Walmart is not currently seeking to unionize Walmart," said co-director Dan Schlademan. "Our focus is to continue to build OUR Walmart and use collective action to create change at Walmart."

The group started working on the app several months ago and launched it this week to make it easier for employees to access information about their workplace rights. Currently, employees say they must log onto a terminal at work to check company policies. Representatives from OUR Walmart say store supervisors are holding meetings to intimidate employees not to download it, according to two Walmart employees who are part of OUR Walmart.

Right now, there are a lot of questions about Walmart's new paid time-off policy, making the smartphone app a draw, these employees said.

"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. who is a member of OUR Walmart. "This puts it in your hand and you can use it any time you want to."

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 an email statement 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.”

Bloomberg reported on the WorkIt app Monday and The Wall Street Journal reported that Walmart had instructed managers to tell employees that WorkIt was not an official Walmart app and that it could result in unwanted sharing of personal information.

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's Facebook page has encouraged employees to connect there and has had about 100,000 employees who have participated in online conversations.  But that can lead to workers only getting part of the information, says Joanna Chambers, a Walmart employee in Amory, Miss., who is also part of OUR Walmart. "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."

Walmart counters that it's not worried about workers connecting with each othe and says the company's WalmartOne website lets workers access company information, as well as paystubs and work schedules, and connect with coworkers. "There have been group discussions taking place on WalmartOne for more than a year where associates have the opportunity to pose questions and get accurate answers from inside the company," Lundberg says. More than one million associates access the site every month.

As for the WorkIt app, he says "it’s up to associates to decide what they want to do with the app; we are just making sure they know this isn’t coming from the company and this group can do anything they want with someone’s personal information once they have it."

OUR Walmart enlisted New York's Quadrant 2 to develop the app's software and licensed IBM's Watson artificial intelligence tech for the app. Employees 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'," said Schlademan. Walmart employee website doesn't include the whole 250-page policy manual, the group notes.

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.

The app does ask for a worker's name, email, phone number and zip code; users can input their job title and Walmart store they work at, too. Beyond that, the app ask for access to the Internet and the device's camera should he or she 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.

USA TODAY


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