Amazon permanently lifts ban on cellphones in warehouses

(Bloomberg) — Amazon.com Inc. will allow warehouse workers to keep their cellphones with them at work, dropping plans to resume a ban temporarily lifted during the pandemic.

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“We recognize the desire of employees to keep their cellphones inside facilities and the past two years have demonstrated that we can do so safely,” Amazon said in an email to employees reviewed by Bloomberg. “Therefore, we are making the temporary telephone policy permanent, worldwide, in all of our operating facilities.”

The Seattle-based company considered resuming the ban late last year, angering workers who said they needed phones to stay in touch with family members during the pandemic. A December tornado that killed six Amazon workers at an Illinois warehouse further fueled employees’ desire to have their devices so they can access real-time information in an emergency.

For years, Amazon banned employees from having their phones in warehouses and asked them to leave them in their vehicles or in lockers near break rooms. After temporarily relaxing the ban during the pandemic, the company announced last year that it planned to reimpose the ban. When workers complained, Amazon said it would allow the phones “until further notice”.

It is not uncommon for employers to discourage the use of personal devices during work hours. Cell phones can pose a safety risk, especially in industrial operations, if workers are distracted. And some companies are concerned that rogue employees could use camera-equipped smartphones to leak sensitive technology and information.

But many workers in the digital age see their devices as a lifeline, especially in sudden emergencies.

Amazon’s change to the phone ban comes as the company faces unprecedented social unrest. Workers at one of Amazon’s Staten Island warehouses voted to join Amazon’s newest union earlier this month. A second vote is underway to decide whether 1,500 workers at a nearby Staten Island facility want to be represented by the same union. Amazon warehouse workers in Bessemer, Alabama, have twice voted against joining the Retail, Wholesale Department Store Union, and the labor group is appealing the latest election result.

(Updated with information on labor unrest in the seventh paragraph.)

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Casey J. Nelson