Last Thursday, Amazon quietly removed entry-level warehouse workers and contractors from a massive company directory that employees use to communicate, collaborate, and socialize with one another.
According to screenshots of internal company communications obtained by The Stranger, Amazon's decision to revoke access to the directory, known as Phonetool, cut off over 500,000 workers from a broad company communication system they've enjoyed for years.
This move also blindsided higher-tier employees who communicate with warehouse workers on a daily basis, and threatened to impede daily functions for onsite medical and security staff.
The abrupt change siloed hourly wage workers and contractors from the rest of Amazon's worldwide employee-base just days before the workers at the Amazon fulfillment center in Bessemer, Alabama plan to vote on whether to unionize. An employee who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation said the company's decision to stymie communication now reeks of union-busting.
That employee's suspicion doesn't sound like a stretch. To stamp out the unionization effort in Alabama, the notoriously anti-labor e-commerce behemoth has reportedly papered bathroom stalls with propaganda and even changed traffic light schedules so organizers couldn't hand out pamphlets to workers headed to the warehouse. As of last night, the company added gaslighting Twitter users to its strategy:
1/2 You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you? If that were true, nobody would work for us. The truth is that we have over a million incredible employees around the world who are proud of what they do, and have great wages and health care from day one.
— Amazon News (@amazonnews) March 25, 2021
Amazon spokesperson Brittnay Parmley rejected claims that the company removed Phonetool access for some to stifle organizing. She also disputed the kinds of employees who can no longer access the tool.
Amazon uses a "tiered" or "level" system to classify employees based on their job and seniority. Jeff Bezos tops the org chart at Level 12. CEOs sit at Level 11. Entry-level software developers typically start at Level 4. Levels 1 through 3 primarily consist of support staff, but Level 1 and Level 2 employees include all of Amazon's hourly workers, with one distinction being that L2 employees have better access to computers. Level 99 workers include all contract workers. To add one more letter to this alphabet soup, Amazon employees also use "level" and "tier" distinctions interchangeably, so, in communications with one another, L1 = T1, etc.
On the company's internal message boards, employees claimed that Amazon cut off Phonetool access to all L1-L3 workers, which impacted "500,000+" people. But Parmley said the company only pulled the plug on L1 and L99 workers.
"We’re simply setting up the right tools for the right jobs," Parmley said of the decision to block entry-level warehouse workers and contractors from using Phonetool.
Phonetool, she explained, is only accessible on a computer that is connected to Amazon's network, and the company doesn't assign computers to hourly workers who fall into the L1 and L99 tiers of the company's hierarchical organizational structure. The app those workers can now use instead of Phonetool is called A-Z. Parmley said that app is more tailored to their needs because "it’s optimized for a mobile-first experience with information about pay, schedules, team structures, company information, and more."
With A-Z, however, workers can only communicate with other workers within their own facility, whereas Phonetool provided contact information for individual Amazon workers all over the globe, and it also facilitated a companywide way to share interests, hobbies, pronoun preferences, and awards.
After Amazon removed access to Phonetool, several workers lodged complaints on the company's internal message board.
One employee's message read: "Put aside for a second the unnecessary barrier this now creates to get my work done, but consider: I am a hero putting my life at risk for my community but I cannot share my interests, collect awards, join communities, and have a way to network with anyone else in the company that may have similar interests or be able to assist me in my career growth? Why not? We have had a presence on the Phone Tool for years now."
Others said the move flouted Amazon's company values.
"This is heavily impacting the morale of my team members who have been directly told that their participation in awards and communities on Phonetool does not matter simply because they are Tier 1," an employee wrote. "What happened to 'Have Fun' in 'Have Fun, Work Hard, and Make History?'"
Another wrote, "...The freedom of people to reach out to anyone is key to Amazon's Day 1 mantra. Preventing L1s from this access is frankly a violation of 'Earning Trust.'"
Internal employee communication in the wake of this change also suggested more significant impact than Parmley and Amazon contended. Higher-tier employees who weren't removed from Phonetool, for instance, said they didn't see the change coming and complained that revoking access for lower-tier employees affected their own work.
"Please revert changes," one employee wrote. "Pretty much every team in my [fulfillment center] uses this tool. Without T1 and T2 in Phonetool my job becomes significantly more difficult."
"Agreed on the impact," another wrote. "This is having more significant impact than most SEV1s I've been a part of." (Amazon refers to internal bugs on a scale of "SEV5" to "SEV1," where "SEV1" is reserved for the most severe and disruptive problems.)
When employees tagged the Phonetool problem as "SEV1" and logged it on an internal message board, a senior human resources manager responded by saying that employees could use workarounds other than Phonetool to do their work, and then marked the issue as resolved.
An employee replied, "I'm sorry but I feel the need to reopen this issue. I'd like to know more about why this change is being implemented. No communication was shared to any of the teams impacted by this decision and having to sign up for a completely new service in order to have access to the same data that we used to have seems the opposite of frugal."
The message continued: "Our teams had no warning that this change was happening and thus had no time to prepare and adjust to a new system. This change has broken multiple processes at the fulfillment center level, across the entire network. If this was a planned change then there needs to be a serious look into why there was such a break in communication. It honestly does not feel that our barriers are being acknowledged."
The HR manager did not respond and marked the complaint as "resolved" again.
On top of concerns about workflow disruption, other employees wrote that removing workers from Phonetool impaired the functions of onsite medical staff and security. Medical staff used the directory to locate workers in the event of a medical emergency and to find employee records. Security used the tool to verify workers' details, especially for contractors who visited work sites. At least two employees who identified as security took to the company’s internal message boards and urged Amazon to reverse the change.
According to the employee who spoke to The Stranger, managers at Amazon have not commented on the Phonetool disconnection since employees started raising their concerns. In fact, the company locked the message board where employees complain about the issue, this person said.
"They've silenced the discourse around this internally," the employee said.
While alternatives to Phonetool exist, they're tedious and inaccessible to everyone, the employee explained. Functionally, for a company that prides itself on speed and efficiency, Amazon's abrupt transition away from an intuitive and familiar service like Phonetool just doesn't make sense.
"Nobody who hears about this believes that it's for anything but union-busting," the employee said. "This has never been done before."