Apple’s hourly workforce is struggling

Nearly every shift at an Apple Store starts the same way: an employee picks a line from the Apple credo and talks about how it applies to that day’s work: “We are here to enrich lives. To help dreamers become doers, to help passion expand human potential, to do the best work of our lives. At our best, we give more than we take.”

Workers say it’s easy to tell who wants to get promoted because they’ll pick the line “Turning dreamers into doers” and discuss how Apple’s devices can help customers do that. Not every retail worker buys into it, though. “People get emotional,” says a current retail employee in Philadelphia. “You see people go really deep in that stuff when they want to get promoted. It’s all just pandering.”

Part of the issue is pay. Apple’s retail employees make on average between $19 and $25 an hour in the United States, according to Glassdoor. That’s good for the retail industry, but can be grating for employees who want to build a career at the tech giant. Some say that after staying at the company for six years, they’re making less than $21 an hour. 

Then there’s the issue of how retail workers are evaluated. In the store, Apple uses something called a “net promoter score” to see how stores are performing. After a customer leaves, they’ll sometimes receive a survey asking them to evaluate the employee who helped them as well as the overall store experience.

Low scores can often be about factors outside the employees’ control — things like low inventory or wait time. But they still reflect poorly on staff. “There’s never positive intent assumed,” says a current employee in Pittsburgh. “It always feels like you’re a kid getting in trouble and you’re making an excuse.” The surveys are meant to give customers a consistent way to say whether the stores are meeting Apple’s standards — but they systematically place the customer over the employee, by design. 

This can be particularly frustrating when the issue stems from Apple corporate. In 2017, Apple customers with older iPhones realized that if they replaced their phone batteries, the performance would significantly improve. This quickly became one of Apple’s largest customer experience scandals, as people realized the company had intentionally slowed down older iPhone models to (supposedly) preserve their battery life. 

To quell public outrage, the company said it would replace phone batteries, free of charge, for a year. To meet rising customer demand, Apple told some retail workers to try to complete battery swaps in under 10 minutes, according to a former employee. The result was a disaster for workers, who say they didn’t have the supplies or resources necessary to meet the mandate. “You can’t replace a battery in 10 minutes,” a former retail manager says bluntly. “Nothing translates from corporate to the stores because they’re not in the stores.”

Set against this backdrop, the Apple credo has become increasingly important. It’s meant to inspire employees to provide exemplary customer service — to elevate even mundane parts of the job to stratospheric levels of importance. 

In the past, some employees assumed that it applied to how Apple treated its workforce. Wasn’t the company supposed to enrich the lives of its employees? To give more than it took?

That started to break down on March 14th, 2020, in the early days of the pandemic, when Apple announced it was temporarily closing all its stores, sending retail employees home. In Pennsylvania, one current worker was selected to be part of a new program to answer calls from customers who needed tech support over the phone. The employee was relieved — his wife was immunocompromised, and he himself suffered from asthma, making the pair particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. Being able to work from home seemed like a perfect solution to stay safe and continue earning money. 

From the start, the job was stressful. Employees spent eight hours a day fielding inquiries from angry customers. They were evaluated based on call time and customer satisfaction. As with many hourly roles at Apple, people with high scores knew they’d eventually get better schedules, promotions, and opportunities. People with low scores could be placed on action plans to try to improve. 

The Pennsylvania employee says he didn’t hear much from his manager until July 2020, when he was told that his scores were good. So good, in fact, that he was going to start taking tier two calls. If a lower-level adviser couldn’t answer a customer’s questions, they could escalate the call to him. He asked if the job came with a pay bump and was told it did not. 

Apple tried to make up for the increased workload for hourly employees by sending employees in the work from home program a shirt as a gift for all their hard work. When it arrived, employees realized it had a large 14 on the back (for iOS 14) and 2020 printed on the sleeve. These were leftovers from WWDC 2020 — Apple’s live event that had been canceled. 

The shirt felt like a slap in the face. Employees wanted a raise. Some had multiple roommates and worked two or three jobs to try to make ends meet. On top of that, they were dealing with the same existential angst as the rest of the population weathering a global pandemic — all while being yelled at on the phone by customers who barely treated them like people.

The Pennsylvania employee said his mental health started to suffer. He was working in a poorly lit room, unable to leave the house because of the lockdown. When he tried to talk to his manager about how he was feeling, he was told to try opening a window or put a plant on his desk. 

One day, the employee was doing a screen share with a customer who was having issues with her display. The device wasn’t under warranty — he told her it would likely cost $500 to fix. The woman started to cry. “I’m a college student, can’t you make an exception?” she asked. He said he was sorry, but it wasn’t up to him. Then the woman opened Photo Booth on her computer screen — activating the webcam — and held a razor to her wrist. “This is what the stress you’re giving me is doing to me,” he says she told him. 

When the employee explained to his boss what had happened, the man asked if he needed half an hour to decompress. The employee responded that it didn’t feel like enough time. According to his recollection, his boss conceded: “Okay, take a breather, but try to keep it to 30 minutes because we need to keep our call time down.”

In early 2021, Apple Stores started to reopen, and the employee asked to go back to in-person work. “I have asthma, my wife has a chronic illness, but we were forced to wager my mental health against my physical health to see if it was worth going back to the store,” he says. The decision wasn’t his anyway — he was told he needed to keep working from home. 

It wasn’t until he asked to go on medical leave that he was finally able to go back to the store. “They let me come back to the store to keep me off leave,” he alleges.

In September, Apple announced that all retail and care employees who’d been with the company since March 31st would receive a $1,000 bonus. To some workers, it was a nice surprise; but after years of feeling mistreated, others believe the bonus had more sinister motivations. “I think it feels more like they don’t want to get sued for not offering hazard pay after making some of us work in public in the last year,” the Pennsylvania employee says.

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