(Bloomberg) -- Betsy Marler enjoyed her job as a sales associate at a Walmart in Mobile, Ala. She was hired in August 2009 and, three-and-a-half years later, promoted to pharmaceutical department manager at a different store and given a raise to $10.05 an hour. She was 53 and married with four grown kids, one of whom also worked for Walmart, when she started the new position on a Monday in January 2013. Four days later, doctors discovered a mass on her lung.
During the next year, Marler went to dozens of doctors’ appointments and underwent three surgeries. She had to figure out which leave policies applied, a sometimes complicated process for Walmart workers. The retailer, the largest private employer in the country, with more than 1 million workers, has more than 250 pages of human resources policies.
When Marler was sick, those policies were available only on Walmart’s intranet, called the Wire, and accessible only on company computers—only when employees were at work and on the clock, she says. According to a company spokesman, since early 2016 employees have been able to access information about the company’s paid time off and leave policies from any device.
But when Marler was navigating her cancer, she says, she had to use the computer in the personnel manager’s office with the manager present.
“Walmart tells you that your activity will be tracked,” Marler says. “Even if they don’t use it, there’s the sense that they’re always watching.”
In the months after her diagnosis, she didn’t have time to check how best to handle all her doctors’ appointments, so she usually took a half day off for each one. Walmart says employees can also call a benefits hotline or talk to a manager about personnel matters.
Marler didn’t, and her absences led to a disciplinary meeting with her store manager, where she learned she could have applied for intermittent leave for the two-hour appointments and escaped reprimand. She ultimately took four leaves of absence to deal with her medical problems. In June 2014, she was reassigned to a stockroom job, earning $11.05 an hour for the physically demanding work.
Now, Marler has a second job: She’s one of about two dozen current and former employees who helped construct an app called WorkIt that answers questions about Walmart’s policies and workplace rights using Watson, IBM’s artificial intelligence bot. So-called peer experts such as Marler feed information into a database and are on call to answer questions when Watson can’t.
OUR Walmart, the employee and labor activist group that’s been pushing for better wages and working conditions, is behind the effort and will roll out the free app on Nov. 14. For the past four years, the group has organized protests and walkouts around Black Friday, one of the busiest shopping days of the year, to draw more attention to the problems of low-wage workers. This year it will promote WorkIt instead.
It’s a strangely promising time for labor organizers. Unions are in decline; OUR Walmart’s membership seems to have peaked at about 5,000, in part because of the company’s opposition to the group. But OUR Walmart says it has a network of some 100,000 employees who’ve participated in 1 million conversations on Facebook about workplace issues since 2012.
The group claims credit for Walmart’s decision last year to raise hourly wages, offer more predictable schedules and hours, and begin to reconsider some of its leave policies. Walmart says the changes were business decisions that had nothing to do with the group. But the predicament of low-wage workers, and a tightening labor market, have become national concerns.
Although the federal government hasn’t adjusted the minimum wage since 2009, states and cities around the country have, along with big companies such as Costco, Gap, Starbucks, and Target. Online organizing has made it easier to stage protests, collect contributions and signatures, and share information.
But social media is mostly public and often chaotic, and the information it carries isn’t always always trustworthy. WorkIt is organized, efficient, and secure, OUR Walmart says. As with any technology, it’s supposed to help the group scale and gather data. OUR Walmart wants specific, up-to-date information about what it sees as the problems Walmart employees are experiencing.
“It will give us real evidence to talk to the company about what’s broken,” says Andrea Dehlendorf, co-director of OUR Walmart. “We have to be in a place where we can say, ‘This is the truth. We have massive data.’ ”
OUR Walmart isn’t trying to unionize Walmart per se. The group split from the UFCW last year ago. Zack Exley, who helped lead Bernie Sanders’ grass-roots campaign, is familiar with the group and the app. “Instead of asking, would you like a union? They’re actually just going ahead and building it,” he says. “A lot of us who are concerned with workers organizing have been dreaming of an app like this.”
In 2015, Dehlendorf and OUR Walmart co-director Dan Schlademan asked employees what service they most wanted. Many said they needed information and advice about policies and rights in the workplace—OUR Walmart already was getting as many as 50 inquiries a day on its Facebook page. They raised a combined $200,000 from groups including the Workers Lab, which focuses on ventures that build economic power for workers, New Media Ventures, an angel investing firm, and the Open Society to license Watson and create an app.
Dehlendorf and Schlademan hired a technologist, Cat Huang, who had worked at the Citizen Engagement Lab, and a developer, Jason Van Anden, who built the ACLU’s Mobile Justice app, which allows users to record encounters with police and instantly send video to the organization.
During her health troubles, Marler had joined a Walmart employee Facebook group, mostly to whine and vent, she says. She began learning more about Walmart’s leave policies and eventually found herself answering questions posed to the group by other employees. This summer two leaders of OUR Walmart reached out to Marler and invited her to a hackathon in Los Angeles in August.
On the first day, a group of 18 current and former employees identified 50 main issues and wrote questions workers might ask. They spent the next day answering them, relying on policy manuals that OUR Walmart had pieced together over the years, their own experience, and some expert advice. By the end they’d trained Watson to answer 93 questions.
WorkIt users can sign in anonymously if they’re concerned about privacy and retaliation. Those who register can participate in chat groups; only their user names and store positions are visible to others in the chat. Mindful of Walmart policies on the use of company documents, Huang made sure there are no links to actual Walmart documents. “We store interpretations of the policies,” she says.
Now in beta and available only on the Android operating system, WorkIt can answer 200 questions using Watson’s artificial intelligence. If Watson can’t answer a question with 100 percent confidence, it will kick it over to volunteer peer experts. Watson learns from the experts’ answers. The app also provides links to federal and state laws covering worker protections, as well as local child-care resources and food banks.
After users receive an answer, they’re asked if they would like to be connected to other workers with the same concerns. “If people don’t want to be on the front lines, they can get involved this way. It’s about meeting people where they’re comfortable,” says Tyfani Faulkner, a former Walmart employee and OUR Walmart leader.
Walmart’s labor-relations team is aware of the app and has sent a warning memo about it that managers are required to read to their staffs, OUR Walmart says. “We just wanted to give you a heads up that if someone tries to get you to download an OUR Walmart work-related app on your mobile device, you may unknowingly be giving away valuable personal information like your location and personal contact information that the union can use however it wants,” reads part of the statement.
In an e-mail, Walmart spokesman Kory Lundberg said, “Our associates already have anytime-access online to the company’s most current and accurate Paid Time Off and Leave policies and there is no way to know if the details this group is pushing are correct. 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.”
For the record, WorkIt doesn’t track people’s location or ask users to grant access to location services, Huang says. And, Dehlendorf says, “We’re not going to sell the data, ever. We will share it with researchers and use it to inform conversations with Walmart. But it’s not part of the revenue model.”
OUR Walmart, a nonprofit since its split with the UFCW, has a revenue model. Funding from foundations and investors isn’t always predictable, and membership fees of $5 a month are insufficient. The group hopes to license WorkIt to other organizations—it says a labor group in Australia is interested—and even to companies.
“A higher-road employer would license it,” says Carmen Rojas, a co-founder of the Workers Lab, which gave OUR Walmart $20,000 early on. “If I were the CEO of Costco, I would.”
Eventually, Dehlendorf says, the group could make deals to provide users with low-cost financial services or child care, which would allow it to earn a small fee per user. Shayna Strom, a researcher at the Century Foundation, says a substantial portion of the AFL-CIO’s revenue comes from the union’s branded credit card. MoveOn.org is trying to raise money by negotiating discounts with clean energy companies and marketing those lower-priced services to members.
For now, OUR Walmart is expecting 14,000 employees to download the app by the end of 2017. That’s about 1 percent of all Walmart workers.
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