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Apple’s focus on secrecy violated employee rights, US regulators find

An Apple company logo seen on a screen during a product announcement event.
Enlarge / Apple logo on stage at an iPhone launch presentation in September 2019.

Getty Images | picture alliance

Apple violated US labor laws through various workplace rules and statements made by executives, National Labor Relations Board officials determined after reviewing allegations from two former employees. An NLRB official will file a formal complaint against Apple unless the company reaches a settlement with the former employees, who filed complaints about Apple’s focus on secrecy.

An NLRB spokesperson confirmed to Ars today that the labor board’s regional office “found merit to four charges alleging that various work rules, handbook rules, and confidentiality rules at Apple violated Section 8(a)(1) of the National Labor Relations Act because they reasonably tend to interfere with, restrain, or coerce employees in the exercise of their right to protected concerted activity.”

The regional office additionally “found merit to a charge alleging statements and conduct by Apple—including high-level executives—also violated the National Labor Relations Act,” the NLRB statement said. That’s apparently a reference to an email in which Apple CEO Tim Cook warned staff not to leak confidential information.

As The New York Times wrote, the NLRB findings were in response to “five charges brought in late 2021 by two former Apple employees, Ashley Gjovik, an engineering program manager at Apple for six years, and Cher Scarlett, an engineer on the company’s security team… Both women were involved in the activist group called #AppleToo that was collecting accounts of abuse, harassment and retaliation at the company.”

The ex-employees “accused the company of trying to prevent the group from collecting wage data from employees, including through harassment,” and “said that the company’s work rules prevented them from discussing wages, hours and conditions of employment,” according to the NYT story.

Gjovik’s complaints alleged that “various Apple rules, including those relating to confidentiality and surveillance policies, deter employees from discussing issues such as pay equity and sex discrimination with each other and the media,” according to Reuters. “Gjovik also cited a 2021 email from Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook that allegedly sought to stop workers from speaking to the press and said ‘people who leak confidential information do not belong here.'”

NLRB urges parties to settle

We contacted Apple about the NLRB finding and will update this article if the company provides a response.

The regional office’s finding that the charges have merit isn’t an NLRB ruling but could lead to a formal charge against Apple. The NLRB statement said that “if the parties don’t settle, the Regional Director will issue a complaint, prosecuting this charge in a hearing with an Administrative Law Judge, who could order remedies.”

An administrative law judge’s decision could be appealed to the board, and a board decision, in turn, could be appealed to a federal appeals court.

The NLRB’s standard process calls for the agency to help the parties reach a deal. “When the NLRB investigation finds sufficient evidence to support the charge, every effort is made to facilitate a settlement between the parties. If no settlement is reached in a meritorious case, the agency issues a complaint,” an NLRB webpage explains.

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