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Did deadly tornado upend Amazon's plan to revive cellphone ban?

6 killed in Amazon warehouse collapse
6 killed in Amazon warehouse collapse in Illinois 02:46

Hundreds of thousands of Amazon warehouse workers may soon have to leave their cellphones behind if the retailer reimposes a workplace ban on the devices that was relaxed during the pandemic. 

The issue is particularly acute — some Amazon workers and their advocates say — in light of the recent tornado that struck an Amazon delivery station in Edwardsville, Illinois, killing six people at the 1.1 million square-foot warehouse complex.

Amazon for years prohibited workers from bringing their phones with them to its warehouse floors, instead requiring that employees leave the devices in their cars or in company lockers. The mandate was loosened during the pandemic, but managers in several states have already reimposed the ban, according to several workers who spoke to Bloomberg News. Smartphones can offer access to alerts on potentially dangerous weather events, as well as connect people to family during emergencies, but also can be a distraction from work and operating equipment safely. 

"People are questioning the cellphone policy and are questioning whether it's safe to have people in warehouses as large as Amazon has without some form of communication device on them," Drew Duzinskas, who started working at Amazon more than two years ago, said in a TikTok video posted Tuesday. "They say they are going to take the cellphones away again starting at the beginning of the year, which is also the end of the holiday season when they need us most," he added.

Amazon managers in November indicated "they were going to reinstate the cellphone ban policy," Duzinskas, who works at an Amazon warehouse in Joliet, Illinois, told CBS MoneyWatch this week. The company also posted signs on bathroom walls alerting workers that its current policy was temporary and reminding them that watching videos on the premises was against the rules, he added.

Amazon acknowledged its past policy but stressed all employees were allowed to have their phones with them the day the twister hit, as well as in the days since. "We're always evaluating our policies but have nothing further to share at this time," an Amazon spokesperson stated in an email to CBS MoneyWatch. 

Duzinskas described his workplace 30 miles southwest of Chicago as an enormous four-story box, without a central public address system or even phone lines. Workers and the company use scanners prone to technical glitches and "a handful of walkie talkies" to communicate, he relayed. "There are times I wouldn't mind seeing a rotary phone in there." 

Before the pandemic, Duzinskas and hundreds of his colleagues would leave their phones in their cars or in company lockers before going to work. The second time he accidentally brought his phone to work with him, he received a "stern talking to" that included a warning that more such offenses could lead to his termination.

Amazon doesn't want people distracted by their phones, said Duzinskas, who earns a little over $19 an hour. "They expect you to work, and I'm a diligent, hardworking person, so it doesn't affect me as much."   

As things stand, the 38-year-old Duzinskas said he appreciates having access to the outside world, which includes his father and other family members. "What's being practiced right now is people are not being penalized for having their phones out. But most of the time you want to keep it in your pocket, since the official policy is you're not supposed to be checking your phone."

Grandkids called, heard gunshots

Forty-five-year-old Tionette Pollard kept her phone with her after she started working as a scanner at an Amazon facility in Downers Grove, Illinois, a suburb southwest of Chicago, but needed to first get permission to go to another area to answer it. With three grandchildren in her care during the weekends, "I need to know they are all right," she explained. 

"One time I got a phone call, and they kept calling," she said of her grandkids, ages 6, 10 and 13. "I live on the South Side of Chicago, and they were scared because they kept hearing gunshots. When I picked up, it was a problem" at work, she said.

Pollard said she was reprimanded but kept her job, only to be later laid off by Amazon for taking unapproved time off. 

Amazon is hardly the only big company restricting the use of cellphones by employees while on the job. 

Like Amazon employees before the pandemic, many FedEx workers kept their devices in lockers due to a company policy barring their use on the job. The policy came under scrutiny in April when a gunman killed eight people and wounded five others at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis, with FedEx workers unable to call for help or let family members know they were safe. 

Indiana resident Vanessa Waters told CBS Chicago affiliate WBBM that she couldn't reach her partner because of FedEx's cellphone policy.

A FedEx spokesperson at the time confirmed the policy that only let certain employees use a cellphone at work, and that policy continues to this day.

"To minimize potential distractions around package-sortation equipment and dock operations, cellphone access within certain areas of FedEx field operations is limited to authorized team members," a spokesperson stated Friday in an email. 

The shipping and delivery company has "robust safety plans and protocols in place to help protect team members at all of our facilities during inclement weather," the FedEx spokesperson added, referring to the tornadoes that devastated hundreds of miles across the southern U.S. on December 10.

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