New Report Delves Into Poor Working Conditions at an Apple Maps 'Black Site'
A new report out today by Bloomberg offers a look inside one of Apple's so-called "black sites," this one a satellite office near Apple Park in California where the company hires contractors to work on Apple Maps. These contract workers were hired by Apex Systems, which staffs and manages a few Apple mapping offices, and creates a "culture of fear" according to former employees.
One former worker at the black site near Apple Park, on Hammerwood Avenue in Sunnyvale, said that "it was made pretty plain to us that we were at-will employees and they would fire us at any time." Most workers at the office signed up for 12-15 month work contracts, but many didn't make it that long.
To hire workers, sources referred to "aggressive" messaging received via LinkedIn. Apex Systems browses the social network to find people with proficiency in mapping-related skills, and then "messages them repeatedly." Former workers then say Apex uses the revelation that the job will be for Apple as a way to tip potential employees over the edge and easily hire them.
Former workers described a poor work environment with understocked vending machines, long lines for men's bathrooms due to a predominantly male workforce, and restrictions on using the bathrooms designated for full-time Apple employees. To protect Apple's secrets, management instructed employees to enter the building through the back door every day, and to walk several blocks away from the building before calling for a ride home at the end of the day.
The working environment was uncomfortable in other ways, according to current and former contractors. Apex managers sometimes broke up unauthorized water-cooler socializing. Several workers say their managers would get notifications if their workstations were idle for too long. “Being monitored like that is super dehumanizing and terrifying,” says one former Apex mapping technician.
Many workers who took the contract jobs did so because Apex played up the possibility of landing full-time work with Apple down the line, but chances for this turned out to be small. At the same time, many other workers agreed to the contract work to have Apple on their resume, but even that wasn't a possibility.
At first, they could put "Apple, via Apex Systems" as their employer on sites like LinkedIn, but then in the summer of 2018 Apex instructed all workers to remove the word "Apple" and to describe their employer as "A Major Tech Company Via Apex Systems."
These differences between contract workers and full-time employees have led to what some sources called a caste system within Apple.
The restrictions were just one of many reminders of the contractors’ inferior status, right down to the apple design on their ID badges. For direct employees, the apples were multi-colored; contractors got what one described as “sad grey.” It’s common for companies to distribute different badges to contractors, a practice that discontented workers across the industry have seized on as evidence of a caste system.
Amber Lutsko, who worked for Apple through Apex in 2017 and 2018, described an opening-day pep talk that aimed to make her feel both honored and excluded. “‘You work at Apple now! You have made it!’” she recalls being told. “‘You’re not allowed to use the gym.’”
The Hammerwood office is managed by Apex, not Apple, and in a surprise audit on the staffing company, Apple said it found a work environment consistent with other Apple locations. According to an Apple spokesperson, "Like we do with other suppliers, we will work with Apex to review their management systems, including recruiting and termination protocols, to ensure the terms and conditions of employment are transparent and clearly communicated to workers in advance."
In November 2018, Apex changed the maximum amount of paid annual sick time from 48 to 24 hours, leading to a protest as over a dozen contractors said they had suddenly fallen ill and left work. Around the same time, Apex suddenly fired about two dozen people. Eventually, many remaining employees left Apex permanently and moved onto contract work at other companies that had better benefits for these workers, including Facebook and Google.
One former Apple contractor who worked under Apex, Amber Lutsko, was one of the workers who quit before her contract was up because of the company's questionable practices. Even now, a few months after she stopped working for Apex, the company's recruiters still find her through LinkedIn and send her messages about potential employment with a can't-be-named silicon valley company.
Other former contractors report the same, even ones who were fired by Apex: "You got rid of me because of my quote-unquote performance, and every three months I get these emails," says one of them. "It's insulting, honestly."
Head to Bloomberg to read the full report: What It's Like To Work Inside Apple's 'Black Site'