Apple’s frontline employees are struggling to survive

Apple’s frontline employees are struggling to survive

If you ask Jimmy Bailey what killed his best friend Mark Calivas, his answer is simple: “It was Apple.” How else could he explain how the Apple Store wellness champion — known for evangelizing therapy and mental health — would slide into a depression so profound he’d be forced to take medical leave and ultimately die by suicide? “It was nothing in his outside life that did this,” Bailey says. “It was work.”

Calivas started at the Apple Southpoint store in Durham, North Carolina in March 2013. His colleagues laughed when he’d arrived in the morning with multiple changes of clothes (he went on a six-mile run up the American Tobacco Trail on his lunch break) and healthy snacks (he was on the keto diet and carried around two 64oz water bottles). “He always had so many bags,” Bailey remembers. 

Calivas had his demons. His mother had died when he was young; he’d never really known his father. But his job at the Apple Store grounded him. It gave him a sense of dignity and purpose. 

Then the store hired a new manager: a whip smart, data-driven woman. According to Bailey and another former colleague, if you were on her good side, you could get a good schedule, a special project, a promotion. But if you weren’t? “You’d be punished in the most strategic ways possible,” the former colleague says.

By all accounts, Mark Calivas was never on her good side. “She hated him, she told me,” the former colleague explains. “She just would constantly talk about how Mark wasn’t good enough, Mark wasn’t special, don’t give that opportunity to Mark because he hasn’t earned it, even though he had done everything to earn it.”

Over the years working under the manager, Calivas’ confidence started to wane. He felt trapped — intimidated and bullied by her behavior, according to his close friends. In 2021, he took medical leave to cope with his depression. 

Bailey and two former colleagues say there have been multiple HR complaints filed against the manager (Apple would not confirm the complaints). But nothing ever seemed to change. “I filed three, maybe four complaints myself,” one of the former colleagues says. “I participated in at least six investigations.” Eventually, employees lost hope that anyone at Apple’s corporate office would hold the woman accountable. 

In response to a request for comment from The Verge, Apple spokesperson Nick Leahy said: “We are and have always been deeply committed to creating and maintaining a positive and inclusive workplace. We take all concerns seriously and we thoroughly investigate whenever a concern is raised and, out of respect for the privacy of any individuals involved, we do not discuss specific employee matters.”

The story illustrates a potentially widespread problem for Apple’s frontline workers. When something goes wrong — a bad manager, a missed paycheck, an untenable onslaught of work — many say they have no one to turn to for help. “Corporate makes decisions based on what they think will work in the stores without talking to people who work in the stores,” a former colleague says.

This struggle echoes a complaint made by some employees in Cupertino, who’ve said that the employee relations team — Apple’s version of human resources — is more concerned with protecting the company than its workforce. 

But hourly workers at Apple may have it even worse. The employees who spoke to The Verge say that while the company is hyper concerned with customers, it treats its retail and customer service staff as an afterthought. 

Over the past five months, Apple’s hourly workforce has been watching as corporate employees advocate for more pay transparency. Some have organized with employees in Cupertino under the banner #AppleToo, to call for better working conditions. Others are just now beginning to speak out — realizing that the issues their well-compensated corporate colleagues are experiencing could be greatly exacerbated on the frontlines. 

The Verge spoke with 16 current and former employees on Apple’s retail, support, and sales teams who say their complaints about working conditions and pay have largely been ignored. Some say they are governed more by algorithms and systems than actual managers, making it difficult to get holistic help. All of them note that while they came into the job believing in Apple’s mission, they see a profound breakdown in how the company’s corporate values translate to the frontlines. 

“They say our soul is our people but it really didn’t feel like that to me,” a former employee says.

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 Pennsylvania. “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.

The mental health strain that retail employees felt working from home during the pandemic gave them a glimpse into the lives of another organization at the tech giant: AppleCare. These employees are part of the company’s tech support team that answers customer questions in online chats and over the phone. 

One employee, a gay man living in the South, said that when he landed a job at Apple after high school, he knew he’d stay with the company for years. “This big company that everyone talks about, I had a chance to be a part of,” he says. “I always describe it as my longest relationship.”

At first, the idea of working from home for a tech giant seemed too good to be true. But over time, he says sitting at a computer for eight to 10 hours a day started to take a mental toll. In 2021, he decided to take medical leave to cope with the stress of responding to customers in under two minutes, a requirement for his position. 

As his medical bills started piling up, the employee says he and his partner ran out of money. “We had to start selling our belongings to pay bills,” he explains. “We downsized and spent most of the summer without electricity or air conditioning.” 

When his paycheck arrived in May 2021, he found it was just $23, due to health insurance deductions. He couldn’t afford to pay rent. When he contacted Apple’s corporate payroll team, he said the response was, “We’ll look into it.”

“I’ve given the best years of my life, all my 20s working for Apple, now I need help and they’re not there,” the employee says. “I don’t think the corporate people or payroll teams have any idea what it’s like to live on the edge financially,” the employee says. 

While Apple’s corporate offices take a proactive, deliberate approach to product development, Apple’s customer support function operates in a reactive mania, using a vast array of processes and metrics to keep employees on task. If workers go to the bathroom or are away from their computers for more than five minutes, they’ll sometimes get a note from their manager asking why they aren’t working. They’re monitored based on their customer satisfaction score, as well as after call work time, which dictates how much time after a call or chat they spend writing up notes, and average handle time (AHT), which indicates how long it takes them to solve a customer issue. A good AHT is around 15 minutes for phone calls and about two minutes for chats. 

“It starts to get into a game of fixing the numbers more than helping the customers. They look at the numbers and assume that is helping the customer,” a former employee says. 

Employees who really want to help customers say they often have to sacrifice their personal metrics. “If I have an elderly person on the phone, am I going to be a little slower with them to the detriment of my personal metrics?” a current employee asks. “Yes, I can’t treat every person the same because they’re not all the same.” 

On chats, the ability to resolve issues can be even more difficult, as employees are expected to speak to three people simultaneously during busy parts of the year. “It’s impossible to do a good job multitasking with that many scenarios,” a current employee explains. “Especially because we have to respond in two minutes — from an Apple ID issue to an iCloud issue to an iOS [or] Mac install.”

About four years ago, Apple started hiring vendors to manage some of the chats and calls. For tier two advisers — people who were tasked with taking calls that couldn’t be resolved by lower-level employees — this meant a sudden onslaught of angry customers. Vendors didn’t receive the same level of training as in-house Apple employees, according to multiple employees, meaning issues were constantly being escalated. By the time a tier two adviser got the call, customers were often irate. 

In September 2019, an AppleCare employee wrote a letter to management laying out the team’s grievances. The letter said the company should “eradicate triple chats and reduce double chats” and noted “Apple should include a cost of living adjustment in addition to our raises, because it’s fair and just.” They included links to studies about how multitasking increases chronic stress. (The employee declined an interview request from The Verge). 

Then, in February 2021, tier two chat advisers were told those jobs were being eliminated. One employee says they were told that it was because customer satisfaction ratings weren’t as high for the tier two chat team as they were for the tier two phone advisers. “It was a self-fulfilling prophecy,” the employee explains, noting that taking three chats at a time is notably different than answering one phone call after another. “We equated it to being able to do your job with one hand tied behind your back.”

Employees felt like the promise of working at Apple — the idea that you could move up in the organization and eventually land a managerial role — was slowly being taken away. In the past, hardworking employees could be selected for a “team manager assistant” role — meaning they’d fill in for managers who were on vacation. The idea was that eventually they themselves would become the manager. In practice, however, it just meant that they took on managerial responsibilities, with the illusion of possible job progression, and received no extra pay. Now, even that thin reward felt elusive. 

Employees also saw a disparity in Apple’s financial success — reflected in the wealth of its executives — and their own financial pricarity. In 2015, Tim Cook announced that he planned to give away his $800 million fortune before he died. “When I saw Tim Cook was saying he’s worth nearly a billion dollars and he plans to give all of that away before he dies, I thought, ‘Well shit, he could start with us in AppleCare,’” a current employee says.

A few weeks before he died, Mark Calivas sent an email to an Apple human resources representative, according to a text conversation he later had with his friend Jimmy Bailey, excerpts of which have been viewed by The Verge. “Over seven years, I too have been a victim of intimidation, public humiliation, bullying, slandering, retaliation, and on one occasion, lies,” he wrote. “I have held out a long time for change, but to date, no Store Leader or Senior Manager has been able to keep me safe from [the manager]. I want to return to work for Apple. I want to keep contributing to the company. However, for my mental health, I don’t feel like I can do so while working in the same environment as [the manager].”

Bailey says Calivas had lost hope that he’d be able to transfer to a different store. After all the investigations into the manager had gone nowhere, he felt — like some other employees at the store — that corporate just didn’t care. Unlike his three former colleagues, however, he was now too depressed to interview for another job and leave Apple altogether. 

The morning of September 7th, 2021, Bailey walked into Calivas’ room to find him slumped over a chair, his arms hanging limp in his lap. He was wearing a bright yellow hazmat hood. A tube ran from the hood to a silver tank with a green painted top. The face of the hood was clear, and covered with condensation. “A month has passed and I still see him in that chair whether my eyes are closed or open,” Bailey says. Calivas had died from inhaling nitrogen, according to the coroner’s report. 

“I want to end this speaking directly to Tim Cook,” Bailey says in a final interview with The Verge. “Tim, I have emailed you about this issue. I explained the damage caused at Apple Southpoint. I spoke to an employee relations representative and expressed my concern. I told him that all they need to do is look into the records on hand to see the devastation that could have been prevented. What then, Tim, do you plan on doing? I still see Mark. I see him constantly. But even though I see him, he is gone.”

In a statement emailed to The Verge, an Apple spokesperson said: “We were devastated by the death of our colleague and our thoughts are with his loved ones in their time of grief.”

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