On Thursday, Walmart announced it’s going to offer free phones to its retail workers pre-loaded with the company's scheduling app.
“By the end of the year, we plan to offer more than 740,000 associates a new Samsung Galaxy XCover Pro smartphone, case and protection plan to use—free of charge,” Walmart executives Drew Holler and Kellie Romack said in a blog post announcing the venture. According to Walmart, this change will foster the “constant communication” that “is essential for our business.”
If this sounds like a dystopian nightmare to you, then you are correct. Retail is a brutal job, and Walmart in particular can be an overwhelming place to work. The separation between work and life is important to maintain one’s ability to do the job, and Walmart’s free phones would obliterate that separation.
The Samsung phone will come preloaded with the Walmart-designed Me@Walmart app. According to Holler and Romack, the app allows workers to clock-in, adjust their schedule, and communicate with other employees via a push-to-talk feature. The XCover Pro is being marketed by Samsung as a rugged piece of equipment designed specifically for “frontline workers.”
Walmart said that associates will only be able to access the work-specific features after they’ve clocked in, “but they can also use the smartphone as their own personal device if they want, with all the features and privacy they’re used to. Walmart will not have access to any personal data.”
There’s an argument that this isn’t that big a deal. After all, lots of professional jobs offer work phones and computers to employees. The difference is that those are typically white collar jobs that offer a degree of autonomy that’s not present at a retail job like Walmart. Retail shifts are intricate and demanding. The bosses and security cameras watch the employees, waiting for any small violation. Walmart is famously hard on its workers and has faced lawsuits for not giving employees breaks, baked anti-union propaganda into its training videos, and fostered a gig economy that’s brutal to its workers.
The $499 phone is an attractive offer to workers whose starting salary can be as low as $11 per hour. The immediate cost is Walmart’s intrusion into the workers' lives.