While Amazon gets rightfully roasted for its record on workplace conditions for drivers and warehouse workers, other Big Tech companies generally avoid safety complaints about their workplaces. (At least in the United States)
That was until a recent investigation announced by the Department of Labor based in part on an Apple software engineer making a compliant to the company about chemical exposure in the workplace. The companies’ Sunnyvale, California office is located on a Superfund site and there are toxic materials beneath the building.
Further the whistleblower complained of having a company board member who was previously chief executive of Northrup Grumman. Northrup Grumman, a defense contractor, is responsible for storing the waste material beneath Apple’s office in Sunnyvale, California.
Putting aside the close (and disturbing) relationship between a major defense contractor and a Big Tech company, this investigation is interesting for a lot of reasons.
Interviewed in the Financial Times, Professor Michael Duff, an expert oft-cited on this blog, stated the investigation was unusual as it was based on three statutes and that government must feel strongly about the strength of the case. Other experts believed this case by the Department of Labor follows up on promises by the Biden administration to hold companies to account for misconduct.
A whistleblower with a similar complaint in Lincoln or elsewhere in Nebraska could file a general whistleblower complaint under state law. In addition, they could file a federal charge with the United States Department of Labor like was done by the Apple whistleblower.
I wrote recently about how courts were writing in a “managers rule” into retaliation law that prevented retaliation complaints by employee responsible for legal compliance. The managers rule could deter white collar whistleblowers from making complaints about environmentally hazardous workplaces.
Hazardous developments here in Lincoln?
One of my interests in the complaint is more mundane. The West Haymarket in Lincoln, Nebraska hosts a cluster of tech companies including Hudl. The West Haymarket required expensive remediation of toxic chemicals left over from prior industrial use of the land. I wonder if there would be similar safety concerns in the West Haymarket as with the Apple office in Sunnyvale, California.
The West Haymarket and Railyard area was an effort by city leaders to try to attract and retain young professionals in Lincoln. Lincoln isn’t alone among cities of its size in wanting to create concentrations of tech companies. But to some extent, Lincoln’s “Silicon Prairie” is built on what was toxic soil. I wonder if other cities like Lincoln have build their “Silicon Prairies” on former industrial sites with potential environmental hazards.
Remote work as the cure for toxic or sick buildings?
Obviously the hazards faced by technology workers in office building are different than the hazards faced by meatpacking workers. But eventhough the hazards faced by office workers are less obvious and less acute, it doesn’t mean those hazards aren’t real. One way to reduce the risk caused by buildings built on environmentally hazardous sites is to allow remote work.
Remote work expanded during the COVID-19 pandemic. But remote work pressures commercial landlords and developers who make a hefty profit renting office space and commercial space to the businesses that cater to office workers. There is some indication that commercial landlords are pushing for fewer restrictions related to COVID-19 and trying to return to the pre-COVID “normal”. That pre-COVID normal was profitable for commercial landlords and developers.
But even before COVID-19 there were hazards to white collar work that were not readily admitted by employers. Fortunately white collar workers who work in a physically toxic workplace have legal protections if they bring up those concerns in addition to being able to claim workers’ compensation.