Apple Employee Blows Whistle on Illegal Spying and Toxic Working Conditions

Silicon Valley has become infamous for its role in the surveillance ecosystem, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Bosses are increasingly using an array of tech industry tools to keep constant tabs on their employees working from home, despite statistics showing that those who work remotely are more productive than their counterparts toiling away in office buildings.

But one woman who worked for the tech industry’s biggest company is fighting back. Ashley Gjovik, a former Apple project manager who was fired in September after speaking out about workplace safety concerns, has asked labor regulators to rule that the company employs illegal surveillance tactics. In October, Gjovik filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) accusing Apple of a number of unfair labor practices, including keeping tabs on employees in a manner that prevents them from exercising their right to discuss working conditions.

Gjovik also alleged that the company violated the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) by retaliating against her for voicing concerns about workplace safety stemming from the fact that Apple’s office building in Sunnyvale, California, is situated on top of an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-designated Superfund site, an area contaminated by hazardous industrial waste that is supposed to have been cleaned up and contained if humans are in the vicinity. If Gjovik prevails, the NLRB could issue a ruling curtailing employers’ abilities to surveil workers and chill their speech.

Gjovik has filed numerous other complaints with several environmental and workplace safety regulators, and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and has been meticulous in documenting her experience, as demonstrated by her personal website.

This week, the Department of Labor ruled that Gjovik’s complaints had merit, and that the agency’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) would be investigating her whistleblower retaliation complaints. Whistleblowing law expert Stephen Kohn told the Financial Times that it was unusual for OSHA to investigate such allegations because companies often “silence and intimidate” employees and because those filing charges must establish that their case is likely to succeed.

“Most of us know that there’s some level of pollution in our day-to-day lives, but there’s still a lot of trust in the government and companies to do the right thing when it comes to poisoning people,” she told Truthout.

In her NLRB complaint alleging illegal surveillance by Apple, Gjovik cited the company’s handbook, which reserves the right to search employees’ work equipment and their personal devices “to protect Apple confidential and sensitive information.” The company defines its proprietary information to include “compensation, training, recruiting, and other human resource information.”

Under federal labor law, all employees have the right to discuss their working conditions “for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” The NLRB has ruled that management cannot spy on employees exercising their rights.

The Apple handbook includes a footnote stating that the company is not attempting to restrict its employees’ “rights to speak freely about wages, hours, or working conditions as legally permitted.” But Apple policy also generally forbids employees from making any public disclosures without prior approval, including statements to the press, and it orders employees to refrain from discussing “compensation, training, recruiting, and other human resource information” after leaving the company, which it attempts to enforce through non-disclosure agreements. The handbook also bars employees from sharing information about their coworkers’ “compensation, health information, or performance and disciplinary matters” without any footnotes about “rights to speak freely about wages, hours, or working conditions,” according to Gjovik’s complaint.

Charges that Gjovik filed with the NLRB also cite a memo circulated by Apple CEO Tim Cook after details of a meeting featuring discussion of pay equity was leaked to the press. Cook responded to the disclosure by vowing “to identify those who leaked” and by saying “people who leak confidential information do not belong here,” contradicting any stated policy granting employees the right to discuss their working conditions.

Gjovik also told Truthout that when she informed someone on Apple’s employee resources team that she had the legal right to speak publicly about working conditions, he replied, “Most people don’t figure that out.”

In response to questions about Gjovik and Apple workplace activists, Apple has typically declined to make specific comments. For example, the company told Slate: “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.”

Apple has not responded to Truthout’s request for comment on Gjovik’s claim that a member of its employee resources team told her that the majority of Apple employees aren’t aware of their rights in the workplace.

Gjovik’s conflict with Apple management started in March, when an administrative assistant emailed her team about the company’s Environmental Health and Safety division wanting to conduct a “vapor intrusion survey” in the Sunnyvale office. The phrase set off “alarm bells” for Gjovik, who had spent the last six months battling her apartment’s property managers after becoming ill and learning that the residence was built on top of another EPA Superfund site.

“My body was just going crazy. It was such a nightmare. I was buying books on terminal illness,” Gjovik said.

When she applied what she learned from her struggle at home, things started going south. Gjovik responded to the administrative assistant’s email by asking her management team if Apple had conducted comprehensive air quality tests, citing an Atlantic article from 2013 which documented how their Sunnyvale building was next to three separate triple fund sites. Apple started leasing the property in 2015, hadn’t conducted any tests since moving in, and did not inform employees of the hazardous waste underneath them, Gjovik alleged, noting that she herself discovered the lack of testing in public records after learning how to do research through her apartment ordeal. She said that management claimed that they didn’t have to inform employees of the situation because there was no evidence of air quality issues. Gjovik replied that they lacked the evidence because they didn’t perform proper tests.

Meanwhile, evidence of retaliation against Gjovik by management started to mount. HR opened a sexual harassment investigation into one of Gjovik’s superiors that she did not want initiated out of fear that hostility from above would worsen. She started getting bombarded with an unrealistic number of work assignments. One boss cited Gjovik’s “mental health issues” in urging her to drop her concerns about the Superfund site. Additionally, she says, superiors told her not to raise questions about workplace safety — always over the phone or in person. Gjovik attempted to document those statements by replying in emails with notes about the conversations, asking if she missed anything.

By the middle of summer, things began to escalate. On July 23, Gjovik made The New York Times quote of the day for questioning why Apple management wanted its employees to return to office work as the Delta variant of COVID-19 started to spread throughout the country. Around the same time, she took to the company’s messaging platform, Slack, to ask her coworkers if they have had negative experiences dealing with HR, receiving numerous responses in the affirmative. In early August, after informing employee resources, Gjovik asked colleagues working in the office to document cracks in the floor — a sign that vapor intrusion may be occurring. They took photographs and sent them to Gjovik, and she planned to go into the office the next day to gather evidence herself. On the day of her planned trip to the office, however, she was informed that she was being put on paid administrative leave. On September 9, after Gjovik received a request from Apple management to cooperate with an investigation about “a sensitive Intellectual Property matter,” she agreed to cooperate but never found out what it is they were trying to discover. Gjovik asked that the inquiry be conducted in writing over email. Subsequently, she was fired.

The night before Gjovik was fired, she received a direct message on Twitter from a random helpful follower urging her to take steps to protect her privacy, in a general warning that invoked his own experience with private sector surveillance. Hours later, she asked her Twitter followers if it would be “over-paranoid” to worry about the security of her messages on Apple’s iCloud. Soon after, she began taking her personal information off of servers controlled by Apple and, as she told the tech publication Protocol, Gjovik began to unplug smart devices in her home. She told Truthout that she has no proof of the company using non-public information against her, but noted that internet trolls defending Apple have used information that she has not shared about her health and compensation to insult her, calling the matter a “nightmare sandwich.” Gjovik has also documented how supervisors at Apple were warning her to be wary of private-sector surveillance when she told them how she was locking horns with her property management company.

Still, there is an end to the nightmare in sight and a silver lining. Gjovik is hoping that complaints she has filed with workplace regulators will prevent Apple and other massive companies from bullying and mistreating employees, especially workers who aren’t as well-compensated as she was. Already, it appears that the complaints she filed after being put on administrative leave have the potential to bear fruit. In addition to the Department of Labor advancing her case, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission told Gjovik in September that she has the right to sue Apple in state court for creating a hostile work environment. Experts familiar with the NLRA, including former NLRB officials, have said that Gjovik has a strong case against Apple — especially her complaint about CEO Cook threatening the employees who leaked details about the meeting concerning pay equity.

“What he’s saying here goes too far,” NLRB Chair Wilma Liebman told Bloomberg about the Cook memo. “It’s restrictive of people’s ability to talk about employment policies.” Mark Gaston Pearce, another former NLRB chair who, like Liebman, led the Board during the Obama administration, tweeted that Gjovik’s case could be “a vehicle” to reverse pro-management rulings by the Board under the Trump administration. NLRB General Counsel Jennifer Abruzzo, who has the power to direct Board agents to advance cases that could set precedent, has asked regional offices to pursue cases designed to expand the definition of “concerted activity,” which was narrowed under Trump, including those involving handbook policies like the ones flagged by Gjovik. Abruzzo also noted on November 4 the Board has ruled that concerted activity includes “protesting unsafe working conditions and asserting statutory rights, like filing a claim with [OSHA].”

As far as her complaint to the SEC is concerned, Gjovik said she wants to stop the company from misrepresenting how it treats its employees. The complaint centers around a shareholder, Nia Impact Capital, who alleged that Apple is exposing itself to employment litigation risk by enforcing a culture of secrecy beyond that which is necessary to protect its trade secrets. The company responded by claiming that “Apple does not limit employees’ and contractors’ ability to speak freely about harassment, discrimination, and other unlawful acts in the workplace.” Gjovik’s SEC complaint alleges that these are “false & misleading statements of material importance” by Apple, citing an agency commissioner who warned in September 2020 against companies engaged in “woke-washing where companies attempt to portray themselves in a light they believe will be advantageous for them on issues like diversity.”

Not that any of this has brought Gjovik much pleasure. She told Gizmodo that working for Apple was a “dream” job, and although she held a high-pressure position, she was paid well and proud of her work. But since she was put in a situation where she feared for her health and safety, and got significant push back from the company for raising concerns about it, she wants to take the opportunity to stand up for herself and others.

“I was a very senior employee who gave them my blood, sweat and tears. If they’re doing it to me, what the fuck are they doing to retail?” she asked rhetorically. “I’m going to file as much shit as I can.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story said that in early August, Gjovik went into the Sunnyvale office herself to take photos of cracks in the floor.