Posts with «author_name|bryan menegus» label

Google is failing to protect users and contractors post-Roe, workers say

When the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade in June, Alphabet was one of several major tech companies that attempted to extend some flexibility to its workers seeking care, including those who potentially would need to travel out of state. It likewise made the narrow decision to delete users' location data when they visited abortion providing clinics, albeit only in response to legislative pressure. Since then, however, Alphabet has been effectively silent on the issue, and a group of its own workers are stepping up to demand a broader response on behalf of their colleagues and users at large.

The petition (reproduced in full below) was sent on Monday to a group of six executives, including CEO Sundar Pichai, and has been signed by over 650 workers at the company. Thus far, the executives have yet to respond. Responding to a request for comment Alphabet told Engadget "we have nothing specific to add on this letter."

First and foremost, the workers ask that Alphabet's new policies on travel and reimbursement for out-of-state care be extended to the company's temps, vendors and contractors (TVCs), a workforce which, by some estimates, outnumbers its full-time employees. This includes increasing the daily reimbursement from $50 to $150 and changing the minimum number of sick days to seven. "Many of our fellow TVCs have three days of sick leave, whereas full-time employees have unlimited [days]," Alejandra Beatty, a technical program manager with subsidiary Verily and a member of Alphabet Workers Union (AWU), told Engadget. "Everybody deserves seven, especially when we're still dealing with COVID-19 outbreaks." 

Engadget first asked Alphabet if these travel and reimbursement policies would extend to TVCs shortly after the Supreme Court's decision and received no reply. This implicit exclusion was immediately criticized by AWU and the company seemingly has not rectified the discrepancy in treatment in the two months since.

The petition further seeks to strengthen Alphabet's data privacy policies around these sensitive subjects. "Searching for reproductive justice, gender-affirming care, and abortion access information on Google must never be saved, handed over to law enforcement, or treated as a crime," the document states. In practice, this would not only broaden the scope of the company's new policy on location data related to abortion providing clinics — both by expanding to new categories of sensitive information, as well as new kinds of non-locational data — but it would also de facto require it to change how that information is logged in the first place. Law enforcement, armed with a court order, could force Alphabet to turn over data in its possession, and the only viable workaround would be not having that data. "We think it's more important that we are on the side of 'let's just not have the data,'" Beatty said, "because you can't tell a company to just say 'no' to any subpoena."

Issues around the preservation of data related to abortion presented the worrying hypothetical in the immediate wake of Roe's overturning that a tech company might willingly, or might be forced to, provide data to law enforcement that would result in criminal charges. These companies have largely left that question unanswered. But a version of this grim scenario has already occurred, with Facebook messages provided to cops becoming key evidence in an abortion case that's being prosecuted in Nebraska. (Meta, Facebook's parent company, contends the warrants were received prior to the Supreme Court's decision and did not mention abortion specifically. Regardless, it bodes poorly for data privacy.) 

Among other dystopian schemes that have already come to pass: Google's own alleged complicity in pushing fake "abortion clinic" results to care-seekers on its Search and Maps products— something this petition also seeks to redress. A variety of recent reports have pointed out that queries on these products often push users toward so-called "crisis pregnancy centers," which are non-medical, often religious establishments with the express goal of convincing pregnant people to carry their pregnancies to term. 

In order to accomplish these and the other wide-ranging goals in the petition, the signatories "call on Alphabet to create a dedicated task-force with 50% employee representation, responsible for implementing changes across all products and our company, just like Alphabet did for handling the COVID-19 pandemic." The existence of that task force may not be familiar to the public. But Beatty says the volunteer team — which she believes numbered in the thousands — resulted in many recognizable changes to Alphabet products, like informational boxes about COVID on Search, testing locations being catalogued on Maps and even Google and Apple's joint contact tracing app (though granted the latter was not a resounding success.) "I want to see a plan that is similar to our response to COVID-19," Beatty said. "This is this is a healthcare crisis that has been created. I want to see a plan like that. And others agree with me."

Protect our worker's rights

We, the undersigned, recognize that all Alphabet workers, of all genders, are impacted by the overturning of Roe v. Wade and are disappointed in Alphabet’s response and influence on this ruling.

Alphabet has continued to make access to reproductive and gender affirming healthcare a “women’s issue” by only providing women@ Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) with listening sessions, and using gendered language in their communication with workers when this is an issue that affects all of us.

In order to align with Google’s core values, we demand that Alphabet acknowledges the impact this Supreme Court ruling has on all its workers and to immediately do the following:

1. Protect all workers’ access to reproductive healthcare by setting a reproductive healthcare standard in the US Wages and Benefits Standards including:

a. Extending the same travel-for-healthcare benefits offered to FTEs to TVCs.

b. Adding minimum of 7 days of additional sick time because workers will need to travel for significant periods to obtain health services.

c. Increasing FTE & TVC reimbursement amounts for travel to $150 per night. $50 is NOT a viable reimbursement for a hotel stay in most states, and does not address childcare or lost wages.

d. Publishing a TVC transparency report, detailing vendors’ compliance to the Alphabet/Google US Wages and Benefits Standards. For example, details on why certain roles are exempt, and timelines for vendors to come into compliance.

2. Protect our government from corporate influence. Alphabet must stop lobbying politicians and any political organizations, through NetPAC or any other means because these politicians were responsible for appointing the Supreme Court justices who overturned Roe v. Wade and continue to infringe on other human rights issues related to voting access and gun control.

3. Protect our users and customers from having their data used against them and addressing the disinformation and misleading information as it pertains to abortion services and other reproductive healthcare services on all Alphabet platforms and products by:

a. Instituting immediate user data privacy controls for all health-related activity, for example, searching for reproductive justice, gender-affirming care, and abortion access information on Google must never be saved, handed over to law enforcement, or treated as a crime.

b. Fixing misleading search results related to abortion services by removing results for fake abortion providers.

c. No longer working with publishers of disinformation related to abortion services who violate AdSense's publishers policies related to unreliable and harmful claims about a major health crisis.

d. Providing transparency into ad revenue sharing with Google custom search so that abortion services that pay for Google ads don’t inadvertently have their ad revenue go to organizations that are actively working against them.

In order to meet these demands, we call on Alphabet to create a dedicated task-force with 50% employee representation, responsible for implementing changes across all products and our company, just like Alphabet did for handling the COVID-19 pandemic.

Google fires researcher who claimed LaMDA AI was sentient

Blake Lemoine, an engineer who's spent the last seven years with Google, has been fired, reports Alex Kantrowitz of the Big Technology newsletter. The news was allegedly broken by Lemoine himself during a taping of the podcast of the same name, though the episode is not yet public. Google confirmed the firing to Engadget.

Lemoine, who most recently was part of Google’s Responsible AI project, went to the Washington Post last month with claims that one of company's AI projects had allegedly gained sentience. The AI in question, LaMDA — short for Language Model for Dialogue Applications — was publicly unveiled by Google last year as a means for computers to better mimic open-ended conversation. Lemoine seems not only to have believed LaMDA attained sentience, but was openly questioning whether it possessed a soul. And in case there's any doubt words his views are being expressed without hyperbole, he went on to tell Wired, "I legitimately believe that LaMDA is a person." 

After making these statements to the press, seemingly without authorization from his employer, Lemoine was put on paid administrative leave. Google, both in statements to the Washington Post then and since, has steadfastly asserted its AI is in no way sentient. 

Several members of the AI research community spoke up against Lemoine's claims as well. Margaret Mitchell, who was fired from Google after calling out the lack of diversity within the organization, wrote on Twitter that systems like LaMDA don't develop intent, they instead are "modeling how people express communicative intent in the form of text strings." Less tactfully, Gary Marcus referred to Lemoine's assertions as "nonsense on stilts."

Reached for comment, Google shared the following statement with Engadget: 

As we share in our AI Principles, we take the development of AI very seriously and remain committed to responsible innovation. LaMDA has been through 11 distinct reviews, and we published a research paper earlier this year detailing the work that goes into its responsible development. If an employee shares concerns about our work, as Blake did, we review them extensively. We found Blake’s claims that LaMDA is sentient to be wholly unfounded and worked to clarify that with him for many months. These discussions were part of the open culture that helps us innovate responsibly. So, it’s regrettable that despite lengthy engagement on this topic, Blake still chose to persistently violate clear employment and data security policies that include the need to safeguard product information. We will continue our careful development of language models, and we wish Blake well.

Exclusive: Amazon instructs New York workers 'don't sign' union cards

Amazon — the second-largest employer in the United States — has made plain its desire to keep its workforce from unionizing. In one of its warehouses, ALB1 in upstate New York, that message has become crystal clear: "Don't sign a card." 

Photos of the new digital signage were sent to Engadget by an employee at the facility; their presence was confirmed by a second employee, David, who claims to have been at the fulfillment center approximately since its opening in 2020. According to David (whose full name is being withheld for fear of retribution by his employer) the carousel of anti-union posters went up today and cycles between approximately seven different slides, each actively discouraging workers from signing a union card. "It's on a constant loop while people punch in and punch out of their shifts," he said, "[when] they go on their breaks, or they go on their lunch. Any time that we're going to be up towards the front." 

Amazon has been known to post signage meant to discourage unionization at other facilities. As Vice reported in March, workers at JFK8 in Staten Island, New York were treated to an array of posters with circumspect slogans like "Is union life for me?" and "Will the [Amazon Labor Union]'s voice replace mine?" The signage at ALB1 appears to be the most forceful the company has been with expressing its disdain for an organized workforce. The company also has a track record of breaking labor laws and frustrating organizing efforts: firing or otherwise retaliating against workers, preventing workers from handing out pamphlets and interfering with a union election. Behind closed doors, the company also planned a smear campaign against a prominent organizer. 

We've reached out to both Amazon and the National Labor Relations Board for comment on the legality of this signage and will update if we hear back. 

Workers at ALB1 have been pushing to form a union since at least May. It's not yet clear if the organizing efforts are pointed towards joining Amazon Labor Union — the grassroots group that successfully voted to unionize one of the Staten Island facilities in April — though based on the new signage, management at this fulfillment center appears to consider the group its primary threat. Nearly all of the signs specifically reference ALU, which the company calls "untested and unproven"; another even suggests joining ALU would involve giving up some measure of personal privacy, though it's not clear in what way. We've reached out to ALU as well and will update if we hear back from the group. 

Big tech's abortion travel policies do nothing for its contractor workforce

The Supreme Court's ruling last week has overnight transformed many states where abortion access was prohibitively difficult to ones where it is now de factoillegal. Congressional Democrats squandered nearly 50 years of opportunities to strengthen the right to bodily autonomy, and now in the wake of a post-Roe nation, large companies have been attempting to perform some form of triage, but their solutions, among tech firms in particular, often exclude the overwhelming majority of their workforces.

Alphabet, Meta, Amazon, Uber, Lyft and DoorDash have all recently announced or reiterated policies for employees that would cover or offset the cost of traveling out of state to seek medical services, including abortions. While, as Vox's Emily Stewart rightly points out, no one should have to choose between a forced pregnancy or disclosing an abortion to their employer's HR department, the situation is significantly more grim for the hordes of contractors who keep these same businesses afloat and have not been afforded the same options.

What's at stake here is a massive number of workers. In many cases far more than the number of full-timers these companies have on payroll. The most recent estimate, in 2020, for content moderators on Facebook was 15,000 — a number which likely does not encompass moderators on Meta's other social platforms, and almost certainly excludes contingent workers at the company's many offices and data centers. (Its full-time staff, meanwhile, are barred from discussing abortion-related issues at work.)

Amazon has boasted about creating 158,000 sub-contracted roles for its network of delivery service providers. Once again this does not include drivers contracted through its internal Amazon Flex program, data center and office support workers or those handling maintenance at the company's over 1,100 warehouses. Alphabet was the subject of critical reporting in 2018 where it was revealed the majority of workers at the tech giant were not employees. The number of temporary workers, vendors or contractors (TVCs in the company parlance) is not publicly reported, but is estimated to be around 150,000.

For "gig" companies like Uber, Lyft and DoorDash the balance is even more skewed. Against its approximately 30,000 employees, estimates on the number of contractor drivers working for Uber range from 3.9 million to five million, with about a million of those operating in the US. The most-cited claim is that Lyft has around 1.4 million drivers across the US and Toronto — though the source of that figure is nearly five years old and is likely to be much larger now. DoorDash's 6,000 employees are dwarfed by a claimed fleet of two million couriers.

It's also highly likely (though at this time still unclear) these policies will be inapplicable to part-time employees since these travel reimbursements appear to be administered through employer-provided healthcare, which part-time workers typically do not qualify for. For this reason it's also unclear if these companies had any input into creating these reimbursement programs, or if the credit belongs to their respective health insurance providers. Meta, Amazon, Alphabet and Uber did not respond to requests for comment, while Lyft and DoorDash declined to answer specific questions and passed along existing statements to press.

A Meta spokesperson told Engadget, "We intend to offer travel expense reimbursements, to the extent permitted by law, for employees who will need them to access out-of-state health care and reproductive services. We are in the process of assessing how best to do so given the legal complexities involved."

“It’s paramount that all DoorDash employees and their dependents covered on our health plans have equitable, timely access to safe healthcare," a spokesperson told Engadget. "DoorDash will cover certain travel-related expenses for employees who face new barriers to access and need to travel out of state for abortion-related care.”

"Lyft's U.S. medical benefits plan includes coverage for elective abortion and reimbursement for travel costs if an employee must travel more than 100 miles for an in-network provider," Kristin Sverchek, Lyft President of Business Affairs, wrote in a blog post published June 24. When asked if the company is doing anything for its fleet of drivers, a spokesperson instead pointed to a section of the same blog post where Sverchek wrote that the company is "partnering with [Planned Parenthood] to pilot a Women’s Transportation Access program." No recent mentions of Lyft or the phrase "Women's Transportation Access" appear anywhere in Planned Parenthood's press releases, and the organization did not respond to a request for comment by time of publication. Lyft would not comment on who the program would cover, what access it would provide, what funding it had, where it would operate or when it is projected to launch.

The hollowness of these gestures towards abortion access have not been lost on some workers. The Alphabet Workers Union, a sub-group of the Communications Workers of America, issued a statement yesterday criticizing their namesake company for failing to extend these new policies to contingent workers. "Google announced that full-time employees would have access to relocation services following the overturning of Roe v. Wade. What this fails to address is the needs of the hundreds of thousands of Alphabet temps, vendors and contract workers, who are more likely to be living in states with restricted abortion access, more likely to be workers of color," Parul Koul, a AWU member and Google software engineer wrote.

What has been echoed widely over the past several decades of the Republican project to restrict abortion access is that new barriers — closing down clinics, enacting gestational bans and now the overturning or will not stop abortions from being carried out, they merely make safe abortions harder to obtain. Current projections suggest the number of abortions is only likely to drop around 14 percent. It is all but certain the burden of forced pregnancy will overwhelmingly fall on those who are at an economic disadvantage: those without stable work, good pay, employer-sponsored healthcare or the time and savings to take off from work to seek an out of state abortion. In many cases, the situation described here overlaps precisely with the circumstances of contractors these new reimbursement policies implicitly exclude, and in a sense it makes these companies complicit in the two-tiered access Republicans have largely succeeded in making a reality. Tech companies cannot promise to build the future while vast numbers of their workforces are trapped in 1972.

Little of Microsoft's 'principles for employee organizing' is actually pro-union

Thursday afternoon, Microsoft's president and vice chair Brad Smith penned a blog post outlining four "principles" the company would be adopting in response to the recent wave of union efforts in the US. Admittedly it's surprising for a company this size in the tech industry to — in word or deed — strive for anything less than the complete destruction of any organizing effort. But Smith's post contains precious little substance.

Let's begin with the bolded line right past the preamble: "Our employees will never need to organize to have a dialogue with Microsoft’s leaders." Anyone who has ever been involved in an organizing campaign will recognize this as a gentler version of the typical management talking point that a company "prefers a direct relationship" with its employees. The reason being, of course, that without an observer or weingarten rep present, a boss or human resources staffer is free to intimidate an employee or bury a complaint. Even in less sinister scenarios, while a one-on-one meeting might feel equitable on its face, it isn't: a boss has the force of the company behind them; a worker lacks that, and is dependent on that same company for their livelihood. The entire purpose for voicing complaints as a group, legally recognized as a union or not, is to limit that vast disparity in power.

This same line of thinking is restated in Smith's first principle:

We believe in the importance of listening to our employees’ concerns. Our leaders have an open door policy, and we invest in listening systems and employee resource groups that constantly help us understand better both what is working and where we need to improve. But we recognize that there may be times when some employees in some countries may wish to form or join a union.

Once again, the implication veers strongly towards a preference for dealing with workers individually. And the linguistic turn that those interested in joining or forming a union are only "some employees" in "some countries" reads as an attempt to undermine such efforts as the work of a vocal minority. 

We recognize that employees have a legal right to choose whether to form or join a union. We respect this right and do not believe that our employees or the company’s other stakeholders benefit by resisting lawful employee efforts to participate in protected activities, including forming or joining a union.

The first half of principle two, reproduced above, could be just as easily restated as "we are committed to obeying the law." It doesn't matter whether Microsoft "recognizes" that the NLRA exists any more than it "recognizes" it can't write whatever it wants on its SEC disclosures. This is simply how things are. Of course, understanding workers have the right to organize hasn't stopped other tech companies (most notably Amazon) from engaging in anti-union actions that have often been found to be in contravention of the NLRA. 

Where things get interesting is the second half of this principle, which sounds an awful lot like a promise of non-interference. Certainly, members of the tech press haveinterpreted it that way. But saying Microsoft might not "benefit" from resisting a union campaign and stating plainly that it will not work against such a campaign are not the same. This particular phrasing also does not claim an anti-union campaign would be actively harmful either, meaning shareholders likely wouldn't have recourse to sue the company if it chooses to take that approach down the line. 

We reached out to Microsoft to ask if it will agree not to hold captive audience meetings or engage union-avoidance law firms to carry out similar actions on its behalf; we also asked if it will agree to voluntarily recognize union drives within its ranks. A spokesperson for the company told Engadget that "Unfortunately, Microsoft doesn't have anything further to add at this time beyond what's included in Brad's blog."

We are committed to creative and collaborative approaches with unions when employees wish to exercise their rights and Microsoft is presented with a specific unionization proposal. In many instances, employee unionization proposals may open an opportunity for Microsoft to work with an existing union on agreed upon processes for employees to exercise their rights through a private agreement. We are committed to collaborative approaches that will make it simpler, rather than more difficult, for our employees to make informed decisions and to exercise their legal right to choose whether to form or join a union.

If this isn't de facto an undermining of the union process I don't know what is. Rather than accept a "specific union proposal," Microsoft is saying, quite clearly, it prefers to do something other than agree to that proposal — and in the form of a "private agreement" to boot. (Collective bargaining agreements, which govern the relationship between an employer and it unionized employees, are typically public.) Likewise, anyone should feel a deep suspicion in Microsoft's claim that it can help its workers make "informed decisions" on the kind of workplace they'd prefer to have while also representing its own interests as a business.

Building on our global labor experiences, we are dedicated to maintaining a close relationship and shared partnership with all our employees, including those represented by a union. For several decades, Microsoft has collaborated closely with works councils across Europe, as well as several unions globally. We recognize that Microsoft’s continued leadership and success will require that we continue to learn and adapt to a changing environment for labor relations in the years ahead.

Principle four is almost entirely fluff. It contains no explicit promise on how Microsoft will comport itself differently. Presumably, a company cannot help but maintain a "close relationship" with the people who comprise that company. But it also recalls one of the few instances in which a Microsoft-associated company did successfully organize. In 2014, bug testers who were contracted through an outside firm, Lionsbridge, managed to form a union; within a few years, all 38 of them were laid off. Workers filed a complaint with the NLRB regarding the mass layoffs and Microsoft reportedly spent four years attempting to stall the process and convince the agency it should not be considered a joint employer. While Microsoft's Phil Spencer has more recently voiced support for the group of recently-organized quality assurance testers at Activision Blizzard (which Microsoft is in the process of acquiring), that could just as easily be read as an attempt to twist the arm of the FTC: allow this $69 billion anti-trust nightmare to go through and we won't try to crush the first union within a North American AAA games studio.

While some research has indicated unionizations can lead to a temporarily more frigid response from Wall Street and a small reduction in overall profits, other studies indicate a unionized workforce is just as productive, happier and incurs less turnover — presumably the sorts of qualities a mature business like Microsoft would want to foster. Microsoft could very easily help set an industry-wide precedent by committing to meaningful, well-defined policies: not principles, or goals or a corporate ethos, but actual policies which executives could be held accountable for failing to follow. If and when that time comes it will be a cause for celebration, but it isn't today.

Texas's bizarre social media law suspended by Supreme Court

Texas's HB20 was put on hold Tuesday by the Supreme Court, five-to-four. As is typical for emergency for emergency requests, the majority did not define its reasoning; Justice Alito wrote a six page dissent joined by fellow conservatives Gorsuch and Thomas, while Kagan, a moderate, wrote she would "would deny the application to vacate stay" without signing onto the dissent.

The bill — which has been tied up in court since it was passed by the state's Congress and signed into law by Governor Greg Abbott last September — targets "censorship" by online platforms, insofar as conservatives have in recent years been wont to conflate any form of content moderation with censorship. It reframes large social platforms as "common carriers" similar to telecom companies, but uses that logic to restrict the ability of platforms to limit the spread of, ban or demonetize content based on “the viewpoint of the user," whether or not that view is expressed on the platform. 

Unsurprisingly, the content, users and viewpoints the law's supporters believe are being unfairly targeted hew rightward: as the Texas Tribunereported last year, Governor Abbott said he believed social platforms were working to "silence conservative ideas [and] religious beliefs." The aggrievement of the interested parties and their desired outcomes weren't lost on Judge Robert Pitman of West Texas's District Court, who wrote that "the record in this case confirms that the Legislature intended to target large social media platforms perceived as being biased against conservative views." 

An emergency application to the Supreme Court to suspend HB20 was filed earlier this month by two tech industry groups — NetChoice and the Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA) — after a Fifth Circuit court had lifted an injunction on the law, doing so in a startling 2-1 decision for which no explanation was provided. Netchoice's members include Airbnb, TikTok, Amazon and Lyft among many other; Apple, Google, eBay, Meta and others count themselves among those associated with CCIA. Counsel for NetChoice at the time told Protocol that the Texas law was "unconstitutional" and would compel "online platforms to host and promote foreign propaganda, pornography, pro-Nazi speech, and spam.”

These same concerns were given new urgency after the Buffalo, New York shooting, in which a gunman with white supremacist beliefs killed 10 people and injured three others in a majority-black neighborhood while live-streaming the carnage. Social media companies worked to remove copies of the footage from their services. Even as they did so, the question remained unsettled as to whether those removals would result in Texas dragging these platforms into court. Confusion as to the law's application was not limited to interested observers, either: in a Twitter exchange with Techdirt's Mike Masnick, the sponsor of the bill seemed unsure on how such situations would play out. 

A related law in Florida, using a similar common carrier approach, had most of its major provisions deemed unconstitutional by the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals earlier this month. The question of constitutionality for HB20 will continue to move forward in the Fifth Circuit Court. 

Apple Store workers in Georgia call off union vote over intimidation claims

Less than a week before its scheduled date, the Communications Workers of America (CWA) have decided to withdraw a formal vote on unionization for Apple Store employees at Atlanta's Cumberland Mall location. As first reported by Bloomberg, the union — which has recentlyinvestedheavily in organizing tech workers — opted to hold back as a result of what it called "Apple’s repeated violations of the National Labor Relations Act." 

The withdrawal follows weeks of escalating tensions between Apple and its retail staff. Shortly after Cumberland had gone public with its intentions it was reported Apple had retained Littler Mendelson, the same law firm Starbucks — which is undergoing a wave of store unionizations — has engaged. The firm's website states: "we excel in union avoidance." Shortly after, Apple corporate began circulating anti-union talking points to managers and Atlanta workers claim they were being force into so-called "captive audience meetings," a hallmark of union-busting campaigns. Earlier this week, audio leaked of an Apple VP, Deirdre O’Brien, expressing why she believed a union was a poor fit for the company. That message was reportedly sent to all 65,000 of Apple's retail staffers.

In a statement today, CWA stated that Apple's actions "have made a free and fair election impossible.” The group also expressed concern that COVID cases among the store's staff might further jeopardize their ability to vote in person. 

One of the most significant reasons behind Cumberland staffers' decision to organize has been simple economics. In talking with Engadget, one of the store's workers, Elli Daniels, described stagnant wages that had failed to keep pace with either national inflation or local increases to cost of living. Notably, Apple has been one of the few companies to thrive under pandemic conditions, posting several consecutive record-breaking quarters. 

Perhaps in an effort to stave off unrest among retail staff (Cumberland is onlyone of the stores currently exploring unionization) Apple has stated it will increase pay to a starting wage of $22 per hour. “We are pleased to offer very strong compensation and benefits for full-time and part-time employees, including health care, tuition reimbursement, new parental leave, paid family leave, annual stock grants and many other benefits,” Apple told press today in a statement. (The pay increase, incidentally, was reported several hours after the aforementioned union-avoidance audio leaked to press.)

While an immediate setback, the withdrawal does not preclude CWA from attempting another union election — though it will have to wait at least six months to refile.

Is Revolution's InstaGLO smart toaster worth $399?

As part of Cooking Week, we set out to test some of the most niche (and, in some cases, ridiculous) kitchen gadgets we could find. We wanted to know if these impressive-looking appliances actually do what they claim and if they’re worth the splurge. These are our findings.

Some devices, through their longevity, ubiquity, market saturation and the frightening power of economies of scale, have become essentially unimprovable. Among these, arguably, is the humble toaster — a product which has in the 130-odd years since its invention become so thoroughly standardized and affordable that most consumers probably could not tell you what brand of the thing is sitting on their kitchen counter. They all do the same thing (turn bread into crunchy bread) and they're all somewhere in the neighborhood of $30.

Does such a device truly need to be improved upon? The team at Revolution evidently believe so, or one assumes they would not have spent time and money developing the InstaGLO R270 smart toaster.

Out of the box, the InstaGLO's distractingly bright touchscreen has a number of settings for the level of desired toasting based on different kinds of bread (sourdough, multigrain, bagel, etc.) or different states of bread readiness (fresh, frozen, reheat.) Then again, so does my fully analog $30 Cuisinart. And in the defense of the cheaper option, I'd feel comfortable with and capable of disassembling that toaster and replacing anything that broke while the InstaGLO presents an impenetrable enigma of unnecessary engineering complications.

The foremost of these is perhaps the most obvious feature upon use: there's no lever AKA the sticky-outie plastic tab you press down to carry the bread into its miniature furnace. Tapping 'BEGIN' on the front plate sends the bread gently downward all on its own, and shortly thereafter the same mechanism levitates it back up to a comfortable grabbing height, "so you never have to reach into the toaster with a fork again," so says Revolution's marketing copy. Grabbing hot food from the toaster has never presented much of an obstacle for me — perhaps I'm just built different! — but that is a problem easily solved by wooden toast tongs, which can be had for around $5. Or leftover takeout chopsticks, for free. Or just allowing the passage of time to cool the toast to a handleable temperature. Also free. (I can't recommend sticking a metal fork into an electrical device.)

Bryan Menegus / Engadget

Of course if moving carbohydrates up and down a few inches was its only selling point the InstaGLO would be a transparent racket. No, the foremost stated innovation is faster heating, which Revolution claims "sears" bread rather than drying it out — crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, or so I'm told. While it certainly does manage to put a frozen slice of country wheat through the Maillard reaction a bit faster, whatever promises of a softer interior had been made were either unrealized or undetectable by my toast-stuffed mouth. And if several hundred dollars of unrealized toast dreams are already burning a hole in your pocket, maybe try one of those steam-based ones that were (are?) popular in Japan. Never tried it, but I hear good things.

It's possible — likely even — that there are more discerning toast connoisseurs who would notice, appreciate and feel comfortable paying a premium for that experience. The time saved was essentially immaterial to me, as I typically spend the time the bread is cooking to feed the cat, make tea or whatever other morning puttering needs doing. If money is no object and you absolutely have to choke down a slice of crisp multigrain between your morning spin class and 9AM executive meeting, sure, do what makes you happy. But that speedier toasting time also presents a major flaw when it comes to the InstaGLO's accessories. (Yes, there are now dongles. For a toaster. What bold and unprecedented times we live in.)

For a jaw-dropping $80 you can separately purchase a miniature panini press — another kitchen apparatus that can be had for $30 to $40 from any number of no-name manufacturers. Despite having two toasting slots, the InstaGlo Panini Press only works in the right-hand side, and in truth does a better job of smooshing bread into the approximate shape of a panini than actually cooking one. After several attempts using fresh and frozen bread, lightly oiling the insides of the press (or not), I was met with disappointing results every time. Not only did the exterior fail to reach the crunchiness one expects with a pressed sandwich, I suspect the faster cook time is to blame for the failure of the cheese to melt. At all. I gave this thing the easy task of thinly sliced, low-moisture mozzarella and it just couldn't stick the landing.

Bryan Menegus / Engadget

Notably, too, the InstaGLO Panini Press is tiny. Some fussing is required to fit even supermarket-style square loaf slices inside. And while I tend towards the Alton Brown axiom of never buying unitasker devices for my (small, already crowded) kitchen a true panini press — or hell, even one of those George Foreman things — can comfortably fit slices from the center of a boule (as god intended) or a halved baguette (if you're in a desperate situation. I'm not here to judge that.) And it bears mentioning, this problem isn't limited to the panini add-on either. As with any cheap, conventional toaster, and longer slices will require a flip-and-retoast maneuver, somewhat undermining Revolution's promise of "no double toasting needed."

The Warming Rack ($30) sits over top of the device and, despite the toaster as a whole having the ability to cook bread for varying amounts of time, the rack simply has no options whatsoever. It does its thing and if your pastry or whatever is not warm enough, either cycle it again or deal with it. I tested this with a slice of some banana bread I'd made a few days prior. The exterior facing the heating elements wasn't even warm enough to melt butter; the top was room temperature.

Should you buy a fancy toaster? Hell, we're probably heading into another major recession, but who am I to tell you what to do with your money. And this model's shockingly bright touchscreen (which as best as I can tell can never be turned off) makes a good night light if you're trying to find the bathroom at 3am. Despite bold claims though, there's very little that's revolutionary about the InstaGLO.

Intel engineers, led by a Congressional hopeful, demand a union

Intel, which is both the biggest semiconductor company by revenue and the largest private employer in Oregon, is facing an apparent bid for unionization among its exhausted engineering workforce. In a press conference Wednesday afternoon led by current engineer and Congressional hopeful Matt West, he described the employment arrangement at Intel as being "expect it to be on call at all times."

"For too long, my fellow engineers have worked 80+ hour weeks, transitioning at a whim between day shift and night shifts as management demanded. We are on call all of the time, to the point where you need a manager's approval to be more than two hours away from the factory," West said standing in front of the aforementioned factory in Hillsboro, Oregon, flanked by colleagues and local labor leaders. "If you were called at 2am on a Saturday, and you're supposed to have off, and if you don't answer that phone within 30 minutes, they call your manager instead. And there are consequences." 

According to a spokesperson for West, the organizing efforts have been ongoing for over a year, but have not been public before today. The engineering unit, which covers an estimated 350+ workers, is "the biggest unionization effort Intel has ever faced," the spokesperson wrote. 

"I once worked more than 80 hours in a week for three months straight. I only had three days off, total, in that time," West said. "I broke down. Both my mind and my body suffered. And at that point, my doctor mandated that I take a two-week emergency medical leave to recover." Once he returned to work he says he "was placed on formal notice for not having warned my manager in advance about my emergency medical leave."

In addition to working long hours — longer hours than allowed by Oregon law, according to West's office — and being asked to be available at the drop of a hat, West further accused Intel of intentionally hiring from the pool of workers who were fresh out of college or graduate school in order to have leverage over them. All this, he said, was doubly felt by those engineers who were working via H1B Visas. "They feel trapped," West said, paraphrasing conversations he's had with colleagues, "They say they cannot raise these issues themselves out of fear of deportation for them and their families."

Beyond his own experiences, West read out a number of anonymous statements from his colleagues, which recounted similar issues. One claimed that on "most days I work 10 to 16 hours," while another stated they were told to "cover a 14-hour night, shift seven nights in a row." A third wrote that "there is no proper path to promotion for high performing engineers." (Transparency around pay and promotions is another issue the union is organizing around.)

West called on Intel to sign a neutrality agreement (in effect, saying the company would not interfere with organizing efforts, subject workers to anti-union messaging, engage in captive audience meetings or other familiar tactics) and asked the company to voluntarily recognize the union. While it's not clear what union the engineers intend to join — or if, like Amazon workers in Staten Island they intend to form their own from the ground up — West's spokesperson confirmed the Intel cohort have been in touch with the Communications Workers of America. 

As mentioned, West is — outside of his job at Intel and organizing activities — on the ballot to run for the House of Representatives for Oregon's 6th district. That election takes place less than a week from today.

Engadget has reached out to Intel for comment and will update if we hear back.

A simple string of "and"s seem to crash Google Docs pages

And. And. And. And. And. 

For whatever reason that specific string of words seems to be enough to permanently brick a Google Docs page. Noted Google's support pages mere hours ago, the poster who seemingly discovered this unusual bug is quick to point out that the series of five conjunctions, separated by periods, is case-sensitive (at least if the goal is to cause the document in question to become unusable.) 

Engadget was able to confirm the issue on a 16-inch 2019 MacBook Pro running Monteray 12.3.1 and Google Chrome 100.0.4896.127... and we were summarily greeted by the "Something went wrong" popover as well as its loathsome cousin "Unable to load file." Reloading the page as prompted results in the same popovers. In effect, a death loop. 

Attempts to replicate the issue on Firefox 99.0.1 on a (significantly older, worse) MacBook Pro running Big Sur 11.1 were not successful but a respondent on the Google Support forums claims to have experienced the same problem on the same version of FireFox. 

What exactly is happening here remains a mystery, though we've reached out for clarity on what is likely a small if amusing technical oversight. How this bug was even discovered is itself an enigma, given that there's rarely cause to pile a slew of Ands on top of each other like this. Project Gutenberg turned up no instances in its database, while a (cursory) search through Google Books produced at least one example — seemingly meant to reproduce the effect of stammering — though it did quite meet the punctuation or capitalization criteria. We'll update should we hear back.