Is It Time to Ban Cellphone Bans? Recent Events at Amazon Are Instructive

Bans on the use of mobile phones at work aren’t a new concept. For years, employers across industries have barred employees from not only using, but even possessing cellphones while on the job. This includes Amazon, which—until recently—prohibited them in their warehouses.

The reasons for such a policy vary but include the adverse impact mobile phones could have on employee productivity (they can serve as a distraction), company security and overall privacy. As such, employers in several different sectors—manufacturing, hospitality and trucking, among them—say no to employees inclined to grab their smartphones to make calls, text or check headlines while actually working.

This begs the question: are cellphone bans legal? The short answer is yes, at least when employees are “on the clock,” but that doesn’t mean they’re a good idea.

The NLRB Weighs In

Back in 2020, the National Labor Relations Board ruled on a case involving Cott Beverages and whether the company could rightfully ban mobile phones in the workplace. The NLRB answered in the affirmative, approving a rule that required employees to store their cellphones in lockers and use them only in non-working areas (like break rooms) and not during actual working time.

Of note, the NLRB indicated that a complete cellphone ban would’ve likely violated the National Labor Relations Act to the extent it would interfere with employee’s opportunity to engage in union activity.

The Fair Labor Standards Act seems to be aligned with the NLRB’s thinking, as it limits the ability of an employer to restrict what an hourly employee can do during personal time (e.g., when “off the clock”). Still, the FLSA does nothing to keep management from otherwise regulating what an employee can bring into a work area.

Amazon’s About-Face

Prior to the pandemic at Amazon, warehouse employees weren’t allowed to have their mobile devices with them on the warehouse floor. Instead, these workers had to leave their phones in their cars or lockers.

When COVID-19 hit, this rule was temporarily suspended so that workers could use their cellphones to gain immediate access to emergency information. And while the ban was to be reinstated this month, that plan has been put on hold in the wake of a recent tornado that destroyed an Amazon facility in Edwardsville, Illinois a few weeks ago, killing six employees.

Understandably, workers throughout the U.S., including those at Amazon, want to be able to use their mobile phones, even when engaged at work, to retrieve real-time information in the event of a tornado or other weather-related or natural disaster, during public health crises, and in a time plagued by workplace violence. This is because smartphones facilitate instant communication with first responders and family should an employee’s life be in danger.

For these very reasons, Amazon is reassessing its cellphone policy. Other employees from coast-to-coast that currently restrict the use of mobile phones at work might take Amazon’s lead and reevaluate their collective stance on the issue.

The Pros vs. the Cons

Sure, cellphones can be a distraction and many of us spend far too much time face down staring at our screens (perhaps you’re reading this story on your iPhone or Android). They can pose a safety risk too—imagine a long-haul trucker reading alerts while on the road. Further, any device with a camera can subject a company’s sensitive, proprietary materials to compromise. All of these factors could certainly justify an employer’s embargo on cellphone use.

At the same time, we’re living in a time of COVID-19, intense weather events and mass shootings, all of which necessitate the need for on-the-spot information. Fortunately, we’re also living in the digital age, and those smartphones in our pockets and purses can serve as a lifeline. By virtue of the latter, the time may be now to place a ban on cellphone bans.

That being said and whatever a company’s preference may be regarding the onsite use of mobile phone, it’s always best for management to consult with legal counsel to craft policies that adequately address their unique workplace concerns.

This blog post is not offered, and should not be relied on, as legal advice. You should consult an attorney for advice in specific situations.