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FedEx Cell Phone Policy Scrutinized After Mass Shooting

NOEL KING, HOST:

Last week, a man shot and killed eight people at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis. Those people and others working on site couldn't call or text their families to tell them what was happening because some FedEx employees aren't allowed to bring their cellphones into work. Here's NPR's David Gura.

DAVID GURA, BYLINE: Renee Larson was desperate for details when she heard there'd been a shooting at the FedEx Ground Plainfield Operations Center on Thursday night.

RENEE LARSON: I get, like, the breaking news notifications from the local news stations here on my phone. And it just kept going, like, off and off.

GURA: She was worried because she knows several people who could have been there.

LARSON: I actually have an aunt, a cousin and several friends that work at FedEx.

GURA: Larson called them, and she texted them. She sent Facebook messages, and she was able to track down everybody. Larson was relieved to learn they were all off their shifts and not at work. If they had been, she would have had to deal with the agony and uncertainty many other families faced. They couldn't reach their loved ones because, at that facility, many workers are not allowed to carry personal cellphones.

BILL CASTELLANO: I think that's a highly draconian and unusual policy.

GURA: Bill Castellano used to work in corporate H.R. UPS, a FedEx rival, has a similar policy. A spokesperson says employees can enter UPS facilities with cellphones in some instances. At the U.S. Postal Service, workers can have their phones, but they can't take photos. Castellano, who's now a professor at Rutgers, says there are lots of reasons why a worker would want to have a phone handy, especially in an age when so many of us rely on them 24/7.

CASTELLANO: It could be a family emergency with a child, with an aging spouse or an aging parent. And I mean, I have in my life had plenty of situations where I really needed my phone because I was in the midst of some kind of unique personal crisis.

GURA: In a statement, FedEx says it limits cellphone access within certain areas of its field operations based on workplace safety considerations. Mark Pearce was the chairman of the National Labor Relations Board, the NLRB, during the Obama administration. He says there are businesses that want to safeguard secrets or protect proprietary information.

MARK PEARCE: But for a company that is just transporting goods, that borders on the unreasonable.

GURA: Workers are at a disadvantage, though, because of how the law is written.

PEARCE: Employers have the ability to set whatever policies they can, provided that the policies are not patently illegal or discriminatory.

GURA: The NLRB has not ruled on a blanket ban of cellphones at work, but it did rule in favor of one employer who banned phones on the manufacturing floor. This is also about PR. The cellphone has become an effective tool for employees to shine a light on workplace issues. Pearce remembers how doctors and nurses showed the world how ill-equipped they were to fight COVID-19.

PEARCE: These devices are reliable alternatives to eyes and ears, and they become almost a necessity for employees to feel comfortable and safe.

GURA: After the shooting in Indianapolis, Renee Larson joined a chorus calling on FedEx to change its policy. She posted a message on Twitter directed at the company.

LARSON: Because you never know when the next shooting could happen or next life-defining or a life-changing event could happen in which you need to get with somebody ASAP.

GURA: So is FedEx reconsidering the policy? The company tells NPR it believes it continues to be in the best interests of its employees to limit cellphone access while they're on duty.

David Gura, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMBINATE'S "DIVIDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.