If you live east of the Mississippi River and you’ve ever had to send your Switch to Nintendo due to Joy-Con drift, then it definitely passed through a single repair shop in Syracuse, New York. Though Nintendo handled the process for submitting repairs, the actual work was performed by a company called United Radio. According to one former supervisor in the Switch repair department who spoke to Kotaku on the condition of anonymity, the volume of defective Joy-Cons that came into the shop was “very stressful,” contributing to high turnover which in turn resulted in “lots of” repair mistakes.
The pernicious phenomenon known as Joy-Con drift has been a major source of frustration for Switch owners since the console first launched in 2017. After some use, thumbsticks on the controllers often start registering movement even when in a neutral position. The problem is so widespread and severe that multiple class action lawsuits about the issue have been brought against Nintendo, and in a rare move, the company’s president apologised for the trouble it has caused customers. The conversation about faulty thumbsticks has been so widespread that even Valve had to address the possibility of Steam Deck drift in an IGN interview.
According to our source, who Kotaku has independently confirmed worked at a high level within the repair shop, the faulty design of the hardware was felt most acutely by those tasked with fixing the hundreds of controllers that flooded in each day. They said that “easily thousands of Joy-Cons were coming through each week.” United Radio confirmed over the phone that they handle Switch repairs, but the customer-facing process goes through Nintendo. United Radio relied on temporary employees that were supplied through Aerotek, a staffing company. The former supervisor said: “We ended up having to set up an entire new workspace just for Joy-Con repair.”
A lack of senior expertise among the staff led to frequent mistakes on Nintendo Switch repairs, our source claims. Since United Radio struggled with employee retention, a lot of employees were inexperienced. Temporary employees from Aerotek were eligible to be hired by United Radio as full time employees after three months, but many never made it past two and a half. “Nitpicky firings” by Aerotek and “folks not showing up” were also contributing factors to high turnover, the former supervisor said.
Kotaku’s source was the only permanent member of the team who is a native English speaker. Most of the temporary workers that the source trained are Vietnamese immigrants, who are less familiar with English. (According to 2021 estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau, 6.9 per cent of the people living in Syracuse are of Asian descent.) This means only a couple of them could speak English well enough to act as a liaison between the trainer and the rest of the staff. Our source estimated that around two-thirds of the repair workers were Vietnamese. Other languages spoken on the floor included Spanish, Swahili, and other South Asian languages. The workers are on work visas or are American citizens. The Nintendo repair team even celebrated some of their colleagues passing their citizenship tests during their employment. Despite the communication challenges, these workers also often “stuck around the longest.” Nevertheless, the need to constantly train new employees put a significant strain on the team’s ability to oversee repairs.
According to Kotaku’s source, customers who sent in their Joy-Cons from 2017 to 2018 were sent new replacements. For a while, this speedy solution helped alleviate the pressure. After that first year, however, the shop’s staff were forced to repair every set of Joy-Cons. Turnaround times were tight and the pace was difficult to maintain. The shop was held to a standard of repairing 90 per cent of incoming Joy-Cons within four days, regardless of whether the staffing company sent them new workers or not.
But it’s not just the repair shop staff who experienced problems as a result of the conditions at United Radio. Customer experience was also impacted at times. In one major error, a Nintendo customer was sent a repaired Switch with a different customer’s account and save data. In a Reddit post, the customer said, “I hold United Repair (sic) accountable for their unprofessional and lack of care in handling my property. They had complete disregard for my console and save data and have cost me my 90+ hours that I’d put into Zelda BotW. I also hold Nintendo accountable for their lack of understanding [of] the modern gamer and their need to be able to back-up save data.”
In response to the incident, the source said United Radio proposed and instituted a new policy where a Switch would be factory wiped if its serial number could not be verified throughout the repair process. Because of this, some Switch owners have occasionally had their data wiped after sending in their consoles for repairs. Nintendo did not respond to a request for comment at the time of publication.
Nintendo of America’s reliance on third-party contract labour is not exclusive to its repair shops. The games publisher recently landed in a major labour dispute in its home state of Washington, as well. One worker filed a complaint with the National Labour Relations Board last week, and the case is currently pending.