SAN FRANCISCO – Google’s office complex in Sunnyvale, California, is one of the company’s largest campuses, but on Friday the buildings were practically empty and there were no lines in a normally-crowded cafeteria. The night before, in a companywide email outlining its contingency plans to deal with the novel coronavirus, Google had notified Bay Area employees that they could work from home.
Security engineer Amardeep Singh Purewal would have preferred to work from home, too. But Purewal works for Google on contract and can’t access his Google email account remotely.
So Purewal did not see Google’s safety plans until he arrived at the office. And even after, he wasn’t sure if the flexibility would apply to workers with red contractor badges like him.
Since late February, the spread of the new coronavirus has evolved rapidly in the U.S., and so has Silicon Valley’s response to the threat. Tech companies were quick to accommodate full-time workers as confirmed cases cropped up near tech office clusters in Northern California and Washington. Nudged along by internal pressure from employees and peer pressure from competitors, and intensified by inquiries from regulators, labor activists, and the press, tech companies extended contingency plans to include contractors, who are employed through agencies and third-party companies.
Now fears about covid-19 are drawing wider attention to both this shadow workforce – and the less visible class divide among white collar workers.
Many companies rely on subcontractors to clean and secure their campuses, prepare food, and drive shuttle buses. But tech giants have been reticent to acknowledge the white collar contractors who perform similar office work as full-time employees, but for lower pay, no equity and fewer privileges. These contractors write code, moderate content on Facebook and YouTube, manage projects, recruit employees, and train digital assistants.
As a number of tech giants in the epicenter of covid-19 outbreaks in Seattle and the Bay Area closed offices to limit the spread of germs, many of these same workers were unclear on how they would fare if forced to work from home – or skip work completely because they don’t have the tools to do so.
Google and Facebook at the end of the week clarified that their policies also apply to contract workers.
“We decided very early in this crisis that the hourly service vendor workers in our extended workforce who may be affected by reduced office schedules would be compensated for the time they would have worked,” said Google spokesperson Katherine Williams. “We know it’s an uncertain time, but the response to this policy has been positive from members of the workforce and staffing partners.”
On Friday, Facebook said it would pay contingent workers if there was less need for them, if an office was closed, or if they are sick. Facebook spokesperson Drew Pusateri said the company’s policy applies to all contractors.
But the next layer, the agencies that employ these workers, could also determine the outcome.
In the contingency email, Google assured “temps and vendors” that the search giant would “work with your employer to make sure we [are] covering compensation” if the office is closed. The pledge sounded promising, especially for Purewal who can only accrue three sick days per year.
But even on Friday, Purewal says the agency that employs him, Beacon Hill Staffing Group, was not sure if Google’s policy meant he could work from home or be paid if that was not an option, and the agency would know more Monday after talking to Google. For Purewal, who lives with his wife, three children, and parents, the uncertainty poses a health risk.
Beacon Hill didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
To Purewal, the confusion seemed intentional. For work-related problems, his Google supervisors usually talk to him in person or via Google Hangouts. But they did not call a meeting or let contractors know that they were working on a plan.
“You don’t know go to where to look for answers,” Purewal said. “Maybe they do it purposefully.”
The contracting labor practice allows tech companies to save money, appear leaner than dominant industries from decades past, and avoid scrutiny around hiring or layoffs. In 2019, Facebook and Google raised standards for the contracting companies they work with, under pressure from the growing labor movement in tech.
But the practice is still ubiquitous. Contractors at Google, from cooks to coders, outnumber employees. As of March 2019, there were roughly 121,000 temps, vendors, and contractors, compared with 102,000 full-time employees, according to a report in the New York Times.
In interviews, a dozen contractors who work for major tech companies said that their biggest concerns around coronavirus were limited health benefits coupled with low pay, which made following instructions from health officials or the tech companies where they work a financial burden. Some hoped the spotlight on coronavirus would prompt more equitable treatment overall.
“Taking care of our own health seems to be secondary to taking care of theirs,” says a contractor at Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was concerned about retaliation from her employer or Facebook.
Unlike Purewal, the Facebook contractor has about 16 paid days off per year. On Thursday night, she learned that Facebook was urging Bay Area employees to work from home. But on Friday she was also at the office and not sure if she could work from home or would have to use her vacation days. While she was on the Menlo Park campus, she heard contingent workers were also urged to work from home. She suspects her employer may have been the source of confusion.
Some white collar contractors can theoretically work from home, but because of an enforced code of differential treatment, legal limitations, or security concerns, companies often keep contractors on a tighter leash. In many cases, they cannot take their computers home, do not have access to shared databases, and cannot log in remotely.
Many American workers are in a more precarious position. The United States is the only wealthy nation without paid sick leave, which is accessible to one in four workers. Gig workers like Uber drivers or DoorDash food couriers, who may be at greater risk because of the nature of their work, do not have benefits or minimum wage protections.
In late February, the first cases of coronavirus contracted through community transmission were diagnosed in Northern California, near the headquarters of many tech giants, with more cases identified on the West Coast, including Washington state, where Amazon and Microsoft are headquartered. (The Washington Post is owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.)
Tech companies kept employees and the public updated as they implemented additional safety measures, first ordering more frequent office cleanings, then canceling conferences, limiting travel, and finally urging employees to work from home. But how contractors would be affected by contingency plans was unclear.
Inside Google, employees were pressuring the company for answers around paid sick leave for contractors. On Monday, an employee filed a ticket with Google’s head of extended workforce and copied an internal discussion group for contractors and temps, according to emails viewed by The Washington Post.
Employees called out the company after contractors were given boilerplate instructions to work from home if they were sick. On the email thread, employees also ferreted out the line about “covering compensation” when it was added to the bottom of Google’s coronavirus FAQ on Tuesday. “That’s a very confusing sentence, but buried within there it sounds like they’re saying to not worry about being paid?” one Google worker asked.
In the discussion, employees acknowledged the inherent caste system. “If workers are being forced to come to the office sick and neither vendor companies nor Google will listen to them and do something else to resolve it, then who is responsible for the health and safety of over 50%* of our workforce?” one Google employee wrote, adding, “*100% by extension of the fact coronavirus presumably won’t discriminate by badge color the way we do.”
During a companywide meeting at Facebook Wednesday, employees asked questions about whether contractors would be able to work from home, as well as whether there would be paid leave for kitchen and cleaning staff who do not have the option to work remotely, according to a worker in attendance.
The same day, at an Accenture office in Austin, Texas, where content moderators work for Facebook, a manager asked the workers if they had WiFi at home and wrote down the ID number of people’s laptops, which made one contractor believe that they were triaging a process to allow some moderators to work from home. Content moderation is a particularly thorny issue. Typically contractors can’t work from home because of the sensitivity of the content that they deal with and privacy of people’s accounts. However, IT staff is working on making exceptions in case there is an outbreak, according to another employee.
Accenture didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Then on Thursday, Microsoft president Brad Smith published a blog post announcing that it would pay hourly workers who could not do their job remotely if the office was closed for safety reasons. “We’re committed as a company to making public health our first priority and doing what we can to address the economic and societal impact of covid-19,” Smith wrote, challenging other large companies. “[W]e believe that large employers who can afford to take this type of step should consider doing so.”
Shortly after, Google, Facebook, and Amazon publicized their own plans to pay hourly workers.
Microsoft spokesperson Frank Shaw said he is trying to verify whether the policy includes white collar contractors, but he did say it is focused on Northern California and 4,500 hourly workers in the Puget Sound region. Amazon did not directly address the question, but spokesperson Jaci Anderson said the pledge applies to hourly employees at its campuses in Seattle and Bellevue, which encompasses 10,000 people, including food service workers, security guards, and janitorial staff.
In a blog post, Alphabet and Google CEO Sundar Pichai wrote, “As covid-19 makes its way across the globe, we’re approaching this unprecedented moment with a deep sense of responsibility.”
After taking two days off without pay around Christmas, Fran Baisden, a contractor who works on data analytics and content creation for Google’s shopping system, only has six hours and 58 minutes of paid time-off. Even those hours are elusive. Baisden’s employer, HCL Technologies, could revoke the hours because of a policy that unpaid leave has to be taken in week-long increments, according to Baisden. Contractors in the Pittsburgh office, who recently unionized, are contesting that policy.
HCL did not immediately respond to request for comment.
For now, they are also not allowed to take their laptops out of the office. So if Google closes its Pittsburgh outpost, Baisden might not be able to work from home. Another contractor in the same office pointed out that the full-time employees who work on her project are largely white males, whereas the contractors are largely female. “It’s something that digs in when I think about the issue.”
For Purewal, the tech industry’s philanthropic efforts are particularly at odds with its contractor system, he says, pointing to Google’s charitable donations around the globe. “You’re going outside the walls to help out, but within your neighborhood, what’s wrong with offering contractors a little bit more?” he asks. “Why is that discrimination right here in your own house?”