As Silicon Valley shelters in place, some tech workers are left in limbo
From Tesla to Google to DoorDash, a three-week shutdown of nonessential Bay Area services raises big questions.
As the tech capital of the world ordered residents to shelter in place starting at midnight on Tuesday, many of the industry's most high-profile companies scrambled to adapt to the unprecedented effort to slow the spread of coronavirus.
At Google, some contractors who do technical work reported to the company's eerily empty Mountain View headquarters on Monday morning, only to be sent home a few hours later. Just south in San Jose, the Bay Area's biggest city is in talks with gig economy companies to set up new delivery services for housebound residents. Some workers are bracing themselves for layoffs. Across the San Francisco Bay in Fremont, there's the question of what to do with Tesla's 15,000-person factory, which has continued to operate as many other companies shutter.
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At a series of midday press conferences on Monday, Bay Area officials detailed the orders for residents to stay home and nonessential businesses to cease most in-person operations through April 7 in six counties: San Francisco, Santa Clara, San Mateo, Alameda, Marin and Contra Costa. The orders exempt 21 types of businesses, including grocery stores, gas stations and banks, as well as categories more open to interpretation, such as "Businesses that supply other essential businesses." It also permits nonessential businesses to continue their "minimum basic operations."
Gig workers are front and center in the race to adapt. Amid California's legal battle over contractor reclassification law Assembly Bill 5, ride-share drivers appear to be exempt under a carveout for "private transportation providers providing transportation services necessary for Essential Activities and other purposes expressly authorized in this Order," a spokesperson for worker advocacy group Gig Workers Rising said Monday afternoon.
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo said at a news conference on Monday that his administration is in talks with "DoorDash and others" to offer extended delivery services during the self-imposed quarantine.
"We're going to do this the Silicon Valley way," Liccardo said.
A spokesperson for Postmates said the company has started an expanded San Francisco delivery pilot program, and is "in talks with other municipalities throughout the country to scale the program." A DoorDash spokesperson said that the company's business is one of those considered essential under the shelter-in-place orders: "We will continue to support our local community and remain open for business." The company previously announced a fund for drivers who are diagnosed with the virus.
Bay Area drivers who spoke to Protocol are taking their own precautions. One DoorDash driver who asked not to use his last name, Jon, is picking up orders at a reduced number of open restaurants and exercising "vigilant safety precautions," like washing his hands frequently and leaving orders at customers' doors. Another driver and freelance designer, Corbin, who has worked for Postmates and Caviar, decided to stop doing deliveries and said he knows about a dozen other couriers who have also decided that it's not worth the risk.
"What we do is probably one of the worst ways to spread disease," Corbin said. But after California Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered all residents over the age of 65 to stay home, avoiding even essential errands like going to grocery stores, food delivery has become an essential service in its own right.
Ride-hailing giant Lyft said it would continue to operate. "We want to help people get to grocery stores and pharmacies, health care workers to work, and caretakers to family members who are in need," spokesperson Dana Davis said. "We will continue to base our decisions off of the guidance put forth by local and federal governments." How Lyft or any ride-sharing company can ensure that riders are engaging in essential activities is unclear.
The shelter-in-place orders are enforceable by local police and the county sheriff in each jurisdiction. Sheriff's departments in Santa Clara and Alameda County — home to Tesla, Google, Facebook and many other large tech campuses — did not immediately respond to questions about how tech offices or factories may be policed.
In San Francisco, law enforcement officers will take a "compassionate approach," said Bill Scott, that city's police chief. "This is not about a criminal justice approach to a public health issue."
Scott said officers will be part of the effort to help educate people about why the rules are necessary, and would ask for "voluntary compliance."
One of the biggest question marks in the affected area is Tesla's Fremont car factory, which has remained open after CEO Elon Musk called the virus panic "dumb." A driver who shuttles Tesla workers to the factory each day on private charter buses said he was still driving his normal routes as of Monday. As Protocol previously reported, Tesla relies on a large fleet of double-decker buses to shuttle thousands of workers to the factory each day, which do not normally adhere to 6-foot social distancing guidelines currently recommended by the CDC.
Neither Tesla nor the city of Fremont answered questions about whether the factory will continue operations past the shelter-in-place order. In an email sent by Musk to Tesla staff that was seen by The Los Angeles Times, the CEO reportedly told his workers that operations would continue. But he added: "If you feel the slightest bit ill or even uncomfortable, please do not feel obligated to come to work."
Manufacturers are not explicitly exempt under the orders, but there is a clause allowing businesses to continue "minimum basic operations," so long as social distance is allocated. Around the time the new orders were handed down Monday, Musk mused on Twitter about the potential to use malaria drugs to treat COVID-19.
In Mountain View, Google has scaled back services like employee shuttles and office meals, said one technical contractor who reported to work as usual on Monday. The office had already emptied out in recent weeks, with some full-time employees taking monitors and other equipment home with them on evening shuttle rides, said the contractor, who asked to remain anonymous to protect their job.
On Monday, around the time of the shelter-in-place order, some contractors were told to go home, even though they were uncertain about whether they had digital access to do their work online.
"I'm not sure if they're paying me for this, or if they're saying, 'Go home and wait it out,'" the contractor said. "I would just like them to be straight with us."
A Google spokesperson on Monday referred Protocol to a blog post about how the company, which has asked most of its global full-time employees to work from home, is responding to changing conditions. The tech giant has not historically allowed its contract workers to telecommute but said in the post that it is "increasing the ability for employees, temporary staff and vendors to work from home" when feasible.
Facebook is also figuring out how to deal with newly imposed shelter-in-place orders, a spokesperson said. Before the new mandates, Facebook had asked a majority of its Bay Area employees to work from home, sending some scrambling for child care and other workarounds.
The Intercept reported last week that Facebook moderators, who are contractors, still had to go to the office. The company also said it was "not possible" for workers involved in ensuring the safety and security of its platforms to work remotely, let alone security guards and other in-person workers.
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Other tech companies were publicly shamed for not allowing workers to log in remotely, after workers reported being forced to go to their offices in a series of anonymous surveys and documents circulated on Twitter and the anonymous app Blind. Labor groups advocating for contract and blue-collar workers have seized the pandemic to lobby for lasting changes like guaranteed paid sick leave. They say the increasingly dire situation is now inducing panic.
"We're likely to see mass layoffs," said Jeffrey Buchanan, director of public policy for San Jose labor advocacy group Working Partnerships USA. Hotel industry workers are among those in the Bay Area who have taken an immediate hit after tech conferences were cancelled and many travellers opted to cancel plans, he said, and concern is mounting for tech company service workers and others. "This raises big questions if they don't have paid sick leave or other kinds of options to be able to retain their income," Buchanan said.
Still, some tech companies met the shelter-in-place news with their own aggressive announcements. Care.com announced that it will extend one free month of membership for any health care workers or people seeking elder care. Workday, which is based in Pleasanton, about 40 miles southeast of San Francisco, said it would give all employees below the vice president level a bonus equivalent to two weeks of pay — a move expected to add $80 million to the company's first-quarter expenses, CNBC reported.
With weeks of unprecedented isolation and economic uncertainty on the horizon, Buchanan only expects calls for action from the region's famously profitable tech industry to get louder.
"These companies are sitting on enormous piles of cash in hand," Buchanan said. "They can really provide resources for the broader community to get by."
As cities and companies seek a path forward, the overriding feeling in the Bay Area is one of intense unease. No one is quite sure what happens next. For workers like the Google contractor, that includes daunting financial uncertainty.
"If I miss out on a day of work," they said, "that's like half my car payment."