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As Seattle and Silicon Valley companies make headlines with their scrambles to protect full-time employees from the COVID-19 outbreak, they find themselves under extreme pressure to extend worker protections and guaranteed pay to contract and hourly workers.
On Friday, Facebook, Google, Twitter and Amazon responded, joining Microsoft in committing to pay hourly workers their normal wages, even though moves to get full-timers to work from home have reduced the need for services like food preparation, CNBC reported. Legislators are getting involved, too, telling gig-work company CEOs to do more for contract workers who may be at heightened risk of exposure to the coronavirus when delivering groceries or meals.
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"I strongly urge that you attempt to address the potential financial hardship for your workers if they are sick or have to self-quarantine during this time," U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, wrote in a series of letters to the CEOs of Uber, Postmates, Lyft, Instacart, Grubhub and DoorDash on Friday. "In order to limit the spread of COVID-19, it is critical that platform companies lead by example by committing that economic uncertainty will not be deterrents to their workers."
The pressure to address gig workers and tech companies' "shadow workforce" of contractors, vendors and temp workers — estimated at up to 50% of the workforce at companies including Google — comes amid a broader labor reckoning in Silicon Valley. In recent days, labor unions and affiliated groups in Silicon Valley and Washington state have issued public demands for companies to cover lost wages and ensure access to health care, for the government to allow gig workers immediate access to unemployment benefits, and to allow sick workers days off without retribution.
So far, large established tech companies have responded faster than their gig economy counterparts.
"We recognize the hardship that lost work can mean for hourly employees," Microsoft President Brad Smith wrote in a blog post Thursday. "As a result, we've decided that Microsoft will continue to pay all our vendor hourly service providers their regular pay during this period of reduced service needs."
One company that has remained quiet on any precautions it is taking for either office workers or its 15,000 factory workers in Silicon Valley: Tesla. And on Friday, CEO Elon Musk posted on Twitter, "The coronavirus panic is dumb."
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Workers at other companies told Protocol that messages have been slow to trickle down through webs of staffing firms and temp agencies that handle direct communication, pay and benefits for hourly workers at large tech firms.
"There's been no discussions like, 'Hey, this is a pandemic,'" said one hourly worker who helps test Google offshoot Waymo's self-driving cars in Arizona. The worker, who asked to remain anonymous to protect their job, said the staffing firm that employs them has not said whether it would pay workers beyond five allotted sick days per year. With most hourly workers' high-deductible health plans, costly testing or medical treatment is a daunting prospect for Waymo workers with starting pay around $20 an hour.
Contractors in Arizona were copied on two company-wide emails from Google leadership urging general precautions like hand-washing, the person said, but there has been no additional follow-up from hourly worker managers, many of whom are based in other states. But the lack of guidance on benefits, they said, is just one way hourly workers are siloed off from the rest of the company.
"It's been like this regardless of whether it's coronavirus or anything," the worker said. "Temp agencies, they just take their cut."
Such discrepancies in the treatment of full-time and hourly workers are a growing concern for activist employees of big tech companies. On Friday, the group Alphabet Workers Rising posted a petition calling on Google CEO Sundar Pichai to permanently require health benefits and paid sick leave for all hourly workers, ahead of the company's previous commitment to do so by 2022.
Bruce Hahne, a former Google technical project manager who resigned in February over ethical concerns and now runs Alphabet Workers Rising, said the COVID-19 response is one example of a broader divide. "There's definitely sort of a first-class, second-class citizenship," Hahne said of how companies communicate with full-time versus hourly workers.
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He noted that full-time employees have generous health benefits including kin care, allowing paid time off to care for sick relatives. Hahne recalled that, when he worked for Google, he would thank office co-workers for staying home or working remotely when sick, which isn't an option for workers who provide on-site services.
"We're all as healthy as the least-entitled worker among us," Hahne said. "Those germs don't care."
Lauren Hepler ( @lahepler) is a former reporter for Protocol covering how people live and work in Silicon Valley. She previously covered development, energy, and tech for The New York Times, The Guardian, the LA Times, the Silicon Valley Business Journal, and others. Lauren can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org (just ask for Signal), and you can share information with her anonymously via Protocol's SecureDrop. She grew up in Ohio and lives in Oakland.