People

Coronavirus response begins to roll down to (some) hourly workers

Facebook, Google and Microsoft guarantee pay for missed work, but not all hourly tech workers know where they stand.

Facebook's Menlo Park, California campus

Facebook and other tech companies pledged to continue to pay hourly workers their normal wages, even as they advised their staff to work remotely.

Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images

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.

Get what matters in tech, in your inbox every morning. Sign up for Source Code.

"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."

Related:


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.

Get in touch with us: Share information securely with Protocol via encrypted Signal or WhatsApp message, at 415-214-4715 or through our anonymous SecureDrop.

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."

Fintech

Apple's new payments tech won't kill Square

It could be used in place of the Square dongle, but it's far short of a full-fledged payments service.

The Apple system would reportedly only handle contactless payments.

Photo: Nathan Dumlao/Unsplash

Apple is preparing a product to enable merchants to accept contactless payments via iPhones without additional hardware, according to Bloomberg.

While this may seem like a move to compete with Block and its Square merchant unit in point-of-sale payments, that’s unlikely. The Apple service is using technology from its acquisition of Mobeewave in 2020 that enables contactless payments using NFC technology.

Keep Reading Show less
Tomio Geron

Tomio Geron ( @tomiogeron) is a San Francisco-based reporter covering fintech. He was previously a reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal, covering venture capital and startups. Before that, he worked as a staff writer at Forbes, covering social media and venture capital, and also edited the Midas List of top tech investors. He has also worked at newspapers covering crime, courts, health and other topics. He can be reached at tgeron@protocol.com or tgeron@protonmail.com.

Sponsored Content

A CCO’s viewpoint on top enterprise priorities in 2022

The 2022 non-predictions guide to what your enterprise is working on starting this week

As Honeywell’s global chief commercial officer, I am privileged to have the vantage point of seeing the demands, challenges and dynamics that customers across the many sectors we cater to are experiencing and sharing.

This past year has brought upon all businesses and enterprises an unparalleled change and challenge. This was the case at Honeywell, for example, a company with a legacy in innovation and technology for over a century. When I joined the company just months before the pandemic hit we were already in the midst of an intense transformation under the leadership of CEO Darius Adamczyk. This transformation spanned our portfolio and business units. We were already actively working on products and solutions in advanced phases of rollouts that the world has shown a need and demand for pre-pandemic. Those included solutions in edge intelligence, remote operations, quantum computing, warehouse automation, building technologies, safety and health monitoring and of course ESG and climate tech which was based on our exceptional success over the previous decade.

Keep Reading Show less
Jeff Kimbell
Jeff Kimbell is Senior Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer at Honeywell. In this role, he has broad responsibilities to drive organic growth by enhancing global sales and marketing capabilities. Jeff has nearly three decades of leadership experience. Prior to joining Honeywell in 2019, Jeff served as a Partner in the Transformation Practice at McKinsey & Company, where he worked with companies facing operational and financial challenges and undergoing “good to great” transformations. Before that, he was an Operating Partner at Silver Lake Partners, a global leader in technology and held a similar position at Cerberus Capital LP. Jeff started his career as a Manufacturing Team Manager and Engineering Project Manager at Procter & Gamble before becoming a strategy consultant at Bain & Company and holding executive roles at Dell EMC and Transamerica Corporation. Jeff earned a B.S. in electrical engineering at Kansas State University and an M.B.A. at Dartmouth College.
China

Why does China's '996' overtime culture persist?

A Tencent worker’s open criticism shows why this work schedule is hard to change in Chinese tech.

Excessive overtime is one of the plights Chinese workers are grappling with across sectors.

Photo: VCG/VCG via Getty Images

Workers were skeptical when Chinese Big Tech called off its notorious and prevalent overtime policy: “996,” a 12-hour, six-day work schedule. They were right to be: A recent incident at gaming and social media giant Tencent proves that a deep-rooted overtime culture is hard to change, new policy or not.

Defiant Tencent worker Zhang Yifei, who openly challenged the company’s overtime culture, reignited wide discussion of the touchy topic this week. What triggered Zhang's criticism, according to his own account, was his team’s positive attitude toward overtime. His team, which falls under WeCom — a business communication and office collaboration tool similar to Slack — announced its in-house Breakthrough Awards. The judges’ comments to one winner highly praised them for logging “over 20 hours of intense work nonstop,” to help meet the deadline for launching a marketing page.

Keep Reading Show less
Shen Lu

Shen Lu covers China's tech industry.

Boost 2

Can Matt Mullenweg save the internet?

He's turning Automattic into a different kind of tech giant. But can he take on the trillion-dollar walled gardens and give the internet back to the people?

Matt Mullenweg, CEO of Automattic and founder of WordPress, poses for Protocol at his home in Houston, Texas.
Photo: Arturo Olmos for Protocol

In the early days of the pandemic, Matt Mullenweg didn't move to a compound in Hawaii, bug out to a bunker in New Zealand or head to Miami and start shilling for crypto. No, in the early days of the pandemic, Mullenweg bought an RV. He drove it all over the country, bouncing between Houston and San Francisco and Jackson Hole with plenty of stops in national parks. In between, he started doing some tinkering.

The tinkering is a part-time gig: Most of Mullenweg’s time is spent as CEO of Automattic, one of the web’s largest platforms. It’s best known as the company that runs WordPress.com, the hosted version of the blogging platform that powers about 43% of the websites on the internet. Since WordPress is open-source software, no company technically owns it, but Automattic provides tools and services and oversees most of the WordPress-powered internet. It’s also the owner of the booming ecommerce platform WooCommerce, Day One, the analytics tool Parse.ly and the podcast app Pocket Casts. Oh, and Tumblr. And Simplenote. And many others. That makes Mullenweg one of the most powerful CEOs in tech, and one of the most important voices in the debate over the future of the internet.

Keep Reading Show less
David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editorial director. Prior to joining Protocol, he was a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, a senior writer with Wired, and deputy editor at The Verge. He owns all the phones.

Entertainment

Spoiler alert: We’re already in the beta-metaverse

300 million people use metaverse-like platforms — Fortnite, Roblox and Minecraft — every month. That equals the total user base of the internet in 1999.

A lot of us are using platforms that can be considered metaverse prototypes.

Illustration: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

What does it take to build the metaverse? What building blocks do we need, how can companies ensure that the metaverse is going to be inclusive, and how do we know that we have arrived in the 'verse?

This week, we convened a panel of experts for Protocol Entertainment’s first virtual live event, including Epic Games Unreal Engine VP and GM Marc Petit, Oasis Consortium co-founder and President Tiffany Xingyu Wang and Emerge co-founder and CEO Sly Lee.

Keep Reading Show less
Janko Roettgers

Janko Roettgers (@jank0) is a senior reporter at Protocol, reporting on the shifting power dynamics between tech, media, and entertainment, including the impact of new technologies. Previously, Janko was Variety's first-ever technology writer in San Francisco, where he covered big tech and emerging technologies. He has reported for Gigaom, Frankfurter Rundschau, Berliner Zeitung, and ORF, among others. He has written three books on consumer cord-cutting and online music and co-edited an anthology on internet subcultures. He lives with his family in Oakland.

Enterprise

Lyin’ AI: OpenAI launches new language model despite toxic tendencies

Research company OpenAI says this year’s language model is less toxic than GPT-3. But the new default, InstructGPT, still has tendencies to make discriminatory comments and generate false information.

The new default, called InstructGPT, still has tendencies to make discriminatory comments and generate false information.

Illustration: Pixabay; Protocol

OpenAI knows its text generators have had their fair share of problems. Now the research company has shifted to a new deep-learning model it says works better to produce “fewer toxic outputs” than GPT-3, its flawed but widely-used system.

Starting Thursday, a new model called InstructGPT will be the default technology served up through OpenAI’s API, which delivers foundational AI into all sorts of chatbots, automatic writing tools and other text-based applications. Consider the new system, which has been in beta testing for the past year, to be a work in progress toward an automatic text generator that OpenAI hopes is closer to what humans actually want.

Keep Reading Show less
Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of RedTailMedia.org and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

Latest Stories
Bulletins