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Tech's contract-worker issues collide with the coronavirus

Workers who "need the protections the most, don't currently have them," one labor leader said.

An Uber and Lyft driver in California

The schism between full-time tech employees, service workers employed by staffing firms, and contract workers like Uber and Lyft drivers has become increasingly apparent as companies respond to COVID-19.

Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

As the COVID-19 virus engrosses Silicon Valley, the outbreak has become the latest pressure point for the tech industry's burgeoning organized labor movement.

At a moment when worker activists are already pushing to unionize tech-office service workers and add legal protections and benefits for gig workers with California's Assembly Bill 5, the coronavirus lays bare urgent questions about how contractors of various kinds are addressed — or not — in corporate plans to keep their workforces healthy.

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"Unfortunately, when companies are coming up with these kinds of plans, they're not taking these service workers into consideration," said Jeffrey Buchanan, director of public policy for labor advocacy group Working Partnerships USA. "The workers that are most at risk, and really need the protections the most, don't currently have them."

The schism between full-time tech employees, service workers employed by outside staffing firms, and individual contract workers like Uber and Lyft drivers has become increasingly apparent as companies escalate their responses to new cases of COVID-19. On Monday, Twitter said it had authorized all global employees to work from home; Google told some employees of its Dublin, Ireland, office to stay home after a co-worker reported flu symptoms; and Facebook pulled out of the upcoming SXSW conference in Austin.

How do these plans apply to contract or service workers? Spokespeople for Facebook and Twitter said only that they are working with vendors on precautions, but did not specify what kind.

Google declined to answer detailed questions about its coronavirus plans. But the company announced last year that starting in 2022, it would require vendors to offer health benefits and a $15-an-hour minimum wage to all temporary, vendor and contract workers, or TVCs — a "shadow workforce," in the words of labor advocates, that keeps the tech industry running day to day.

Silicon Valley Rising, a campaign backed by Bay Area labor unions and community groups, is among the young tech-worker advocacy groups pushing large companies to act faster with a commitment to "fully include subcontracted and service workers in coronavirus response plans." The group, in a statement late last week, called for more educational materials, protective equipment and safety training for contract workers, along with paid sick leave and access to health care for any workers who may require treatment. Whether they are successful will be crucial to the thousands of Silicon Valley workers in food prep, janitorial work, security, landscaping and other fields unlikely to be filled by full-time personnel.

Many of those people, like Byron Kerr, who until last spring worked as a contract cafeteria worker at Google's Sunnyvale office, do have health insurance, a broader concern amid the outbreak. But Kerr said his coverage through his employer, Bon Appetit, had "high premiums, copays and deductibles."

That's also the reality for Danny Harris, an Uber driver who advocates for gig workers with the group We Drive Progress. He said he paid out of pocket for a recent trip to the emergency room for an elbow injury related to driving for the company, and left with little recourse due to his own high-deductible plan, lack of paid time off and absence of worker's compensation.

Behind the scenes, tech companies have been scrambling to update plans for how to respond to the virus, which has killed more than 3,000 people worldwide and six in the U.S., all of them near Seattle. New cases were confirmed in Silicon Valley's Santa Clara and San Mateo counties, and Google said an employee in Switzerland had tested positive for the virus.

Yet you wouldn't necessarily know any of that based on what was happening on the ground in Silicon Valley. On Monday, Teslas and Subarus still overflowed from valet parking lots at Facebook headquarters tucked behind a giant thumbs-up sign on Hacker Way. At the Googleplex in Mountain View, workers rode primary-colored bikes between office buildings, while construction workers dangled from the scaffolding of a futuristic new office building.

For many contract workers, just staying up-to-date on fast-evolving corporate response plans for COVID-19 has been a challenge, Buchanan said, since they are often employed by third-party temp agencies or staffing firms and don't have access to the same messaging groups, email systems and other communication channels as full-time workers.

"A lot of the contractor companies don't have the kind of robust internal communication systems with their employees," said Buchanan, who noted additional challenges like language barriers.

For Eric Murphy, a former Facebook security contractor, the virus scare is reminiscent of recent deadly wildfire seasons in California, when thick smoke forced the company to provide masks that were in high demand. "There were not enough masks for us," Murphy said.

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A Facebook spokesperson said Monday that the company is advising full-time employees worried about COVID-19 to discuss working from home with their managers, and is working with service providers on precautions for contractors.

At Twitter, a spokesperson said the company is encouraging both full-time employees and contractors "to work from home if they are able." The company is also working with suppliers and vendors on plans for their personnel, though the spokesperson did not specify the actions that may entail.

Meanwhile, in downtown San Francisco on Monday, Lyft driver Francisco Figueroa pulled over on a side street for a quick lunch break.

"I'm so scared, because people get in my car and I don't know who is infected," Figueroa said. He's stocked his back seat with hand sanitizer and cleans the car several times a day, he said, because taking time off isn't an option financially.

Missed pay is not mentioned in messages pushed out through apps including Uber, Lyft, Postmates and DoorDash-owned Caviar in recent days. They've all released guidance for drivers heavy on hand-washing, while urging contractors to stay home if they feel ill. Instacart declined to comment on what precautions, if any, it is taking for either full-time or contract workers.

Uber and Lyft have reminded drivers that discrimination based on race or ethnicity is against its terms of service. Still, multiple drivers suggested in interviews with Protocol that they may consider screening passengers who arrive at international airport terminals.

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Edan Alva, a Bay Area Lyft driver and labor organizer, said he doesn't "reject any passenger ever." But he is taking precautions, he said, such as spraying his car with Lysol every few hours. Alva pointed out that many ride-hailing drivers lack health care benefits and, like other workers, may work even when they aren't feeling well — something he has done himself.

"If I have early symptoms of anything, I would hesitate going to see a doctor," he said, since a single visit could cost $100 or more with his high-deductible plan. "This is a public health crisis waiting to happen."

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