yesLauren HeplerNone
×

Get access to Protocol

I’ve already subscribed

Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy

People

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.

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

"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.

Related:

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.

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.

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."

People

Making the economy work for Black entrepreneurs

Funding for Black-owned startups needs to grow. That's just the start.

"There is no quick fix to close the racial wealth and opportunity gaps, but there are many ways companies can help," said Mastercard's Michael Froman.

Photo: DigitalVision/Getty Images

Michael Froman is the vice chairman and president of Strategic Growth for Mastercard.

When Tanya Van Court's daughter shared her 9th birthday wish list — a bike and an investment account — Tanya had a moment of inspiration. She wondered whether helping more kids get excited about saving for goals and learning simple financial principles could help them build a pathway to financial security. With a goal of reaching every kid in America, she founded Goalsetter, a savings and financial literacy app for kids. Last month, Tanya brought in backers including NBA stars Kevin Durant and Chris Paul, raising $3.9 million in seed funding.

Keep Reading Show less
Michael Froman
Michael Froman serves as vice chairman and president, Strategic Growth for Mastercard. He and his team drive inclusive growth efforts and partner across public and private sectors to address major societal and economic issues. From 2013 to 2017, Mike served as the U.S. trade representative, President Barack Obama’s principal adviser and negotiator on international trade and investment issues. He is a distinguished fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations and a member of the board of directors of The Walt Disney Company.
Sponsored Content

Building better relationships in the age of all-remote work

How Stripe, Xero and ModSquad work with external partners and customers in Slack channels to build stronger, lasting relationships.

Image: Original by Damian Zaleski

Every business leader knows you can learn the most about your customers and partners by meeting them face-to-face. But in the wake of Covid-19, the kinds of conversations that were taking place over coffee, meals and in company halls are now relegated to video conferences—which can be less effective for nurturing relationships—and email.

Email inboxes, with hard-to-search threads and siloed messages, not only slow down communication but are also an easy target for scammers. Earlier this year, Google reported more than 18 million daily malware and phishing emails related to Covid-19 scams in just one week and more than 240 million daily spam messages.

Keep Reading Show less
People

Citizen’s plan to keep people safe (and beat COVID-19) with an app

Citizen CEO Andrew Frame talks privacy, safety, coronavirus and the future of the neighborhood watch.

Citizen added COVID-19 tracking to its app over the summer — but its bigger plans got derailed.

Photo: Citizen

Citizen is an app built on the idea that transparency is a good thing. It's the place users — more than 7 million of them, in 28 cities with many more to come soon — can find out when there's a crime, a protest or an incident of any kind nearby. (Just yesterday, it alerted me, along with 17,900 residents of Washington, D.C., that it was about to get very windy. It did indeed get windy.) Users can stream or upload video of what's going on, locals can chat about the latest incidents and everyone's a little safer at the end of the day knowing what's happening in their city.

At least, that's how CEO Andrew Frame sees it. Critics of Citizen say the app is creating hordes of voyeurs, incentivizing people to run into dangerous situations just to grab a video, and encouraging racial profiling and other problematic behaviors all under the guise of whatever "safety" means. They say the app promotes paranoia, alerting users to things that they don't actually need to know about. (That the app was originally called "Vigilante" doesn't help its case.)

Keep Reading Show less
David Pierce

David Pierce ( @pierce) is Protocol's editor at large. 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.

Transforming 2021

Blockchain, QR codes and your phone: the race to build vaccine passports

Digital verification systems could give people the freedom to work and travel. Here's how they could actually happen.

One day, you might not need to carry that physical passport around, either.

Photo: CommonPass

There will come a time, hopefully in the near future, when you'll feel comfortable getting on a plane again. You might even stop at the lounge at the airport, head to the regional office when you land and maybe even see a concert that evening. This seemingly distant reality will depend upon vaccine rollouts continuing on schedule, an open-sourced digital verification system and, amazingly, the blockchain.

Several countries around the world have begun to prepare for what comes after vaccinations. Swaths of the population will be vaccinated before others, but that hasn't stopped industries decimated by the pandemic from pioneering ways to get some people back to work and play. One of the most promising efforts is the idea of a "vaccine passport," which would allow individuals to show proof that they've been vaccinated against COVID-19 in a way that could be verified by businesses to allow them to travel, work or relax in public without a great fear of spreading the virus.

Keep Reading Show less
Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.

People

Why the CEO of GoFundMe is calling out Congress on coronavirus

GoFundMe has seen millions of Americans asking for help to put food on the table and pay the bills. Tim Cadogan thinks Congress should help fix that.

"They need help with rent. They need help to get food. They need help with basic bills," GoFundMe CEO Tim Cadogan said. "That's what people need help with to get through this period."

Photo: John Lamparski/Getty Images

Tim Cadogan started his first day as CEO of GoFundMe about two weeks before the pandemic wrecked the world. He knew he was joining a company that tried to help people make extra money. He didn't know his company would become a lifeline for millions of Americans who couldn't pay their bills or put food on the table.

And so after a year in which millions of people have asked for help from strangers on GoFundMe, and at least $600 million has been raised (that number could be as much as $1 billion or more now, but GoFundMe didn't provide fundraising data past August) just for coronavirus-related financial crises, Cadogan has had enough. On Thursday, he wrote an open letter to Congress calling for a massive federal aid package aimed at addressing people's fundamental needs. In an unusual call for federal action from a tech CEO, Cadogan wrote that GoFundMe should not and can never replace generous Congressional aid for people who are truly struggling.

Keep Reading Show less
Anna Kramer

Anna Kramer is a reporter at Protocol (@ anna_c_kramer), where she helps write and produce Source Code, Protocol's daily newsletter. Prior to joining the team, she covered tech and small business for the San Francisco Chronicle and privacy for Bloomberg Law. She is a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied International Relations and Arabic and wrote her senior thesis about surveillance tools and technological development in the Middle East.

Latest Stories