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Forced unemployment and second-class status: The life of Google's data center contractors

Contractors love the good pay and engaging work in Google's data centers. They resent that Google and its staffing firm, Modis Engineering, make them quit every two years.

Forced unemployment and second-class status: The life of Google's data center contractors

Data center contract workers spend all day in warehouses with temperatures between 80 and 85 degrees, often lifting and replacing 20 or so 40- to 60-pound batteries.

Photo: Getty Images

Shannon Wait felt a muscle pull in her shoulder as she knelt to lug a 50-pound battery into its rack, but she ignored the pain and kept going. She had 20 batteries to replace in the cavernous, 85-degree warehouse that day.

Hauling batteries is a major part of the job for Wait and hundreds of other workers like her at Google's data centers. They'd tried switching to automated machines during her two years working in the Berkeley County, South Carolina facility, but that stopped after only a few weeks when one of the machines pinned a co-worker to a wall.

Despite the heavy lifting, many of the workers in Google's 14 U.S. data centers at least start out enjoying the work. It's a tech job for people with no tech experience. It pays relatively well ($15 per hour for most contract workers). And while it's physically demanding, it's nothing like working at an Amazon fulfillment center or the local Walmart.

But Wait and other workers like her who keep the data centers running are not actually Google employees. While as many as half the workers in some data centers actually work for Google, make Google salaries and get all those famous Google perks, the other half don't. For data center contractors specifically, that difference can extend beyond second-tier social status to job insecurity and forced unemployment.

Protocol spoke with four contract and full-time Google employees in three of the 14 U.S. locations for this story, all of whom were granted anonymity for fear of losing their jobs (except for Wait, whose data center contract recently ended).

Forced unemployment

Google calls workers like Wait temporary, vendor or contract staff — TVCs, for short. Data center TVCs sign up for two-year jobs with Modis Engineering, a branch of the second-largest global contracting company, the Adecco Group. They are called "Level 1" employees, and they usually start with no previous experience or specialty skills. They are trained on the job to perform repair and maintenance tasks on the data center floor, and they work in close partnership with Google employees, many of whom do similar or even identical work. Some contractors even train new Googlers on some of their tasks.

But those two-year contracts are written in stone. Workers like Wait are not usually allowed to apply either to renew their contracts or to do the same job as a Google employee. If they want to keep working in the same job, they have to leave the data center for six months and then come back and apply again — but neither Google nor Modis will tell workers why.

One Level 1 worker, based in a data center in the midwest, will have to leave his TVC job in July. "My two years is going to be coming up. They call it the six-month exclusion thing. I'll have to leave for six months before I can apply to come back," he told Protocol. He's worried about finding a job for six months when his contract expires in July. The pandemic already left many people unemployed in his area who still can't find jobs, and he wants to know why he has to become one of them when Google will likely simply hire someone else to replace him.

"The only complaint I have is the fact that I have to leave for six months. I don't feel that's right that TVCs get recycled like this," he said. "I've never gotten a real answer as of why. And they train people, and they let them go, and then they have to train people all over again. It seems like a bad business model. That's my life right now. It's bizarre."

The mandatory break

Google likely requires the six-month leave due to federal employment law, Barbara Figari, an employment attorney in California, told Protocol.

Under existing IRS guidelines, a company can't arbitrarily determine which workers are full employees and which are contractors. The business has to be able to prove when a worker meets certain key legal definitions about contract work, and, if they fail, they would be required to treat the contractor as if they were an employee, according to Figari.

"One of those guidelines is whether there is a written contract or employment benefits. The other aspect is, is the relationship a continuing one, and is it a key aspect of the business," Figari said. Companies will try to work around this by saying: "If it's cut off at a specific timeline, we were able to get by without them for six months. They are not a key aspect of our business, and [the role] is not a continuing one," she explained.

Google has long said contractors get treated differently from employees — different pay, different badges, no swag, no events — explicitly to maintain that boundary. They are not Google employees, so of course they don't get Google benefits.

But in the data centers, one full-time Google employee told Protocol that both groups of workers often do exactly the same work. "At our site, it's a smaller team, so it's a lot easier for us to have personal relationships with the contractors," he explained. "From the top down, there is a very clear division, and especially at other sites, they get treated like second class citizens, really."

The contract workers are not allowed to use certain tools that would make their jobs easier, according to this Google staffer. For example, they don't have permissions to access some of those software tools that would improve diagnostics, he explained. And the smaller stuff makes him angry, too. He knows he would be reprimanded if he gave a contractor a Google t-shirt handed out for free during an event. "But there's no issue if they go on the Google merchandise store and buy it themselves," he said.

The aforementioned midwest contractor even trains Google employees. "The other day, I was training Googlers. I have more expertise and knowledge in this than the Googlers that they hire," he said. "We're doing the same exact job, but we're getting paid like half of what we're worth."

Protocol asked why the workers are required to take six-month leaves between contracts, but Google did not provide a clear explanation. "Temporary staff work on a Google assignment for a fixed amount of time to cover short-term leaves, when we have spikes in business needs, or when we need to quickly incubate special projects," a Google spokesperson replied.

"I'm not aware of any law that would say two years as a guidance, but longer than two years would raise a question, that really could be more of an employment," Figari told Protocol.

Erasing a new path into tech

Some of the Level 1 workers, such as Wait, want the relationship to be a continuing one. When she first took the job at the Berkeley County facility in 2018, it was a stopgap to help fill the time and pay the bills while she pursued her master's degree. Once she started, though, she found she enjoyed the technical, challenging and engaging work of learning how to repair servers, replace batteries and install the hardware needed to expand the data center. Her bosses told her that before her two-year contract ended, she might be able to apply to do the same job, actually for Google.

"There seemed to be a promise that if you work hard and you are successful, you too might be able to transfer from being a contractor to a Googler, or a full-time employee," Wait said. "It was nice knowing that I could potentially make a career out of that if for some reason being a professor didn't work out some day." But after her first year of employment, Wait started "hearing rumors" that Google wasn't hiring any more Level 1 data technicians as Google employees, and that all the positions would be contract-only going forward.

Suddenly, the twinge in her shoulder from her daily quota of battery replacements felt heavier, somehow. Less worth it. Everyone was less happy in their work. "No one really saw a light at the end of the tunnel, once we realized that Google wasn't going to be hiring any more Googlers that were working the position we were working," Wait said. Her contract ended in February, and she went back to grad school. Working as a data tech is her past, not her future.

"I have a lot of friends who have claimed unemployment, because they couldn't find anything at the end of the two years," Wait said.

The midwest data center technician is in a different position than Wait. He'd worked in other related jobs before he got the contract with Modis in 2019. When he learned Google wouldn't be directly hiring Level 1s to do the same job in-house, he thought he might be able to apply for the Level 2 equivalent, called DT2. Those jobs usually require five or six years of experience as a Level 1 contractor for someone brand new to the field — a hard level to reach when workers have to leave for six months after every two years — but because of his previous experience, he might be able to study hard enough to apply by the time his two-year contract is up.

"To get into Level 2, it's very difficult. I'm pretty close now, but making me take six months off…," he started. He had a hard time finishing the sentence. He doesn't think he will be ready to apply for a Google job before he is forced to quit.

"Vendors, temporary staff and contractors have always been welcome to apply for any full-time jobs and go through the same hiring process as any other qualified candidate," a Google spokesperson told Protocol.

The lawsuit

While Wait was willing to tolerate the way Google limited contractor perks when she had a chance of becoming a Googler herself, the end of that dream made her pay more attention to the small things: She couldn't get her water bottle replaced when it broke, she couldn't attend Google "TGI Fridays," she couldn't wear a Google T-shirt. Then she got angry about the big things: All of her coworkers had back problems, Googlers were making double the salary for half the physical labor and she was warned that she might be fired for talking about COVID-related emergency hazard pay that Google had promised but not yet paid (the company eventually followed through with payment). She posted an angry discussion of working conditions and salary on her personal Facebook page.

That's when Modis took her badge and told her to go home. (Modis did not respond to multiple requests for comment.) "They said I was a security risk, that I might have violated the non-disclosure agreement that I signed by complaining about working conditions. They took my badge and my laptop, and security removed me from the site. They followed me out the door," she said.

Wait, however, already had a meeting scheduled with the Alphabet Workers Union for the next day — she joined as soon as they went public in January. The newly-formed group jumped at the chance to help her, as they knew her dismissal had likely been illegal. All workers that are employed by a company (not independent contractors, who are self-employed) are allowed to talk about wages and working conditions in their workplace; it's one of the few iron-clad protections under federal labor law. While this law is only enforced when someone complains to the National Labor Relations Board, an employer explicitly telling a worker they can't talk about wages is the kind of thing the NLRB takes very seriously.

The lawyers at the Communications Workers of America filed unfair labor practice charges on Wait's behalf. While regular legal proceedings can take ages, the negative press was so overwhelming that Modis almost immediately agreed to give Wait her job back. And about two months later, in early April, Modis and Google settled the charges with the NLRB, agreeing to post large, bold signs across the Berkeley County facility reminding workers that they are allowed to talk about their pay and working conditions both in and out of the workplace.

Wait's contract expired in February, before she could get the chance to enjoy her victory, and she left the data center with no plans to come back.

Her new friends from the data center don't have the same luxury, so she's not abandoning her support for the Alphabet Workers Union or her newfound interest in labor law. "A lot of my friends who have children are using welfare in order to make ends meet. Most of them wait the six months this way, and then go back to working again. That is six months of not working. And I do not understand how they are able to make it during that time," Wait said.

She added: "And I know for a fact that some Googlers really appreciate that I stood up for my coworkers by forcing the world to look at how Google uses contracting agencies and staffing agencies to subsidize their labor."

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