People

Tech service workers are essential. They want to be treated like it.

Nora Morales, a janitor at Google, told Protocol tech offices would "fall apart" without service workers.

Service workers in Silicon Valley protest layoffs.

Silicon Valley's service workers want to see better wages and better benefits.

Photo: SEIU-USWW

Nora Morales loses a lot of sleep over how she's going to make rent, keep up with her car insurance and deal with the rising costs of health insurance. She's been working throughout the pandemic — as a janitor at Google, she is considered an essential worker — but she's been living paycheck to paycheck.

Morales simply wants to be paid enough money "so that we can continue to thrive as people and live in our homes and live comfortable lives without stressing about making ends meet every single month," she told Protocol through a translator.

While the vast majority of workers across Silicon Valley were working from home during the pandemic, Morales was one of the many service workers who kept going in to work.

Her employer, Brilliant General Maintenance, contracts with Google to provide service workers for its offices. BGM gave Morales and her coworkers the option to receive pay without working, but "we were worried about what the future would hold," she said. They feared that one day the company would decide to stop paying her and other janitors.

Those fears are not groundless: Service workers at many other tech companies lost their jobs throughout the pandemic. In September, for example, Yahoo (when still owned by Verizon) laid off 91 tech cafeteria workers. Companies such as Lyft, Dropbox and Salesforce similarly cut janitor positions amid the pandemic.

As tech companies gear up to bring white-collar employees back to the office, Morales and other essential workers want to make sure their employers meet their needs and appreciate their labor. This week, Google revised its remote work and return-to-office policies to allow more flexibility for full-time employees. For contractors such as Morales, Google said vendors have already identified who needs to be working from a Google office based on what Google has identified as its needs, a spokesperson for the company told Protocol.

Silicon Valley Rising, a coalition of labor advocates that aims to make the tech industry more equitable, wants to ensure companies that have treated workers well during the pandemic continue to do so. A big priority for workers and advocacy groups is to ensure companies support their contractor workforces and "keep them whole," Maria Noel Fernandez, campaign director for Silicon Valley Rising, told Protocol.

"And that there's no exploitation of the moment to use it as a way to get rid of workers who are organized, or get rid of contracts that are organized," she said.

Fernandez hopes that's not the case, but said she's seen anti-union companies in the past use transitions as an excuse to not support workers.

"I think it's something we're watching and being careful about," she told Protocol. "And hoping that the work over the last several years, the work that subcontracted workers service workers have put into having a voice and trying to lift the veil of being an invisible workforce of tech, that we suddenly now don't, go back five years."

Five years ago, there were thousands of service workers, primarily people of color, who didn't have a voice on the job, she said. They lacked access to health care, sick days and "all the benefits that we would expect companies the size and stature of the tech companies in Silicon Valley to really be providing for all workers and ensuring are there for all workers."

Pushing beyond the bare minimum

Service Employees International Union-United Service Workers West is one of the major unions that represents about 20,000 janitors and 10,000 security officers in the tech industry. With contract renegotiations on the horizon, SEIU-USWW has its eyes set on improving the economic conditions of workers.

The median hourly wage for janitors in Santa Clara County, where many tech campuses are located, is $16.94, according to the California Employment Development Department. For security officers, it's $17.81.

Meanwhile, the current minimum wage in California is $14 an hour for employers with 26 or more employees, and $13 per hour for employers with 25 or fewer employees. By 2023, California's minimum wage will be $15 an hour. But $15 an hour in California is still not enough for workers, SEIU-USWW President David Huerta told Protocol.

"We have to be well beyond that," he said.

Huerta recognizes that many workers make above the minimum wage but said the "gap between minimum wage and what security officers and janitors make is closing. It's getting smaller. And so we want to ensure that workers who have been providing an essential service, and continue to provide essential services, have an hourly wage that gives them the ability to have a good quality of life in California."

Huerta pointed to the rising costs of health care and the cost of housing in the region. "The cost of labor has to keep up with that," he said.

Morales, who is also a member of SEIU-USWW, agrees. She, too, wants to see better wages in her next union contract.

"What we're making now is no longer enough for me," she said.

SEIU-USWW has not landed on an exact dollar amount but the goal with the upcoming negotiations is to address socioeconomic inequities in California.

"The pandemic exposed many vulnerabilities already in our economy — issues that have demonstrated the racial bias in this country," Huerta said. "The fact that security officers and custodians are predominantly Black, brown, immigrant workers, the cost of their labor and the value that they provide needs to be recognized."

As California's economy officially reopens on June 15, Huerta sees it as representing a time to make society more equitable.

"Without us, the reality is that these locations are inoperable," Huerta said

Better, consistent benefits

Jesus Castrejon has continued to work as a security officer at Google throughout the pandemic, he told Protocol. Castrejon, who is a member of SEIU-USWW, helps ensure the premises are secure, and that those who are in the office are abiding by COVID-19 safety precautions.

Castrejon said he was apprehensive at first about coming into the office. But he said he felt reassured when he saw how seriously Google was taking sanitation procedures. Castrejon was also just happy to have a job.

For the first couple of months, Castrejon received hazard pay from his employer, Securitas, which provides security officers to Google.

"It was really great, but it didn't last," he said. "And we didn't get an explanation on that. But we didn't really question it because, you know, we don't want to complain. We have our jobs and we're working. So it's better than a lot of companies that may have laid off their employees."

Protocol reached out to Securitas for comment but did not hear back.

Castrejon said working in security at Google has been the best job he's ever had — but that doesn't mean he doesn't want more from his employer. In addition to wanting hazard pay back, Castrejon said he would like to see Securitas cover employees' health care premiums.

As a security officer, Castrejon and his colleagues interact with a number of people throughout the day. They're responsible for taking temperatures, ensuring people wear masks and determining whether someone is supposed to be there. That makes them more susceptible to potentially interacting with someone who may have COVID-19.

Full healthcare coverage would be great, he said, since "we're that first line of people" that employees and visitors encounter.

The union also wants to see guarantees that workers will be able to quarantine with pay, if necessary.

"We don't know how long this pandemic is going to last," Huerta said. "We still don't have an end date on this."

Huerta is also not under the impression that this will be the last pandemic. That's why he wants to make sure there are certain safeguards in place that companies are legally obligated to follow.

"I think these workers are going to be very critical to the sustainability of our economy once we repopulate these facilities," Huerta said. "And their success is going to be in my opinion, is going to be equal to the success we can demonstrate in our economy, if we're able to repopulate in a way that's safe and sustainable."

Calling essential workers 'heroes' is not enough anymore

Silicon Valley Rising is explicitly focused on exploring how the economy can rebuild itself in a way that takes into account the needs of essential workers. A few weeks ago, the organization launched the Essential Workers Council to help center the needs and voices of workers as local governments are thinking about the path forward.

Through the past year, there has been a lot of talk about how essential workers are "heroes," and many memes about their day-to-day realities, Fernandez said. And yet, "when we think about our organizing and our work over the last year, it has been an uphill battle to win the basic needs that workers have needed through this pandemic."

Through the council, Fernandez hopes to be able to shine a light on what workers need "and be very clear that calling them heroes isn't enough anymore."

The council is actively working on determining what they will need to get through the next few months. What's top-of-mind is what housing will look like post-pandemic, the cost of healthcare and emergency paid sick leave.

"Workers actually have needed that for years," Fernandez said. "So what does it actually look like for the recovery to be an opportunity to not go back to a system that wasn't working for workers? "

For Morales, she wants to see continued support and continued recognition for her labor at her workplace.

"We do a job that is very necessary and very needed." she said. "During this pandemic we've been appreciated, and I want this recognition to continue very long after it ends. Without janitors, such as myself, the workplace would fall apart and I want our jobs to be continued to be respected and recognized."

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Image: Disney

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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.

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