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Tyrese Thomas and Jacob Ngai were thrilled when they learned that they'd been offered places in the Google BOLD internship program for summer 2021. The program would place them at one of the world's most famous companies, giving them a summer job that pays an intern salary equal to more than $50,000 a year full-time. They were less excited to realize that their salary wouldn't include one of the most famous Google perks — a relocation stipend up to $11,000.
Ngai and Thomas took the internships anyway. Negotiating changes in an intern contract at a world-famous company is just not something most students do. And Google BOLD is a renowned internship program: It's designed to expose undergraduates to careers in tech who wouldn't normally have access to the industry, and it provides tons of perks and benefits, including health benefits, hardware, a $1,000 technology stipend and the all-important, extremely common "return offer" to a full-time job post-graduation.
Google wasn't planning to provide the housing stipend to the 2021 intern cohort because the program is fully remote this year due to COVID-19. Participating students will not need to relocate to and find housing in the extremely expensive Bay Area market. That made sense to Thomas, Ngai and the rest of the interns at first ... but as the summer drew closer, many of these interns started to worry.
Google explicitly seeks candidates from lower socioeconomic backgrounds for the BOLD internship, including first-generation college students and other people who might otherwise have a harder time working their way into the elite Google culture. Many students within this group have less-stable financial and home lives. As the pandemic has made clear, people who don't have their own room to work in, can't afford their own housing, battle with inconsistent Wi-Fi or have to help with childcare, will have a harder time performing well remotely, meaning that the lack of a housing stipend could be a serious problem.
"I live in a small two-bedroom apartment with my parents and brother, and I'm sharing a room with my brother. I'm battling some financial hardship. My mother got laid off due to COVID, and we have constant Wi-Fi issues," Ngai said. "I originally intended to use the internship salary to pay down my student loans, but I also knew I would need to get my own place to find a more productive work environment." He felt that he needed the stipend, and felt that Google must care enough about its interns that it might actually do something if his recruiters realized he wasn't alone in his position.
Ngai and a group chat of roughly 60 other incoming interns started to play with the idea that they could petition Google to reinstate the funds. Google eventually agreed that the interns needed the money, and the company added a $5,000 stipend for all potential needs to their intern offers in mid-April.
But getting there required help from a group that's becoming increasingly powerful within Google: the Alphabet Workers Union.
The first few drafts of the petition to ask for the stipend were popular with the intern group initially, but in general, the students were terrified of actually putting their names on any kind of ask. They didn't want Google to see them as ungrateful, or risk the company interpreting their involvement as the kind of rebellious behavior that might hurt their chances of an "ask-back" for a full-time job. Many of them would rather take the financial hit — they would do anything to get the chance to work for Google and stay there.
"A lot of us were really fearful. As we were sending updates to the broader task force, so to speak, a lot of people backed out because they were really fearful of retaliation at Google. They wanted to get a return offer for this to be their full-time job after graduation," Thomas said.
Ngai wondered if there might be another way into solving the problem, and so he sought out Raksha Muthukumar, one of the more vocal organizers involved in the Alphabet Workers Union.
The union steps in
Since its launch, the AWU has become a bit like a second, pro-employee human resources department within Google, a true worker advocacy organization. According to Muthukumar, Googlers who are non-union members reach out to the AWU with specific asks like this one every couple of weeks, and the union steps in to help escalate worker complaints, give legal advice, teach people about safe advocacy and provide other forms of support. In this case, Muthukumar helped review the petition letter; got Ngai, Thomas and the other core group of intern organizers a conversation with a union lawyer about their legal rights as interns; and, most importantly, helped them figure out how to persuade the other interns it would be safe to sign the petition.
The message they landed on was that Google really does care about its interns. "The BOLD internship, it's the most diverse, it's the most inclusive. One of the biggest things that I said to all of these other interns when I was trying to get their support, was that we just need to tell them that we are going through this. There's no harm in that," Thomas said. "The proposal itself is just a simple, very valid ask: We're showing them with the proposal that this is something that affects a lot of interns."
Before the union helped them send their petition — a four-page document, loaded with individual interns' stories about personal hardships and comparisons to other company salaries and stipends — another intern shared their work with some Google employees, who created their own internal petition and gathered thousands of signatures from inside the company.
"Within two or three days we got over 1,500 signatures from full-time Googlers. It was insane to hear from everyone else that we did gain so much traction in such a short amount of time. We felt really good about actually getting some money," Ngai said. The other interns "were a bit skeptical to begin with, but once we had this support, it was like OK, we're for sure getting the money. Everyone understood that this is an actual issue."
That's how Google saw it, too. In mid-April, all of the BOLD interns got a second, amended offer. "To be clear, we didn't reinstate the relocation allowance since the interns were not asked to relocate in 2021," Google told Protocol. "This year, in total, we provided a $5,000 stipend for interns to use however they deem best, including improving their WFH experience (e.g. new desk, equipment, furnishings). This stipend was distributed to all interns globally as part of our plan to accelerate 2022 benefits to better support our intern community."
"It does come down to how the DEI conversation is actually happening in the tech industry. Are we actually giving people the things that they need, or just saying it?" Muthukumar said. "Not everybody was a California [or] New York-raised tech person."
Thomas and Ngai are still worried that this could make Google rethink any potential full-time job offer. "This isn't coming from a place of admonition. We're there because we enjoy tech and creativity. We want to be a part of not only helping facilitate these processes, but also revolutionizing and making them more sustainable and equitable," Thomas said. "I hope Google can be cognizant of that duality of thought."
Anna Kramer is a reporter at Protocol (Twitter: @ 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.