How Google interns fought for more cash — and won

After a petition and help from the Alphabet Workers Union, Google BOLD interns convinced the company to give them a $5,000 stipend for housing and other needs.

A Google office in London

Google BOLD interns successfully petitioned for a stipend for housing and other needs.

Photo: Future Publishing/Getty Images

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."


Affirm CEO: 'Buy now, pay later' becomes more attractive in a slump

With consumers grappling with rising rates and prices, the question of whether they’ll still buy now and pay later is open. Max Levchin thinks Affirm knows the answer.

Affirm CEO Max Levchin spoke with Protocol about "buy now, pay later."

Photo: John Lamparski/Getty Images

Shortly after Affirm went public last year, CEO Max Levchin told Protocol that he saw “an ocean of opportunities” for the “buy now, pay later” pioneer. Wall Street agreed.

Affirm’s stock soared in its trading debut as the company blazed a trail for a fast-growing alternative to the credit cards that Levchin says consumers are increasingly rejecting.

Keep Reading Show less
Benjamin Pimentel

Benjamin Pimentel ( @benpimentel) covers crypto and fintech from San Francisco. He has reported on many of the biggest tech stories over the past 20 years for the San Francisco Chronicle, Dow Jones MarketWatch and Business Insider, from the dot-com crash, the rise of cloud computing, social networking and AI to the impact of the Great Recession and the COVID crisis on Silicon Valley and beyond. He can be reached at bpimentel@protocol.com or via Google Voice at (925) 307-9342.

Businesses are evolving, with current events and competition serving as the catalysts for technology adoption. Events from the pandemic to the ongoing war in Ukraine have exposed the fragility of global supply chains. The topic of sustainability is now on every board room agenda. Industries from manufacturing to retail and everything in between are exploring the latest innovations like process automation, machine learning and AI to identify potential safeguards against future disruption. But according to a recent survey from Boston Consulting Group, while 80% of companies are adopting digital solutions to navigate existing business challenges or opportunities like the ones mentioned, only about 30% successfully digitally transform their business.

For the last 50 years, SAP has worked closely with our customers to solve some of the world’s most intricate problems. We have also seen, and have been a part of, rapid accelerations in technology in response. Across industries, certain paths have emerged to help businesses manage the unexpected challenges over the last few years.

Keep Reading Show less
DJ Paoni

DJ Paoni is the President of SAP North America and is responsible for the strategy, day-to-day operations, and overall customer success in the United States and Canada. Dedicated to helping customers become best-run businesses, DJ has established himself as a trusted advisor who places a high priority on their success. He works with many of SAP North America's 155,000 customers and helps them adopt business and technology best practices across 25 different industries.


The post-layoff playbook: How to avoid 'survivor's guilt'

Taking care of your laid-off employees is important. But how can you restore trust with the employees who make it through?

Employees who survive layoffs are charged with holding the company together. Whether or not managers listen to their concerns can make or break a company’s culture.

Photo: Justin Pumfrey/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Jennifer Burke was on her way to Hawaii for her daughter’s wedding when Zillow followed through on its long-anticipated layoff. She asked her manager to break the news to her by message in the car. You’re one of the safe ones, her manager responded.

“I felt relieved, of course,” Burke said. “I felt apprehensive. I felt sympathy for my co-workers that I knew were going to be laid off.”

Keep Reading Show less
Lizzy Lawrence

Lizzy Lawrence ( @LizzyLaw_) is a reporter at Protocol, covering tools and productivity in the workplace. She's a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied sociology and international studies. She served as editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, her school's independent newspaper. She's based in D.C., and can be reached at llawrence@protocol.com.


Why chip companies need the college students dazzled by software jobs

New chip fabricating plants will need tens of thousands of skilled workers who don’t currently exist. Training them means persuading students to look away from jobs at big tech companies.

Intel employees in clean room "bunny suits" work at Intel's D1X factory in Hillsboro, Oregon.

Photo: Intel Corporation

Every morning, Isaiah Morris drives his white Nissan Altima eight miles down Arizona state Route 101 to a sprawling, low-level office park in South Tempe. Inside one of the unassuming buildings adjacent to GoDaddy’s headquarters and a couple of Amazon offices, the Arizona State University student dons a lab coat, safety shoes and prescription goggles as he helps engineer chemicals for a chip manufacturing process called planarization.

Morris is an unusual 21-year-old. When they graduate college, many of his tech-minded peers will opt to work for the likes of Apple, Google and other household names that have enjoyed meteoric growth over the last decade. Jobs at those tech companies symbolize prestige for graduates and their parents in a way that careers with chipmakers like Intel do not.

Keep Reading Show less
Anna Kramer

Anna Kramer is a reporter at Protocol (Twitter: @ anna_c_kramer, email: akramer@protocol.com), where she writes about labor and workplace issues. 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.


A new UK visa could steal your top tech talent

Without meaningful immigration reform, U.S.-trained foreign graduates could head across the pond.

The U.S. immigration system turns away hundreds of thousands of highly skilled tech workers every year.

Photo: Ben Fathers/AFP via Getty Images

Almost as soon as he took office, President Biden began the work of undoing a lot of the damage the Trump administration did to the U.S. H-1B visa program. He allowed a Trump-era ban on entry by H-1B holders to expire and withdrew a Trump proposal to prohibit H-1B visa holders’ spouses from working in the U.S. More recently, his administration has expanded the number of degrees considered eligible for special STEM OPT visas.

But the U.S. immigration system still turns away hundreds of thousands of highly skilled — and in many cases U.S.-educated — tech workers every year. Now the U.K. is trying to capitalize on the United States’ failure to reform its policy regarding high-skilled immigrants with a new visa that could poach American-trained tech talent across the pond. And there’s good reason to believe it could work.

Keep Reading Show less
Kwasi Gyamfi Asiedu

Kwasi (kway-see) is a fellow at Protocol with an interest in tech policy and climate. Previously, he covered global religion news at the Associated Press in New York. Before that, he was a freelance journalist based out of Accra, Ghana, covering social justice, health, and environment stories. His reporting has been published in The New York Times, Quartz, CNN, The Guardian, and Public Radio International. He can be reached at kasiedu@protocol.com.

Latest Stories