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Tech shuttles are idling in the garage. Their drivers are still making $30 an hour.

Shuttle drivers in Silicon Valley were allowed to keep their pay and benefits in return for staying home and staying on call.

Tech shuttles are idling in the garage. Their drivers are still making $30 an hour.

The occasional Apple shuttle bus has been spotted on the 101 freeway, but companies won't be returning to the office full time until at least September.

Photo: Getty Images

The smell of fresh-cut grass and a cat named Sunny were Rosie Silva's 2020 companions. If you work at Facebook in Menlo Park, you might know her as your shuttle bus driver. If you're one of Silva's neighbors in Fremont, she's the 66-year-old woman who suddenly had a lot of time this year to mow her lawn, and mow yours, too.

Like most bus drivers these days, Silva is technically out of work. Unlike an average contractor, though, she's still employed, still making more than $30 an hour, still has benefits.

To do what, you might ask? Well, sit in her house, mostly.

Silva is one of the few contract workers who had a pretty good year, all things considered. When the pandemic shut down the world in March 2020, the army of laborers who fed, shuttled and cleaned up after Silicon Valley's pampered tech elite all had to go home, too. And unlike the people they served, their jobs weren't work-from-home friendly. Almost everyone in the service industry was terrified. Mass layoffs made for grim headlines. Food banks predicted shortages. The entire service industry collapsed on itself.

But there was one big exception. The shuttle drivers at the big Silicon Valley tech companies were allowed to keep their pay and benefits in return for staying home and staying on call. None of them could legally take another job, because they were still technically working, but aside from the occasional drive for "essential" in-person engineers, most of them had nothing to do. They got to spend the pandemic like the people they used to cart around: at home, on their computers, tending the lawn, trying out sourdough recipes, watching the kids.

Depending on who you ask, Silva owes her good fortune mostly to the power of her union, or to the beneficence of Facebook. When the unemployment panic crept into the tiny breakroom at Teamsters Local 853 headquarters in March of last year, union leader Rome Aloise and his colleagues (virtually) marched straight to Facebook and asked they keep the drivers on contract. (The Local 853 represents hundreds of tech shuttle drivers for Tesla, Facebook, Apple and others, who are contracted through WeDriveU or Loop/Hallcon.)

And it worked. "We're incredibly fortunate that we were able to work it out with Facebook first; it really set the bar," Aloise said. Once Facebook had announced they would continue to pay the contracting companies for drivers, every other tech company had to do the same. The hundreds of drivers got to go home and keep their jobs.

I asked Aloise what the drivers have been up to for the last year, given the prohibition on finding other work. "Well, gaining weight," he said. (Just like the rest of us.)

The occasional Apple shuttle bus has been spotted on the 101 freeway. Nature isn't quite healing, but it's getting there: The buses won't be coming back in full force for at least a few more months, according to Aloise. Skeleton crews for Apple and Tesla have been running the whole course of the pandemic, but the teamsters don't expect to see more drivers returning to work until June or July at the earliest.

While tech shuttle drivers typically work grueling hours and long drives, and are occasionally despised by the locals, they've had what Aloise calls "a pretty good run" over the last few years. Driver shortages in the pre-pandemic world were so extreme that the union was able to negotiate pay increases from about $16 an hour to more than $30 an hour, with additional full benefits packages. The union represents more than 1,500 drivers now. "That was a lot due to the fact that they became unionized, but also mostly due to the fact that there was a shortage," he said.

But he worries that the pre-pandemic shortage might have been a temporary high point for drivers. If people are actually leaving San Francisco and the surrounding area in droves (a much-debated and unprovable assertion), then demand for tech shuttle drivers could decline precipitously post-pandemic. "I could see the cycle turning, so that there are more drivers than [are] needed," he said.

Google, Facebook and Uber are among those that are already starting to bring workers back to the office, and none of them is offering full remote or relocation policies for their workers. Most plan to fully reopen Bay Area offices by September, so, barring yet another COVID-19 case surge, the shuttle buses should be back to repopulating the highways and angering the locals by then as well.

Silva wishes it were sooner than that. She adopted a chihuahua puppy named Toby a few weeks ago, to try to stifle the boredom, but even taking him for walks isn't enough to alleviate the tedium, she said. She'd volunteer to go and open all the bus doors, if she could. She got her Pfizer vaccine, and she just wants to return to work.

She misses her crowds of very polite software engineers. They spent their bus rides on their laptops, and she spent the drive staring out at the California sun. "You're just driving around, you're always outdoors, looking at the view. It's a very nice job, if you like driving," she said.

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