Google’s “Shadow Workforce” Has Demands

The company has responded to protesting employees in recent weeks. Now its contract workers want a voice, too.

People walk past Google's U.K. headquarters in London on Nov. 1, 2018.
People walk past Google’s U.K. headquarters in London on Nov. 1, 2018. Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images

On Tuesday, April 3, an intruder walked through one of the garages on YouTube’s campus in San Bruno, California, entered an outdoor courtyard where employees were eating lunch, and shot three people before killing herself. In the days after the shooting, YouTube parent Google extended employees extra time off and allowed them to work from home so that they could process what had happened, and promised to beef up security worldwide. Google also gathered employees that week for an all-hands meeting so they could discuss what had happened—but it did not invite any of the contractors working as YouTube’s security guards, nor any other contractors or temporary employees, even though many were there when the shooting occurred, several people at the company told me.

Every day, tens of thousands of TVCs—internal lingo for temporary staffers, independent vendors, and contractors—show up for work at Google. As with so many organizations, Google’s workforce is composed of both full-time employees with benefits and workers with different arrangements, many of whom come by way of other employers. But the non-employee staff at Google is notable for its large size: Contract workers make up more than half of the company’s headcount, according to a summer report from Bloomberg. TVCs can be found at nearly every strata—in the cafeterias, on cybersecurity teams finding bugs in code, on the marketing teams for new hardware products, and in the trenches of YouTube content moderation. TVCs can be seen designing, testing, and developing new products; guarding buildings; translating; and working as policy experts.

These staffers are typically on their own for health care or use higher-cost plans through their staffing agencies, if they have health care at all. They usually have no retirement benefits and no long-term job security with Google. TVCs also appear to be a much more diverse group than Google’s full-time hires, Google workers told me, though the company said it could not confirm this and that it didn’t have the data. “Sometimes when I come into my office the only black women I see the entire day are doing service work, cleaning snack kitchens, serving food, and are security guards who stay on their feet all day,” said Meredith Whittaker, founder of Google’s Open Research Group and an organizer of the companywide worker walkout last month. “It’s so messed up. This is what structural racism looks like in practice.”

Right now, Google is being forced to reckon with employees’ discontent like it has never had to before. Yet when more than 20,000 Google workers across 50 offices walked out last month to protest how their employer handles accusations of sexual assault and harassment, some contractors weren’t sure if they would be able to join the demonstration. On an internal email list Google employees used to organize the demonstration, one full-time Google staffer noted that several TVCs at her office were told that if they joined the walkout, they’d be fired. Even some Google contractors who did participate in the walkout with permission from managers have paid a price for doing so, since, according to one contractor at Google I spoke to, “TVCs are generally paid hourly, so walking out wouldn’t have been paid.”

Many contractors did ultimately join in the protest, which worked to an extent. The day after the walkout, Google agreed to stop mandating forced arbitration in cases involving accusations of sexual harassment or assault, a policy that prevented employees from taking their grievances to court. Google also committed to allowing employees to bring a representative into meetings with human resources when reporting sexual harassment, which will likely result in more transparency and accountability for how Google addresses such issues. But these changes don’t apply to contractors. TVCs are beholden to the policies of the companies they actually work for, which have names like Randstad, Adecco Group, Securitas, and Cognizant Technology Solutions.

Organized labor is unusual in the technology industry, but Googlers’ efforts to make demands on specific issues are even further complicated by the fact that half their colleagues are not technically on staff and might not be able to enjoy the same gains. On Wednesday, the organizers of the walkout posted a letter from “Google’s shadow workforce” addressed to CEO Sundar Pichai. It’s a clear sign that two movements that up until now have been distinct—the trend in recent months of tech employees challenging the policies and practices of their employers, and a years-old effort by Silicon Valley contractors to receive fairer treatment—are starting to converge.

In the letter, the workers argue that TVCs deserve a larger chunk of the company’s massive profits. “Even when we’re doing the same work as full-time employees, these jobs routinely fail to provide living wages and often offer minimal benefits. This affects not only us, but also our families and communities,” the letter reads.

The Google walkout’s demands were crafted with input from TVCs from the start, according to Stephanie Parker, who works at YouTube and was one of the demonstration’s organizers.
One of the demands includes “a commitment to end pay and opportunity inequity” at Google, which the organizers wrote in a Medium post means information on pay gaps across gender and racial lines, as well as information on opportunities to advance at Google; they want that data to include contractor pay. Google has not agreed to this demand.

That would seem to deepen a gulf both TVCs and Google employees say is palpable at the company. If you’re a contractor, you wear a red badge around campus. “It’s definitely a caste system,” one contractor, who works on global business strategy at Google, told me, adding that there’s a sense that “if you’re good, why aren’t you just hired full-time? Like something must be wrong because you’re a TVC.” (The employee asked to be quoted anonymously for fear of reprisal.) For many, contracting at Google is a way to get a foot in the door of the company. Parker, one of the walkout organizers, is a full-time employee at YouTube with years of prior experience in the tech industry and two degrees from Stanford, but the recruiter who initially contacted her tried to pitch her on a temporary position on the recruitment team, an area where she has no experience or expertise.

At the time, Parker said, she got the impression that she would be able to one day jump to another department and should “be grateful for the opportunity” and not “expect more, ask for more, or speak up.” Parker says such sentiments make TVCs at Google reticent to voice any concerns about the workplace. “The fact is that she saw my educational and professional background and thought that I would be best suited for an entry-level contract role shows that she did not have my best interests at heart and did not take my qualifications seriously,” Parker said. “And I think it’s no coincidence that this happens to me as a black woman.”

Diversity has long been a problem at Google, where only 2.5 percent of the workforce identifies as black, a number that dwindles even more when isolating for the technical and leadership roles. But when it comes to contract workers, the company has been much better at recruiting diverse talent, according to multiple sources who work on a range of projects at Alphabet, from policy to marketing, product testing, and content moderation. “So why are they able to achieve higher levels of underrepresented minorities distribution in the contract roles and not in the full-time roles when they say the problem is the pipeline?” Parker asked. “That doesn’t sound right, does it?” The “pipeline problem” refers to the argument often made by tech leaders that their companies lack diverse staffs because there are too few underrepresented minorities and women with computer science backgrounds coming out of the education system. Yet, numerous reports have shown that more underrepresented minorities with computer science degrees are entering the workforce than are actually being hired at U.S. tech companies.

The high number of contractors at Google may well have to do with restrictions that are put on hiring companywide, “but that isn’t necessarily representative of the work that each team is expected to get done,” one vendor told me. “So if the team has to do more work than they have headcount to do, then either they either need to do some horse-trading with another team or hire a temp or a vendor, and then of course you totally avoid the whole interview procedure, which is notoriously long and laborious on all sides.” When the goal is to get work done quickly and cheaply, Google turns to contract labor, resulting in a system in which workers who might not make it through Google’s interview process for whatever reason are deemed good enough to work right alongside full-time employees, often in identical positions, but for less pay and fewer benefits.

Some blue-collar workers at tech companies—like security guards, janitors, and food-service workers—have organized and even unionized in recent years. Security guards started organizing across Silicon Valley in 2010, according to David Huerta, the president of the United Service Workers West, and just got their contract with major tech companies, including Google, ratified this year. “The central theme of our Silicon Valley campaign is the disparity between the rich and the poor, and the amount of wealth that’s concentrated in these companies. But that wealth doesn’t come down to the service workers,” Huerta told me. “A lot of the tech workers are now finding themselves in the same situation, and I think it’s good that we find solidarity among the tech workers and the service workers, because at the end of the day, the common denominator here is the title of ‘worker.’”

So what does this mean at Google, where thus far policy changes have not applied to contractors? A spokesperson for the company stressed that TVCs should take up any issues they have with their staffing agencies or employers. But Google does have a supplier code of conduct to which all suppliers of contracted labor are “expected” to adhere. That code of conduct does not bar them from forcing employees who report sexual harassment on the job to resolve the issue through arbitration, though full-time Google employees now can forgo arbitration and take their issues to court. Nor does the code ask suppliers to provide similar benefits to the ones that Google’s full-time employees receive, as the TVC letter on Wednesday demands. What the code does show, however, is that Google could ask anything it wants of its suppliers. And it only wants so much.