Coronavirus Highlights Worker Privilege Disparities at Big Tech Firms

A significant percentage of tech workers at companies like Google and Facebook are contractors — not official employees — and receive vastly different wages and benefits than their counterparts. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Ben Gwin says he received an email a few days ago from Google, instructing most company employees to work from home for the next month because of coronavirus concerns. Gwin, who works as a data analyst, is employed by HCL Technologies and is contracted to do work for Google in their Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, satellite office.

And like many contractors at big tech firms, he does not get work-from-home privileges like Google employees.

A single dad who doesn’t want to risk getting sick, Gwin doesn’t have enough paid time off to stay home.

“What am I supposed to do?” he asks.

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Gwin's dilemma, one shared by millions of contract workers across the United States, underscores the stark disparities between full-time employees and contractors, especially at big tech firms.

Most employees at companies like Google and Facebook are given the flexibility to work from home — particularly when health concerns arise — and enjoy some of most generous paid time off plans of any labor force in the country. But a significant percentage of the workers at those companies are contractors, not employees, and receive vastly different wages and benefits. At Google for example, “TVCs,” or Temps, Vendors and Contractors, account for about half of the company's entire workforce according to leaked documents obtained by the New York Times.

Gwin, who is technically employed by HCL Technologies, is among an army of white-collar contractors who sit alongside Google employees, often doing very similar jobs, but without the same benefits and pay packages. Most even wear different color badges to distinguish them from real Google employees.

Google says that if a temporary worker or vendor has approved remote access, they should feel free to work from home, according to a company statement. It adds that if an office is closed, Google will work with the contracting company to ensure its workers are compensated for those lost hours.

Gwin started working at Google, through HCL, a year and a half ago, and says he has repeatedly asked both companies for the flexibility to work from home.

What is most infuriating, he says, is how managers from both companies have denied his requests: HCL telling him it would violate Google policies, and Google directing him back to HCL.

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“It’s really murky as far as who is making the decisions,” he says.

Gwin notes that it would be a huge benefit if he could work from home on occasion, like when his 12-year-old daughter is sick or needs him to take her to softball practice.

The coronavirus is compounding the frustration that many contractors like Gwin have long felt about the difference in treatment between them and full-time employees.

“This will be one of the more stark examples of the tiers and the classist system that is implemented at our building,” Gwin says. “We aren’t really sure what’s going to happen with us. Hopefully we’re allowed to work from home, or if it’s like a quarantine situation, we don’t have to give up a month’s worth of pay. I think a lot of people would just go to work if that was the situation.”

In a statement, HCL Technology says it’s “proactively invoking all required measures to ensure business continuity” as the outbreak intensifies.

A recent Google statement said that some contractors can work from home, but noted that “to serve our users and keep our products running, some work, performed by Google employees, temporary staff and vendors alike, can only be done by people physically present at offices. We're taking all necessary and recommended precautions, including increased sanitization and social distancing, a public health best practice."

Chris Tilly, a labor economist at UCLA, says white collar contracting is on the rise in a number of industries beyond just tech. It's part of a trend he calls the "fissuring" of the workplace, where workers at the same company have increasingly different pay, benefits and privileges.

“These fissures undermine the U.S. safety net,” Tilly says, "which depends crucially on employment status, since contractors are considered self-employed and generally receive no benefits at all.”

The coronavirus outbreak is both highlighting and exacerbating some of the issues inherent in the fissured workplace, says Tilly. "An emergency situation like the current one worsens the impact of the inequities, and intensifies confusion and the complexities of mounting an effective response.”

At Google, Gwin hopes the current health crisis will prompt the company and other big tech firms to reconsider their contractor policies and allow workers like him to access the same work-from-home privileges that their own employees receive.

"I just want to be able to spend more time with my daughter," Gwin says.