Coronavirus divides tech workers into the ‘worthy’ and ‘unworthy’ sick
When Josh Borden arrived for work at the Google offices in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on Wednesday morning, it felt like arriving in a “ghost town”. The parking lot was deserted, there was no breakfast being served in the cafeteria, and the nap rooms were tagged with signs announcing their closure “as a precaution given the Covid-19 situation”. “The office is so empty,” he told me. “Even more so than when the Googlers have their ski trip.”
The day before, Google had asked all its North American employees to begin working from home due to the coronavirus – a policy that has since been expanded to the rest of its global workforce. But Borden, a triage analyst who has worked for Google for about four years, is one of the approximately 135,000 people who make up Google’s “extended workforce”: temps and subcontractors who perform work for, but are not technically employed by, the $830bn company. And though Borden and his coworkers perform computer-based tasks that could just as easily be completed from home as those of other technical workers, Google does not allow them to access their work from home.
“The FTEs [full-time employees] almost all seem to be heeding the recommendation to work from home, while we are sitting here in the Petri dish, with the choice of not getting paid, or maybe getting sick and then putting our family and friends at risk too,” Borden said. “I’ve heard from multiple people that they feel like we’ve been forgotten and abandoned – and that our health and safety is clearly less important than the Googlers’.
“Our second-class status now has literal health implications,” he added.
In many ways, the technology industry has been ahead of the curve in responding to the coronavirus pandemic. Facebook and Google were quick off the mark in cancelling conferences, and the industry has for the most part adapted quickly to the global imperative for social distancing by encouraging employees to work from home.
And it’s not only the higher-paid technical workers who are being considered. Microsoft was the first to commit to paying hourly workers such as shuttle drivers and food service workers, even if their work hours are reduced as a result of the disease, a policy that was then adopted by other companies. Gig economy companies such as Uber and Lyft have announced plans to fund 14 days of sick leave for drivers who are diagnosed with Covid-19 or placed under quarantine. Amazon initially announced that it would not penalize warehouse workers for taking unpaid time off if they were sick during the month of March. On Wednesday, it announced a new policy that will provide paid sick leave for all employees affected by the coronavirus, according to the Wall Street Journal.
But why did it take a global pandemic for Amazon to consider that a policy that penalizes workers for taking unpaid time off when they are sick is fundamentally inhumane? Why is it still acceptable to put in place protective measures for some part of the workforce, but not for all? And when this outbreak – and the accompanying public pressure – subsides, will Amazon, Uber, Lyft and others go right back to the previous system of forcing the lowest-paid members of their workforces to either work while sick or go without pay?
The situation recalled to me the work of Jacob Remes, a history professor at New York University who studies disasters. Several years ago, when I interviewed Remes about homelessness, he told me: “What the category of disaster does is sort people into worthy poor and unworthy poor.” In America, if you are made homeless by a hurricane, you are considered “worthy” and are (usually) eligible for public relief or support. But if you are homeless due to job loss or eviction, you are generally viewed as unworthy – and scorned by politicians as a sponge on the system.
Coronavirus is now creating a new division – between the worthy sick and the unworthy sick.
“Because there is suddenly more generosity during a disaster, there’s also a lot more policing to make sure that the ‘bad poor’ don’t get any benefit,” Remes told me on Wednesday.
Why should Uber drivers and Amazon warehouse workers with a diagnosis of coronavirus be eligible for paid sick leave, but those with a diagnosis of cancer not be? And what does it say about our society that this sorting is acceptable?
“Disasters really show both the positive and the negative things that we have built into society, because they demonstrate who is vulnerable and who is less vulnerable,” Remes told me on Wednesday. “And vulnerability is socially created.”
The coronavirus pandemic has shone an unforgiving light on the social architecture that has both contributed to the tech industry’s incredible wealth – and allowed large numbers of people to be left vulnerable. That workers like those in Google’s Pittsbugh office are falling through the cracks is no accident – their vulnerability is part of the incredibly lucrative design.
A spokeswoman for Google said that some employees and contractors were still asked to come into the office “to serve our users and keep our products running” by performing work that “can only be done by people physically present at offices”. She also noted that Google was taking “necessary and recommended precautions, including increased sanitization and social distancing”.
But Borden questioned whether his co-workers’ presence at the office was really necessary, noting that his work is entirely computer-based, and he simply lacks permission from Google to access it from home. Couldn’t a company with more than $100bn in cash on hand simply pay for subcontractors to take a paid day off while Google sorts out the security protocols necessary to provide them with remote access? I asked.
“Maybe this shows how much they really need us,” Borden responded. “Or, maybe it just shows how little they care.”