Facebook Tech Support Contractors Question “Essential” Designation


Source: The Intercept

Photo by Erik Cox Photography/Shutterstock.com

 

Facebook information technology contractors have been told their physical presence is required to set up laptops for new hires and other remote employees, and have been given letters to carry on their commutes stating that they are helping to provide “essential services” amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

The contractors, who are employed through global staffing firm Astreya, serve Facebook offices across the country, including in the cities of New York; Austin, Texas; and, Menlo Park, California, all of which require nonessential workers to remain at home. Facebook is eager to get hundreds of laptops and phones set up and shipped to its newly remote workforce across the country, two contractors told The Intercept, a task delegated to them at the same time the social network has emphasized a companywide work-from-home initiative.

The designation of the IT contractors as essential comes at a time when lowly paid workers around the world are grappling with the consequences of such a classification in the midst of a raging health crisis that has left white-collar workers relatively isolated and safe at home. Many among this most vulnerable section of the workforce have been promoted to the front lines of pandemic response without any corresponding change in compensation or workplace safety at precisely the same moment their jobs have become inordinately more dangerous. Though the laptops and phones Facebook’s contractors are setting up could indeed permit hundreds or thousands of others to remain safely ensconced in home offices, maximizing productivity for an enormously profitable social network doesn’t contribute to human well-being in the same way as the undeniably essential work of grocery store cashiers, delivery drivers, and nurses.

To some Facebook contractors, the work they’re doing also raises the question of whether risk has simply been shifted from one class of Facebook workers to another, and whether it is fundamentally fair or healthy to make precariously employed hourly workers do the same job better paid workers were sent home to avoid.

“Many of the things we are doing would be normally carried out by FTEs [full time employees] here … if they were to come our way under normal circumstances,” one said, asking for anonymity to guard against employer reprisal.

Another said that their Astreya team was covering for a variety of in-office tasks they wouldn’t normally do — “jobs that are not ours.”

“What makes us essential is that if we were not to do this right now, it would cause an inconvenience for Facebook when the office opens back up,” this person added. “Part of the jobs that were shifted onto the IT Logistics/inventory help team were things normally done by other departments who had been sent home with pay indefinitely for their protection, essentially letting us know that our safety was a small price to pay for their convenience.”

“What makes us essential is that if we were not to do this it would cause an inconvenience for Facebook.”

Facebook spokesperson Tracy Clayton confirmed the “essential” designation for Astreya contractors at multiple sites in the U.S. and that some are working to set up digital devices for new and existing employees. He added that “Facebook will pay contingent workers that cannot work due to reduced staffing requirements during mandatory work from home, when we close an office, when we choose to send an employee home, or when they are sick.” Clayton declined to answer whether these contractors will be compensated extra or receive any form of hazard pay for their increased risk.Astreya did not return a request for comment.According to documents reviewed by The Intercept, Astreya IT contractors were informed mid-March by the company that their in-office pinch-hitting is considered an “essential service” by the firm. “As an employee who is currently providing essential services to our client,” wrote an Astreya HR manager in an email to the contracted IT team, “your ability to continue working is critical to our client’s success.” It also indicated that Astreya contractors required to come in to work would be provided with a daily $75 meal stipend and be permitted to expense an Uber or taxi to and from Facebook — though Uber’s own fleet of contractors are increasingly staying home for their own protection too. The email also included an attached letter for contractors to carry on their commutes in case a shelter-in-place order comes down and they’re questioned about being outside: “The Astreya employee holding this letter is performing COVID-19 essential services and activities work for our client, Facebook, to enable their employees to successfully work from home and Shelter in Place.”

The full text of the letter is reproduced below, with only minor redactions:

Letter of Consent

To Whom It May Concern,

The Astreya employee holding this letter is performing COVID-19 essential services and activities work for our client, Facebook, to enable their employees to successfully work from home and Shelter in Place. As a result, our employee needs to be able to transit between their home and their worksite. Astreya is the leading IT solutions provider to deliver technology-enabled services and fuel digital transformation to some of the most exciting companies on the planet. We help our clients be productive by delivering world-class IT service. With technicians and engineers in over 30 countries and 70 cities around the world, we are a global company working with the world’s most recognizable and innovative organizations. Please allow our Astreya employee to complete these activities.

If you have any questions, please feel free to contact the following – [Redacted] @ XXX-XXX-XXXX.

Astreya Partners, Inc.

Facebook earlier this year gave public assurances that its global staff would begin working from home whenever and wherever possible to reduce their exposure to the global coronavirus pandemic. The company, along with its elite Silicon Valley corporate peers, earned praise for rapidly and publicly adjusting the way it conducts business. In a media conference call conducted in March, CEO Mark Zuckerberg touted the company’s swift action during the virus’s early spread: “We have been working on this for [an] extended period of time and a lot of our employees been [sic] working from home since January.”

But measures at Facebook have typified the information economy’s dual-tier nature: One set of rules and benefits for full-time workers, and another for its hourly paid contractors, who receive little in the way of benefits compared to their salaried peers regardless of their work’s difficulty or importance. At the pandemic’s onset, contractors were still required to work from office sites, even when their work didn’t require it, while salaried Facebook workers in those same offices were sent home in accordance with public health guidance. They have also been shut out of a $1,000 bonus for Facebook employees sent home due to the coronavirus outbreak.

In Facebook’s headquarters city of Menlo Park, the shelter-in-place order, handed down by San Mateo County, provides for the operation and staffing of certain “essential businesses” during the Covid-19 crisis, namely the expected societal staples like grocery stores, medical offices, and gas stations. But the order also allows for Californians to leave their homes to help provide and maintain “essential infrastructure,” including “internet and telecommunications systems” and “essential … web-based services.”

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