After a Remote Year, Tech’s Shadow Workforce Barely Hangs On

As tech campuses became ghost towns, the people who kept them running—cooks, custodians, drivers—faced an existential threat to their livelihoods.

A year ago, while people across America were still taking the subway to work, sharing elevators and conference rooms, Silicon Valley was emptying out. Its companies were among the first to ask that people work remotely, sending them home with laptops and new software to get the job done. To soften the transition out of the office, they coddled their workers with perks like subscriptions to meditation apps, UberEats credits, stipends for ergonomic chairs. As months passed, pundits and LinkedInfluencer types wondered if the office had a future at all.

Yet tens of thousands of people in Silicon Valley make a living by keeping those buildings running: cafeteria workers who serve three meals a day, janitors who keep the workspace clean, bus drivers who shuttle employees from San Francisco to the Valley. When tech campuses became ghost towns overnight, that micro-economy collapsed. For many of these workers, the shift to remote work has created more questions than answers, and it has eroded certainty about their future. It’s also created new expectations of what tech companies owe their workers, including those in the shadows of engineers.

By the time Nvidia closed its campus in Santa Clara last spring, Marcial Delgado had been working there for nearly 20 years, making his way up from dishwasher to grill cook to lead cook. The Endeavor Café, one of three cafeterias on campus, felt like a second home, and the engineers who came in every day for breakfast and lunch were familiar faces. The second week of March 2020, Delgado got the call, along with the rest of the cafeteria staff, not to come in.

Marcial Delgado

“You always have a feeling inside of, ‘What’s going to happen? What’s going to happen?’ There’s always anxiety there,” says Marcial Delgado, who works as a lead cook on Nvidia’s campus.

Photograph: Samantha Cooper

Delgado retreated to the two-bedroom apartment that he shares with his three young sons. One of his sons has asthma, and Delgado worried about his exposure to the coronavirus. Mostly, he worried about his job. Over the coming months, millions of people across the United States would lose their jobs, as the economy hurtled toward a recession. But Silicon Valley turned out to be something of an oasis. While some tech companies were hurt by the pandemic, many others saw business tick up as the world became more reliant on their products. And some of them—including Nvidia, as well as giants like Facebook and Google—continued to pay their service workers.

Delgado has watched friends lose their jobs this year; some have fallen behind on rent payments or faced evictions. In comparison, he realizes how lucky he is to still have income, and to have the time to focus on his kids, who spent the better part of last year in remote school. The steady paycheck was a relief. So was keeping his employer-provided health insurance, which covers the prescription he takes for high blood pressure and his son’s asthma medication. But the worry never left his mind.

“The pay could end tomorrow,” says Delgado. “You always have a feeling inside of, ‘What’s going to happen? What’s going to happen?’ There’s always anxiety there. You never stop thinking it.”

Homegrown technology companies have created massive wealth in Silicon Valley; by some estimates, the GDP per capita in San Jose is greater than all but the three richest countries in the world. But the money has also brought challenges. The gulf between rich and poor is enormous, and the cost of living has risen so high that even tech workers making well over six figures feel the crunch. Everyone else is barely scraping by.

The region’s large corporate campuses are supported by a small army of workers, most of whom are not directly employed by the tech companies but by staffing firms. Delgado, for example, is employed by Bon Appetit, a food service company that contracts with Nvidia. While the jobs pay more than California’s minimum wage, they’re still considered low-wage work: At the tech companies, subcontracted workers make 70 percent less than equivalent full-time employees, according to research from UC Santa Cruz. And the value of that wage doesn’t go as far in Silicon Valley as it might elsewhere: In Santa Clara, where Delgado lives, the cost of housing has risen exponentially since he moved there decades ago, following his brother from Jalisco. Now, he says, about 70 percent of his income goes toward paying the rent.

In the pandemic, that’s added new anxiety for the lower-wage workers in Silicon Valley. One month without pay can very easily spiral into losing housing, the ability to put food on the table, the loss of the ground beneath their feet. “There’s a lot of fear,” says Maria Noel Fernandez, the director of organizing and civic engagement for Working Partnerships USA, a Silicon Valley labor organization. “There’s a sentiment that there’s a ticking clock. When will their lives be completely thrown apart?”

Alma Cardenas had been bracing for her life to be thrown apart since March. For six years, Cardenas had worked as a barista at Verizon’s hub in San Jose, where she made drinks for the campus’s 3,400 employees. When the pandemic began, Verizon closed its offices. The company continued to pay its subcontractors, like many of the other tech companies nearby, but Cardenas knew the next paycheck was never guaranteed. “Not knowing what would happen next month, or even how to manage that worry—it caused a lot of depression for me,” she says.

In September, Cardenas got the news she’d feared. Her supervisor called to ask for her email, so that she could send Cardenas an official layoff letter. Verizon had ended contracts with 120 of its cafeteria workers. Her last paycheck would come just a few days later. Her health insurance was supposed to end too, but Cardenas’s union, Local 19, fought to keep those benefits for a few more months, until December 2020.

Cardenas lives with her two daughters, ages 16 and 21, in an RV in San Jose. They don’t have a lot of personal space, and everyone’s mental health has suffered in the past year while they’ve been cooped up inside. Cardenas filed for unemployment. Her younger daughter took a part-time job at a nearby McDonald’s to pitch in. It’s still a struggle to make ends meet. While Cardenas looks for new work, she’s doing some volunteering to help people schedule their vaccine appointments. It keeps her mind off of her fears about what’s next.

Cardenas knows her situation isn’t unique. By May of last year, more than 20 million Americans were unemployed. For immigrants and people without a college degree, the rates of unemployment were especially high. The economy has bounced back somewhat since then, but in what some experts are calling a K-shaped recovery: One half of the US is doing OK or better financially, while the other half is falling even further behind. But Cardenas doesn’t understand why Verizon, which ended the year with $31 billion in revenue and dazzling fourth-quarter cash flow, couldn’t afford to keep her on the payroll.

Over the summer, Verizon’s CEO, Hans Vestberg, had announced a job training program to prepare lower-wage workers for new careers. “Verizon, as a large corporation, needs to take actions and be responsible here,” Vestberg said at the time. “Large corporations have far bigger impacts than governments even, sometimes. We feel that responsibility as a corporation.” Cardenas wondered where Verizon saw its responsibility now. (Verizon did not respond to a request for comment.) If the company was doing so well, she wondered why it couldn’t share the wealth. And when she looked across Silicon Valley, she wished she’d had the foresight to work somewhere else.

“I have friends who work for Google and Facebook, and they continue to receive pay. They still have health insurance,” she says. “I don’t know what else to say about that.”

Silicon Valley’s major tech companies already operated like small cities, municipalities in miniature. Their corporate campuses have gyms, day cares, barbershops, arcades, cafeterias, and bars. They even have their own bus systems. In the pandemic, many of them have acted even more like a government, offering job security and health benefits to the most vulnerable workers, even while they aren’t working.

Doing so has “raised huge philosophical questions,” says Russell Hancock, the president of Joint Venture Silicon Valley, a think tank in the region. “There is a sentiment that these companies are so big, so rich, that they’re under a moral obligation to do something with all of that wealth. We’ve come to feel that, as a society, we have these expectations of corporations. Are these expectations realistic and fair?”

Companies have offered workers benefits like health insurance for decades—but doing so has largely put the onus on companies, not the government, to provide basic services to Americans. That companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook have continued to pay their subcontractors is a similar case. The benefit is appreciated by those who receive it, but it’s distributed unevenly. Hancock points out that not every corporation can afford to support workers whose jobs have become redundant, nor should the public expect them to. “Most people would say, that’s the role for government.”

Liliana Morales

Liliana Morales is the shop steward for her union, Unite Here! Local 19. 

Photograph: Samantha Cooper

For those who have benefited, though, the support from tech companies has provided more stability, and more income, than unemployment from the government. Liliana Morales is a prep cook in the Facebook cafeteria, where she worked for six years until the campus shut down last spring. On March 15, Flagship—the food service provider that contracts with Facebook—told everyone to go home, and “not to worry about our pay,” says Morales. “They told us we were going to continue to be paid and continue to have our health insurance.”

Most of her last year has been spent focusing on her kids, ages 13, 10, and 6. Other single parents have had to make impossible choices in the past year: your kids or your job. Morales never had to make such a decision. When her kids schools’ shut down, she pivoted to helping them adjust to remote school. It was still a challenge. She had issues with the Wi-Fi at home, and her kids struggled to pay attention. “It’s hard when you have little kids and they are in their classes and they cannot focus, because they need to go to the bathroom, they need to eat something, they’re not watching the iPad,” she says. “I have to be sitting down with the youngest one and trying to look after the other two, to see if they’re watching.” Morales isn’t sure how she could’ve done that if she’d also had to work at Facebook every day.

Morales’ kids went back to in-person learning in early 2021. But while Facebook’s campus remains closed, she has another job: She’s the shop steward for Unite Here! Local 19, a union that represents cafeteria, hotel, and airport workers in Silicon Valley. Not everyone in the union has kept their job, which has sent Morales into overdrive supporting in every way that she can. Two or three days a week, she has meetings with the union to coordinate support, organizing trainings for people to learn new skills while they’re out of work. She’s helped people fill out their unemployment forms correctly, and helped people prepare job applications. She also volunteers at the union’s food distribution center, where she can help people get something to eat who haven’t been quite so lucky.

Most importantly, though, the union has given Morales and the cafeteria workers at Facebook some much-needed relief after a tense year. Earlier this year, the union negotiated a deal with Facebook to guarantee pay to its cafeteria workers throughout 2021, with health benefits, regardless of whether or not the campus reopens. “So we don’t have to worry,” says Morales. “I’m very thankful for that.”

Working Partnerships USA is pushing for more workers in Silicon Valley to have paycheck assurance, as well as health care. “These companies are thriving in the pandemic,” says Fernandez. “This is not your local nail salon. It’s not the same as a restaurant that’s really struggling.” In the last year, companies like Amazon and Instacart have come under fire for how they treat their essential workers, leading to employee protests and public backlash. “How do we take the energy of saying, ‘Workers are essential’—which was the thing to say last year—and then actually have some teeth behind that?” says Fernandez.

Now that some companies are planning to reopen, there are new concerns. While companies like Facebook and Google have expanded their footprint in the past year, doubling down on their commitment to operate big campuses, others have reconsidered the value of offices. Others, like Nvidia, have left the question open; Jensen Huang, the CEO, has said that he has no problem with his employees working from home forever. If enough employees work from home, a company like Nvidia might not need a cafeteria anymore.

For Delgado, that possibility is concerning. But recently, he made his return to Nvidia’s Endeavor Café. The company had reopened it as a prep station to make meals for charity, and had invited workers to come back in for half-shifts. Everyone works with masks on, spaced 6 feet apart, but it’s still nice to be doing something useful again. They only work part of the day, but they still receive their full paychecks. Delgado doesn’t know when Nvidia is going to have their employees come back into the office, or when he’ll start cooking for them again. He doesn’t even know if he’s going to still have a job by the end of 2021. But being back in the cafeteria, for now, feels like comfort. It’s a place that tethers him to something normal, to a time when he wasn’t always looking over his shoulder for the next piece of bad news.

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