By Levi Sumagaysay
Cafeteria workers, janitors, security guards and shuttle drivers have mostly avoided layoffs as tech firms continue to push back their return to campuses, but that could be starting to change
With many Silicon Valley companies extending their remote-work plans well into next year -- or even indefinitely -- because of the coronavirus pandemic, service workers whose duties can't be done from home are hoping they can somehow hang onto their jobs even as campuses remain closed, or have already been let go.
While employees who code software and design smartphones in the Bay Area are working from their homes, the duties of those who used to clean their offices, prepare their food and drive them to their campuses have been put on hold. Some of the biggest companies in Silicon Valley vowed early on during the pandemic that they would continue to support those workers, but other companies are starting to pull back, and it's unclear how long the promises will last.
Among those who have lost their jobs so far: Cafeteria staff at Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ) -owned Yahoo's Sunnyvale campus, janitors who worked at Lyft Inc. (LYFT) and Roche Holding AG's Genentech, and some shuttle drivers -- all of whom were not employed directly by the tech companies but by their subcontractor partners.
There are thousands of low-wage, hourly workers who have helped the high-tech region thrive -- advocacy groups refer to them as tech's invisible workforce. A 2016 report by Silicon Valley Rising and Working Partnerships USA estimated that Black and Latino workers made up 58% of the valley's blue-collar workforce.
"As companies talk about Black and brown lives mattering, we hope they take responsibility like Facebook and Cisco, which have actually so far made a decision to support these workers," said Maria Noel Fernandez, campaign director for Silicon Valley Rising, an alliance of labor groups and community leaders.
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Besides Facebook Inc. (FB) and Cisco Systems Inc. (CSCO), other big tech companies that have pledged to keep their hourly workers compensated include Alphabet Inc. (GOOGL)(GOOGL), Apple Inc. (AAPL) and Intel Corp. (INTC). But the companies made those promises in March, when the shelter-in-place orders forced them to close their campuses, and many have since said that they don't expect a return to offices until well into 2021. A Google spokeswoman said last week that nothing had changed. An Intel spokesman said the company has extended its commitment through September. A Cisco spokesman said the company is evaluating its needs and will "adjust programs for our employees and contractors accordingly." Facebook and Apple -- which has reopened some of its offices -- have not returned a request for comment.
Denise Solis, a vice president for the Service Employees International Union United Service Workers West, and other union leaders point out that the tech industry in general continues to do well. The tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite Index is up 23% this year, and some of tech's biggest companies continue to see rising revenue and profit (), while others are still growing, though Salesforce.com Inc. (CRM), Lyft, Airbnb and others have also laid off white-collar workers in the past few months.
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"We're struggling with 'what do we push for?'" Solis said. "Where does corporate responsibility begin and end when you have billionaires [who are still making a lot of money] during the pandemic?"
Earlier this month, 91 cafeteria workers from what was once Yahoo's Sunnyvale campus were laid off by the contractor that employs them on behalf of Verizon. Although the employees had not been onsite since the end of March, they had been getting paid to take part in trainings to improve their food-service skills and to learn safer food-handling practices, so they thought they would eventually return to work.
"To open the [layoff] letter came as a great shock," said Yessica Gonzalez, through a translator. "My mind started to race as I thought about how I'm going to take care of myself."
Verizon did not return a request for comment.
Gonzalez and her former co-workers were not directly employed by Verizon, which like many other companies in Silicon Valley uses a subcontractor to employ service workers and others. They were laid off by Eurest, a division of Compass Group, which also owns Bon Appetit and other similar companies that employ food-service workers.
"Given the uncertainty that lies ahead, we've had to make some very difficult decisions," a Eurest spokeswoman said in an email. "Sadly, we had to share the news with some of our associates that their positions were eliminated due to the impacts of COVID-19... Our hope, along with the rest of the country, is that we will be able to bring our associates back and return to normal service as quickly as possible."
The company's termination letter said laid-off workers would be given preference in case they can call back employees in the coming months.
Besides the Verizon cafeteria workers, union leaders say some janitors and shuttle drivers have also been laid off in the past several months.
Solis said nearly 30 janitors at Genentech's South San Francisco campus have been laid off in what she called a first wave of cuts, leaving about 70 janitors still employed to keep the offices clean.
"We're holding our breath in terms of the janitorial industry," she said. "Their work is more relevant now" during a pandemic, she added. But she acknowledged that workspaces have changed and that offices are still largely closed.
Nearby SEIU Local 87, which represents 5,000 San Francisco janitors who cleaned offices for tech and other companies, has seen 3,000 of them laid off since the shutdowns began, said Olga Miranda, president of the local. While Google, Twitter Inc. (TWTR) and Airbnb janitors continue to get paid, she said, subcontractors for big companies such as Lyft, Dropbox Inc. (DBX) and Salesforce have cut janitors.
"They're investing in PR and saying Black Lives Matter," Miranda said. "But who are they leaving without a job, teetering on the edge? Black lives that they supposedly care about."
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In addition, she said it is a struggle to secure personal protective equipment for her colleagues. She became choked up as she mentioned that she knows of nine janitors who have died of COVID-19, specifically remembering a woman named Anna.
"While I'm fighting employers, I'm also consoling families," Miranda said, adding that she expects more deaths.
Lyft and Salesforce have not returned requests for comment. A Dropbox spokesman said the company's security and janitorial staffing is "proportionate with the needs of our office space."
With many office workers staying home, the once-ubiquitous Bay Area tech shuttles have largely stopped running. Stacy Murphy is a business representative for Teamsters Local 853, which represents many of the Bay Area's tech-shuttle drivers. About 50 drivers have been laid off, but most drivers for some of tech's biggest companies remain employed for now. Some companies are using the drivers to maintain the idle shuttle buses, she said.
"It is a daily, weekly, monthly discussion as to how long [tech companies] will continue to pay their contractors who then in return can pay their employees," she said. Murphy added that "contractors are saying the goal is to try to keep as many [drivers] retained" as possible, because they want to be able to bring back certified drivers quickly when the time comes.
As for the cafeteria workers, they are unclear about what they will do. Gonzalez had worked at Yahoo/Verizon for the past three years, since she came to the United States from El Salvador. She has applied for unemployment, but she takes care of a 6-year-old daughter on her own, and said she doesn't know whether she can continue to pay rent on her apartment in San Jose and keep up with all her bills.
Agustina Sanchez, who worked in the cafeteria at the Yahoo campus for 12 years, feels the same way.
"This is the wage that has supported me and my son all this time," Sanchez said through a translator. Though she expects her son to complete his education at UC Berkeley this fall, she is worried about their future because she is the sole breadwinner for her and her son, who will soon have student loans to repay.
A security guard and a cafeteria worker for Facebook expressed gratitude that they continue to receive paychecks.
Facebook has more than 1,000 cafeteria workers at its campuses in Menlo Park, Sunnyvale and Fremont, according to Unite Here Local 19's Sarah McDermott.
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Liliana Morales has been a prep cook at Facebook's Menlo Park headquarters for six years. She has not had to prepare food for Facebook employees since March, when the company sent its office workers home. Instead, she has a meeting every week with her managers.
She and her husband have three children, and she has been glad to be home with them these past few months.
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September 18, 2020 12:07 ET (16:07 GMT)
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