Workers on tech campuses across Silicon Valley live with a dichotomy virtually unknown to people employed in other industries — there are two tiers of tech jobs.
One is seen as respectable and is highly paid. The other comes with low wages and little dignity. But a group of organizers who have been pushing for more diversity and upward mobility in the tech industry for years unveiled a plan this week to level the playing field.
In the upper echelon are engineers, designers and executives getting their paychecks from the biggest names in the business. In the lower-tier are the service workers that keep those campuses running, from janitors and cooks to security guards — and though they work at Facebook or Google or Apple, they work for a different company. And they are treated differently as a result.
According to statistics from the U.S. Census bureau, Silicon Valley Rising says the average upper-tier salary is more than $113,000 per year, but in the lower-tier a white-collar contractor makes an average of $53,000 and a blue-collar worker makes less than $20,000 a year.
Jacky Espinoza was one of one of those workers. The East San Jose resident took a job as a barista at Facebook out of high school. She worked for four years without health insurance because she couldn’t afford it. But after she and her fellow cafeteria workers organized under Unite Here Local 19, Aramark/Cisco Systems started providing better benefits. Now Espinoza is a leader in the union and helps other cafeteria workers at different tech campuses improve their jobs.
Organizing is important, Espinoza said, but simple courtesies from workers in the upper-tier are empowering for the service workers who make them coffee and take out their garbage. “To us it is very important to be acknowledged and to be seen,” Espinoza said. “A simple ‘Hello, how are you? Thank you,’ goes a long way.”
A 2016 report released by the group titled “Tech’s Invisible Workforce” showed enormous growth in tech companies hiring contractors between 1990 and 2014. Food service contractors in particular saw a large surge, increasing by nearly 250% or ten percent per year. The number of security contractors hired by tech companies nearly doubled in the same time-frame according to the report.
“The tech industry relies on that small army of service workers,” said Maria Noel Fernandez, who leads Silicon Valley Rising as director of organizing and civic engagement for Working Partnerships USA. “So we wanted to shine a light on the workforce’s size, demographics and compensation.”
In an event held at the Historic Adobe House in Mountain View this week, the group announced a plan to improve conditions for contractors beyond safety and better pay and benefits. The plan sets priorities for tech companies to ensure its vendors treat their workers fairly — by providing opportunities for them to advance in their careers, making sure they get prior notice of their schedules and a guaranteed number of hours, and allowing them to unionize for the purposes of collective bargaining and resolving disputes with management.
The event was hosted by the TechEquity Collaborative, a group organizing around affordable housing and workplace issues in the industry, and Silicon Valley Rising, a coalition focused on raising wages and standards for blue-collar tech workers.
“One thing that I think is important to clarify for people who don’t understand most of the time, service workers on campuses are not employed by the tech companies, but they are full-time employees of the vendors,” said Catherine Bracy of the TechEquity Collaborative. “The question is, really, what is the role of the tech company in influencing the employer to provide better jobs.”
People who work directly for the company are advantaged over contractors whose employees work in the cafeterias at Facebook, as groundskeepers at Apple and security guards at Google. That advantage is measured not just by bigger paychecks and better benefits, but in the way those employees are treated on the job.
Leslie Miley is an engineering director at Google whose résumé also includes work at Twitter, Slack and Apple. He’s been an engineer for years, but he didn’t start out in the upper echelon. Miley said he was subjected to different treatment as a contractor.
“I started out my career in tech as a security guard at Apple,” Miley said. “I started my career as a contractor. I’ve been at tech companies as a contractor, with a different color badge being treated differently, getting different benefits and pay.
“Somebody saw me,” Miley continued. “Someone saw me as a person, not as a contractor, not as hired help but as a person. And I think companies ought to have the responsibility to open up those opportunities as well, to work with their vendors and partner on making service workers aware of them.”
Michael Matthews, Facebook’s public policy director, agreed with Miley that tech companies need to take responsibility for how its vendors treat workers and provide more pathways for those workers to move up. Matthews said he spoke only for himself.
“We have a responsibility and a role for setting the standards we want from our vendors,” Matthews said.
Fernandez says the group will take its plan to tech companies over the next several months and work with them to encourage existing contractors to raise standards.
Contact Adam F. Hutton at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @adamfhutton on Twitter.
Editor’s Note: The executive director of Working Partnerships USA, Derecka Mehrens, serves on San José Spotlight’s Board of Directors.