The warehouse from which Google Express operates its same-day and overnight delivery services is less than a mile from Google's corporate headquarters in Mountain View, but the two workplaces couldn't be more different. While employees at the Googleplex reportedly stock up on munchies in a snack room, get a haircut, drop off their dry cleaning, and go for a quick swim between brainstorming sessions, workers at the Google Express warehouse are excited that in the last week management finally installed a fan.
And that's not all. "All of a sudden, they're giving us water jugs and saying it's potable water," says 26-year-old Gabriel Cardenas.
Cardenas credits the fan and drinking water to his and his co-workers' recent decision to organize a union. On July 27, the approximately 140 workers at the Google Express warehouse filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board asking for a union election. They are the latest group of Silicon Valley workers to seek to join the Teamsters Local 853, following in the footsteps of shuttle drivers for Facebook, Apple, Genentech, and other major tech companies.
Unlike workers at those companies, Google Express workers are in the crosshairs of the on-demand economy. For just $95 a year, or $10 a month, Google Express customers can get whatever they want delivered from a growing list of stores. But keeping pace with competitors like Amazon, Postmates, and Instacart can be punishing for warehouse workers.
For the past 18 months, Cardenas has worked on a team with seven others loading and unloading trucks, and shuttling goods into and out of the warehouse. The packages are "anything you can find at Costco or Target" — cat litter, dog food, bottled water — the heavy groceries that the other kind of Google employee probably prefers not to lug home from the store.
If you're offering same-day service at ground-delivery prices, however, corners have to get cut somewhere. And to Cardenas, it's obvious who's shouldering the load. He and his co-workers have only one back brace to share between them, he says, which has led to serious injuries on the job. There's also the lack of ventilation, low wages ($13 to $18 per hour, compared to union warehouses where the range is $24 to $30), and "bottom of the barrel benefits."
A situation in which workers are thrilled about having access to air and water is not exactly "Google-y," Cardenas says. "It's not what Google is supposed to be."
The Teamsters didn't seek out or organize the Google Express workers. Instead, the workers came to the Teamsters. "They called us," Rome Aloise, the secretary-treasurer of Local 853 says. "We're kind of turning into the tech union."
Labor is a hot-button issue in the tech industry right now. Many of tech's so-called "unicorns" — highly successful startups with billion-dollar valuations — rely on two very different types of innovation. There's the technological wizardry that turns code into a mobile app, and there's the legal maneuvering that turns workers and all the pesky costs associated with them — minimum wage, overtime, workers' compensation, health care benefits, and unemployment insurance — into a loose network of independent contractors with little to no liability for the employer.
But reality may be starting to catch up with the scofflaws. Just a few weeks ago, the California Labor Commission's decision to classify a single, contracted Uber driver as a direct employee became national news. A lawsuit over the misclassification of workers as independent contractors was blamed for the demise of Homejoy, a home-cleaning startup that had raised $40 million in venture capital before it went belly-up. With lawsuits against on-demand companies Uber, Lyft, Postmates, Caviar, and Handy working their way through the courts, startups such as Shyp and Instacart are reversing course and bringing their minions on board as direct employees.
Compared to its independent contracting competitors, Google Express's strategy has been positively old-fashioned: a simple matter of outsourcing. Google contracts with Adecco, one of the country's largest staffing agencies, to provide the warehouse and dispatch workers. Other subcontractors take care of the actual deliveries. Which means it's Adecco that the 140 Google Express workers are petitioning for a union.
Adecco has come up with innovations of its own in providing a workforce for clients like Google. According to Cardenas and the Teamsters, workers at the Google Express warehouse are required to sign a short-term employment agreement that limits them to two years on the job. After two years, Cardenas says, workers have to wait three months before they can work for another Adecco client. (Adecco did not respond to questions about its employment practices, saying only the company is "committed to ensuring that all of our offices, branches, and client assignment sites are safe environments for our colleagues and associates.")
"You would think the employer would want to keep workers who know the ropes and are good workers," says Cathy Ruckelshaus, general counsel for the National Employment Law Project. Ruckelshaus says employers often use term-limited agreements to avoid being on the hook for legally mandated benefits that kick in after a certain length of employment.
Adecco also faces a National Labor Relations Board complaint regarding the paperwork it makes workers sign before starting work. When a former Google Express worker at the Palo Alto location attempted to bring a class-action lawsuit against Adecco last year (he claimed that he was frequently required to work 12 and 15 hour days without legally mandated meal or rest breaks), the lawsuit was forced into arbitration thanks to a waiver he'd signed. But Valerie Hardy-Mahoney, regional attorney for the NLRB Region 32, says the federal agency believes that waiver to be "unlawful" because it denies workers the right to concerted activity. The NLRB complaint will go in front of an administrative law judge on Aug. 31.
This kind of low-road, potentially illegal behavior by a subcontractor should come as no surprise. A key reason for using a subcontractor is to allow a company to keep its hands clean. But with workers agitated and ready to stand up for their rights, Google may want to take a closer look at what's happening in the warehouse on the other side of Highway 101.