It had been another long day in the Google data center, and Shannon Wait was tired. It was late December, but the mood was far from festive. Someone was crying. It wasn’t the first time.
"I asked my friend what was wrong, and she said that her contract was set to expire on January 1st,” Wait told DCD. “She hadn’t heard anything about an extension, so she didn’t buy her three kids any Christmas presents. Just hearing her say that broke my heart.
“This is happening at Google? How is this necessary?"
Google’s data centers are staffed by growing numbers of temps, vendors, and contractors (TVCs), many of whom do the same work as the Googlers employed alongside them. But they are paid far less, kept on short contracts, and stripped of basic benefits.
Over the past six months, we spoke to multiple current and former TVCs, Google employees, and labor rights researchers about the hidden workers that run the Internet. This is their story.
We gave Google several weeks to respond to a list of detailed questions. After initially promising an on-the-record reply, the company offered unsolicited on-background commentary that did not appear to match the reality of what we learned about conditions at its data centers. IT outsourcing firm Modis did not reply to requests for comment.
This article appeared in Issue 42 of the DCD>Magazine. Subscribe for free today
Wait was never officially employed by Google, despite working at the company’s data center in Moncks Corner, South Carolina, every day for two years.
"When I first got a call about the job from the recruiter, I was under the impression that I would be getting a Google job - and I'm not the first person to say that. But by the time I got the paperwork for onboarding, it was pretty clear that I was working for a contractor and not Google," she said.
Wait was employed by Modis, part of contracting giant Adecco. Still, she wasn't too perturbed: sure, it was through a contractor, but after all she was going to work at a Google site. "It seemed like a reputable company that treats its workers well,” she recalled.
"But the disparity between being a TVC and being a full-time employee (FTE) was like night and day, and you pick up on that very quickly. It makes you feel like an outcast.
“And it only gets worse when you realize that you're actually doing more of the dirty work, or the scut work, than the actual Google employees who get paid twice as much as you and have more freedom to slack off or to do personal projects, while we're back at the data center, in hot working conditions, lifting heavy machines without lifts, because most of the lifts are broken, or not available" (see fact file at the bottom for more).
She added: “I must have torn a ligament in my shoulder because I was lifting something so heavy, but I didn't go see a doctor about it because I don't have health insurance.”
This disparity was confirmed by every TVC and Google employee DCD spoke to.
One Google employee, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal, said that the difference was stark. “Attendance policies are different, the work expectations are definitely quite different. I work with plenty of Google FTEs who do nothing most of the day, and that's acceptable for them. But TVCs would have a talking-to if they didn't close X number of cases in a day."
For all this, TVCs are paid less. In the US, where they usually get $15 an hour, it is perfectly legal for companies to pay TVCs less than FTEs doing the same work (unless legislation like HR 7638; Restoring Worker Power Act of 2020 is passed). In some countries, this is against the law.
In 16 of those countries, Google underpaid thousands of workers by at least $100 million. Reporting by The New York Times and The Guardian found that Google knew it was breaking the law for several years, but opted not to do anything for fear of bad publicity.
Not only are the TVCs paid less, they also don’t get access to the same benefits, like bereavement days or easily accessible paid time off.
And they are often kept on a short leash. US-based Modis employees are only given three month contracts, and are usually told at the very end of the contract whether they are getting another three month extension.
“It was very common for contract extension decisions to come through at the last minute,” Wait said of her time at the company. “Google typically would alert Modis of an extension well in advance, but it was Modis who failed its workers when alerting employees of extensions.”
One day, Wait was having lunch with a coworker who told her it was his last day because no one had said anything about an extension. “That same day, it was found out that his contract was extended another three months, and that they just forgot to tell him,” she said.
If Modis contractors manage to cling on through months of uncertainty, their contracts are terminated after two years, without fail. They are not allowed to reapply for a position for at least six months. Many turn to unemployment benefits to get by, relying on what little savings they had managed to accrue on $15 an hour contracts with few benefits.
Having the state subsidize Google’s workforce is a cruel irony, when the company often gets generous tax benefits for coming to struggling communities across the US, offering the promise of a large investment.
Jobs have always been a poor incentive for communities to accept data center proposals - the facilities simply don’t require many people compared to, say, a manufacturing plant. The vast majority of jobs come in the first year or so, during the construction phase, with a large number of those being out-of-state contractors.
Plus, DCD understands, since switching to a partially prefabricated model, Google has managed to roughly halve the number of job hours at new data center construction sites.
Still, of those few jobs that are more permanent, Google tells communities that they are high-skilled, well-paid, and bring the benefits of the search engine’s brand reputation.
In exchange, cash-strapped city councils, schools, and county boards vote for expansive tax breaks. This includes $97.5 million in tax cuts for Google in Ohio, $25.2m in Nevada, $16m in Arizona, and $15m in Minnesota, to name but a few. Many similar deals are not disclosed, including how many millions Google receives in abatements for its Moncks Corner data center (nor, indeed, is it known how much water that facility uses).
A company professing to organize and share the world’s knowledge, Google negotiates these deals in secret, even going so far as to obfuscate its identity from local planning groups using shell companies until incentives are secured. "We want to make sure that we're getting fair market pricing and we're not getting special Google pricing,” a company exec told DCD in 2018.
At the same time, Google takes part in very public goodwill gestures - installing Wi-Fi on school buses and handing out Chromebooks - laptops running its own operating system. “It's comical,” a Google employee said.
Alongside this, Google’s employment policies may actually constitute another public relations campaign - just not one aimed at local communities, workers, or consumers.
“Another really important motivation for tech companies is that by keeping more workers as contractors, and not as employees of Google, they aren't considered employees for the purposes of financial reporting,” UC Berkeley Labor Center lead researcher for the Technology and Work program, Jessie HF Hammerling, told DCD.
Google is thought to employ around 130,000-150,000 TVCs across all of its offices and data centers, but no one is really sure. Whatever the true number, it is greater than that of full-time Google employees.
“A really important financial metric that investors look at is revenue divided by headcount, which is used as an indicator of a company's productivity. So the fewer employees you have, the more productive you look on paper,” Hammerling said.
Shifting work to temporary staff may impress shareholders, but it’s just smoke and mirrors. In reality, it leads to chaos and confusion.
“It takes about one month to bring someone who has never done this work before to a basic level,” said one Google data center employee who trains TVCs. “It takes about one to two months for that person to become confident in their abilities to perform the work without having to ask multiple times. If they’re unlucky, we lose that person in three months and we cycle the process again. If they are lucky, we cycle that person through three more terms of work.
“At the end, though, if we don’t bring them on, what have we done all of this for?”
Another Googler, a manager of both TVCs and FTEs, said that constantly letting qualified temps go was a fundamentally flawed approach.
"It is absolutely stupid," they said. "The temp agencies actually do a decent job of finding people who are very passionate, or very skilled at this kind of work. And then the contract's up and all that goes out the window.”
The whole process is exhausting, the employee found. "It's just a constant cycle of having new TVCs we need to train. It doesn't make sense."
Hammerling agreed: “There's a lot of reason to think that there's a substantial cost to outsourcing. The cost of high turnover, and then the contractor fees, which can be really substantial, because these are companies that are also trying to make a profit.”
A different Google
A little over two years ago, something changed at Google, multiple people DCD spoke with said.
In the past, Google has encouraged overworked temporary staff with the prospect of being taken on as full-time employees when their contracts came to a close. Now, for whatever reason, it seems that just doesn’t happen anymore. And Google and Modis haven’t communicated the change to the workers.
"It's misleading and deceptive, they're essentially using it to lure people into jobs with an expectation of advancement," Laura Padin, senior staff attorney at the non-profit National Employment Law Project (NELP), said. "Depending on how they word it, it could be illegal, because they're making a false promise."
A Googler that started after the change said: "In the time I have been with them, I have not seen one TVC promoted to FTE. I heard about it happening a number of years ago."
A colleague added: "It's messed up. But you're dealing with a trillion-dollar corporation, and they get to do scummy stuff like that and get away with it."
Another thing Google has gotten away with is more subtle. The label TVC - temp, vendor, or contractor - implies these people are temporary workers. Not so, according to those we spoke to.
Not only are these staff doing the same work as full-timers, but whole areas of work have been handed over to them. One role in particular - Data Center Technician Level 1 - is now almost exclusively filled with Modis TVCs. Level 2 roles appear to be next.
"Never have I ever been at a data center that didn't have TVCs, and it's usually a large portion of the workforce," a Google employee said. "They're not hiring L1 data center technicians anymore. That's going to be a role completely filled by temps."
It’s part of a wider shift the long-term Google staffer has seen at the company. “Especially since [Google founders] Larry Page and Sergey Brin left, it really seriously seems to be about doing what shareholders want now. We brought in executives from other companies like Oracle and Walmart. At the time, some people were worried that it was going to change the culture at the company, others blew it off. Well, the hens have come home to roost," they said.
“The culture is changing. It's certainly not the same place that it was when I got hired."
The changes are getting more pronounced and disruptive, impacting the quality of operations, both Googlers and TVCs told us. Part of this is due to an internal tussle - which is built into the structure of data centers. These are buildings designed to support IT equipment, and filled with servers, but which is the most fundamental - the tech, or the building that nurtures it?
Right across the data center field, Hardware and Facilities teams have vied for power, budget, and positions - and for all its efforts to rewrite the book on technology, Google is no different.
An effort to merge the two groups proved disastrous. "It was a mess,” another Googler said. “The Facilities side got boosted up further than the Hardware side, and most of the managers got placed into positions that had them running both sides with zero idea of what happened on one side or the other,” they remembered. “Bad days.”
In February 2021, Google appointed Walmart executive Monique Picou as its head of Product, Tech Strategy, & Server Operations, with a mandate of improving the situation.
"When Monique started, her idea was to split the groups again,” the Googler said. “Hardware was actually happy about this, and we were excited to get back to doing our job with a fair shake. Then the change got changed again. Then again.”
If tech roles get demoted to become temporary positions, this could be fallout from the turf wars between the building managers and the IT - and it could be bad news for technicians.
As one contact put it: “We were once told all Level 1 and 2 positions would never be fully TVC'd. Suddenly, here we are, watching both of those levels being moved to TVC-only roles. We were told, in subtle ways, to keep our resumes up to date and constantly watch for new job opportunities that got us out of the data centers as ‘bigger changes are coming.’ Our faith is completely gone.”
Many feel Google has now prioritized shorter-term profits over grand visions, embraced cost-cutting, and pared-back once-lofty ideals as it evolves towards a more standard embodiment of corporate America.
That has been expressed in financial decisions, like paying TVCs less and reducing their benefits, often making their lives a struggle. But it has also led to apparent pettiness and cruelty, some told DCD.
“The food team would come in and prepare a snack,” a Googler said. “And then for whatever reason, it'd be only for Googlers, and TVCs couldn’t have the cookie or other treats. There’s lots of things like that, I don’t know why.”
It was this unnecessary unkindness that proved the final straw for Shannon Wait.
“At the very end of January 2021, I had this seal-proof water bottle that was given to me by the company,” she said. The rubber cap broke off, something Wait soon learned had also happened to a friend of hers - a friend who happened to be a Googler.
The two went to the Google employee that had given them the bottles in the first place. “I was told that my friend could have one because she is a Googler but that contractors do not get a replacement. I thought that's messed up, because she is sitting in a conference room all day and I am on the floor in 85-degree heat swapping bat boxes and pulling out heavy trays from the breadboard.
“It was like a slap in the face, but I let it go.”
Then Modis management sent around an email to TVCs telling them not to ask Googlers for anything, and emphasizing that they only ever get one water bottle. “I was outraged by that email, it was very demeaning and condescending.”
The bottle episode was not the worst thing to happen to Wait or her friends at the Google data center. On several occasions, managers told her not to discuss salaries with other staff - something that is illegal in the US. On other occasions, the company misled TVCs about pandemic bonuses.
But the water bottle was the culmination of years of growing dissatisfaction and disappointment.
“I don't know, I hit my limit. I went home, I wrote this little Facebook post,” she said. In it, she expressed her anger and her sadness about the incident. The response was mixed, with some Googlers and TVCs agreeing, while others said she should just be happy that she had a job.
The next day, she didn’t.
“Security approached me on the data center floor and took me into a conference room where all four of the Modis program managers were on a video chat screen,” she said.
“And they said that something on my Facebook was a security risk to Google, and that I needed to be escorted off and suspended with pay until they investigated and found out whether I broke my NDA or not.”
It was an unfortunate situation for Wait, but it turned out to be equally unfortunate for Google and Modis. It just so happened that she already had a meeting arranged with someone from the fledgling Alphabet Workers Union - a new body set up to push for better conditions for all workers at Google.
Wait called to cancel the meeting, in which she’d planned to discuss conditions at Moncks.
“I told them ‘I can't do the meeting, I think I just got fired,’” she recollected. “And as soon as I told them that, they quickly had me in touch with the attorneys at Communications Workers of America, the parent of AWU.”
The union told Wait that what she had said on Facebook was protected activity. “They didn't think the issue was as small as I thought it was. And the level of solidarity that I felt from them is so hard to explain that I want everyone who works at a Google data center, no matter what company they work for, to feel that same sense of solidarity,” she said.
“I know what it feels like to be alone, to think that you're the only one who has that issue. To feel that you're on an empty data center floor, and nobody else cares. It's horrible.”
The union filed an Unfair Labor Practice complaint with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), and soon won the case. Google and Modis had to reinstate Wait, and post notices around the data center saying that it would not punish her, and that staffers could discuss salaries and unionization.
The victory was historic. But it was also fleeting. Wait’s contract was near its two-year limit, so she left - and she doesn’t want to go back.
A few notices may have been posted in Moncks Corner, but managers had broken the law by telling Wait and others not to discuss pay. None of them were punished.
“Somebody got promoted,” she said. “This is how the company rewards bad behavior; it is how America rewards corruption. I know that these four program managers are still talking like this to other workers.”
Two other Modis TVCs told DCD that they, or someone working alongside them, have been told not to discuss salaries since the NLRB settlement. One Googler said that he had heard it happen “often.” It is also standard practice for TVCs to be told not to talk to FTEs about any matter beyond the job at hand, including being told not to contact Google HR or whistleblower lines (both of which were described as "unhelpful, anyway" by the Googler).
An FTE technician told DCD: “Unionizing is talked about in hushed tones and out of the way conversation that is never near a manager. We have a few at my site who are trying to fight for the TVCs and even FTEs there, but we have to be quiet about it lest, well... you know how it goes, right?”
Another said: “I think Google did a really good job of localizing the impact of that [case], especially with the documents that they had to post publicly saying we're not allowed to tell you that you can't discuss your pay.
“It was disappointing that that only got posted in Moncks Corner, I would have liked to have seen those messages posted at all of their sites.”
The employee called out a specific senior Modis manager accused of breaking labor laws (DCD is not disclosing their identity, as we were not able to independently verify the incident). “The fact that [they are] still working there is mind-boggling,” the Googler said.
“[They] broke the law and didn't even get a slap on the wrist. It's frustrating, the company can break whatever law, and as long as it doesn't stir up too much trouble, it just gets forgotten about.”
Weak labor laws mean that even repeated infractions are unlikely to amount to much, NELP’s Padin said. “The most you can get is essentially reinstatement and an employer notice, so it’s not the type of penalty that prevents employers from violating the law multiple times.
“The penalties are so minimal that many employers violate labor law almost like a cost of doing business.”
Wait, however, remains hopeful: “It's only a matter of time till I find another worker who reminds me of myself in the way that they want to speak up. It's only a matter of time before someone is not scared anymore, and Google and Modis will get in trouble again.”
An inclusive company
Every day he went to work, Phares Lee would walk past a large sign saying 'Don't be Evil.' "I'd have to go past that and into a bathroom I didn't identify with. It was absolutely heartbreaking."
A transgender man, Lee had been open about the fact that he was transitioning when he applied for a security job with contractor G4S, and was told that not only was it perfectly fine, but that the client was very publicly “a supporter of the LGBTQ+ community.”
That support did not translate to the G4S training facility, where Lee was forced to use the female toilet, nor to the Google data center - where Lee had just one simple request: to change his name badge from his “deadname” - or birth name. G4S said no.
"And so working there, it just got progressively worse and worse. There would be trainees that would come in and they'd ask ‘what's your real name?’ ‘Well, you're not a real guy,’ ‘blah, blah.’ I would try to shut them down as quickly as possible. And if it got worse, then I’d take it to a supervisor. But nothing was ever getting done.
“I was reporting this over and over. It wasn't just me, there were at least two other transgender individuals on security who are going through very similar situations. There was even one cisgender young lady whose haircut is really short, and was getting a lot of transphobic comments just because of that.”
Together, all four wrote an email to management about the spiraling incidents. “And, again, nothing was ever done. One of those transgender individuals ended up leaving and going to find a different job, because it just wasn't a safe environment for them."
Lee did not plan to stay at the data center long - he had been training as a US Marine, but left with the Trump Administration's transgender ban. The plan was to re-enlist when the ban was repealed. "That time just kept getting pushed out. So now we're three years into this process," he said. He still works at G4S, helping keep a Google data center secure.
Google's policies for trans employees are by no means perfect, but it still has specific systems and resources for those transitioning, changing names, or experiencing discrimination. Unsurprisingly, most are not available for TVCs like Lee.
Like Wait, Lee found that Google only reacted when he went public, again with the help of the Alphabet Workers Union.
"A lot of the changes that have been made are very specific to me. They fixed my badge as much as they can at this point, and they've given me access to the Employee Resource Groups. But again, it's all very me-centric.
“That's not why I did this. As much as I love my job, it isn't what I plan on doing for the rest of my life, and I want to make a difference in this company for the transgender individuals that are going to come after me."
Publicly calling out an employer is not a scalable solution. Transitioning can be hard enough, let alone doing it in the public eye, while risking one’s job. "It's very, very difficult for me to speak publicly, I get very socially anxious," Lee said. "But because of the society we live in, and because it's so difficult to live as a transgender person in this day and age, I have to say something for those who can't.
“I am privileged to be in a stable enough place where I have a roof over my head, and I don't have to worry about a transphobic landlord, and I have enough money to pay my bills. But not every transgender person has those privileges, and this puts me in a safe enough position to speak publicly on behalf of others.”
Even then, it required Lee and his husband to spend a considerable amount of time discussing whether it was worth the risk of going public. “We talked about what our options were - our finances were already tight, especially in this economy.”
G4S contracts are longer and less restrictive than Modis ones, offering some level of job security. But there are other ways they can freeze out those deemed troublemakers.
"You can be moved to a different site that might be 50 miles away from your house,” Lee said. “Or you are given a new schedule that you cannot physically make work because you have kids or whatever home situation, despite the fact that you’ve told them several times that it can’t work.
“There have been officers that have had to deal with that. And, oftentimes, they are forced to quit because they can’t make it work. It’s not an overt retaliation, but it does happen."
Where the power lies
Worker mistreatment, two-tiered systems, and contractor abuse are not Google-specific problems. While it is key to hold a company that has pitched itself as a different, more benevolent form of capitalism to account, it is important to understand how much these practices are now a common part of the US labor landscape.
"It's what we call fissured work, this increasing corporate practice of contracting out work," NELP's Padin said. "What we see as the commonality here is that these systems are really about degrading wages and working conditions, while also allowing the company to distance itself from its workers, and avoid accountability for the conditions that it creates.
"It is very widespread - contracting out in the tech industry seems pretty enormous.”
Most in the tech sector use TVCs for all sorts of jobs; not just for non-core roles like catering and security, but for roles fundamentally identical to FTE roles.
Microsoft was successfully sued by long-term temporary workers in 2000, who won $100m after claiming they had essentially become "common law'' permanent employees. It is thought that the arbitrary two-year-on, six-month-off limit for Modis contractors is entirely aimed at avoiding a similar case being brought against Google.
"I think it all comes down to the fact that they really enjoy being able to evade responsibility as an employer," NELP's Padin said. "Companies are often contracting out the most undesirable work, the harder work, and so they can essentially disclaim responsibility for those job conditions."
Google is far from alone in deciding to pursue this strategy. But the situation at the company might be changing. Labor movements have traditionally been undermined by successful efforts to split workers up: be it between black and white employees, domestic and immigrant labor forces, and full time and contractor workers.
This has worked at Google for much of its existence, but there is growing evidence that Google employees are willing to fight for the rights of TVCs. Following protests and petitions on the matter, the Alphabet Workers Union launched this year with a concerted push for pay parity for TVCs, and a call to hire them on as FTEs. Hundreds of Google employees across the company have joined the appeal.
“I think that is a sea change,” NELP’s Laura Padin said. “I think a union saying we are inclusive of all people working for this company, regardless of if you're classified as a direct employee, or contractor or temp is an important shift. I have not seen that before, honestly.”
Even alone, TVCs have more power than they might think. “TVCs are scared and feel replaceable all of the time,” Wait said. “Together, they're so strong.”
Due to background and employment checks, it takes at least two weeks to onboard a data center TVC. It takes weeks more to get them up to speed. “So, if every TVC went on strike, just as a hypothetical, they would have a hard time for a month or more at Google,” she mused.
“Imagine if this is something that happened in November or December when Black Friday and Christmas shopping is happening and everybody is going online. I mean, that would be a really great time for TVCs to act, should they ever decide to.”
There are less extreme options, including ‘slowdown’ - an industrial action in which employees are still at work, but seek to reduce productivity or efficiency. Googlers can help too. “Google management and Google employees can do their part to advocate for us as well, they could say they’ve had enough of this and want people hired as data center technician L1s. It would make the data center [productivity] better, and the quality of life for those people would get so much better.”
Ultimately, such change could prove most beneficial for Google. Several long-time FTE data center employees expressed exhaustion and disillusionment at the direction of the company, with many considering quitting, or reducing their personal investment in a job they no longer feel comfortable with.
"Honestly, I am feeling less and less proud to be at Google," one said.
Another recalled why they joined Google. "I remember being 14 years old, and there was this documentary on Google, and I thought about how cool it would be to work in their data center," they said. "It was really my dream job. And I got my dream job, and it kind of sucks."
The employee said that they loved working at the data center, but said that "all the things that are changing are getting pretty shitty, especially the way they treat people."
They added: "I'm having a harder and harder time justifying working here."