Op-Ed: Is the Coronavirus Shaping the Future of How We Work?

From today’s New York Times:

Both the irony and the symbolism were evident as members of the California Future of Work Commission gathered in a virtual meeting, hastily rescheduled in the midst of an unfolding crisis.

The pandemic, and the recession all but certain to follow, threaten to pre-empt and overwhelm efforts to shape the future of work, and thus the future of California — how to create good jobs, reduce poverty and redefine relationships and structures to narrow the enormous income inequality that overshadows the state’s wealth and success.

Thus the recent meeting became not only an experiment for doing business in a post-coronavirus world but also a conversation laden with doubts, fears and aspirations about how the future may evolve.

The coronavirus will have a silver lining if it serves as the impetus for constructive upheaval, in the way that the sudden forced reliance on telecommunication is already having an impact.

“We are conducting a natural experiment,” said Peter Schwartz, a futurist and member of the commission. “One we would prefer not to have conducted. But we’re going to learn the hard way, rather quickly and by necessity, everything that can be done remotely. … We’re not going back to zero afterward. What do we learn out of all this in terms of how our society can change?”

World War II, the last international crisis that upended life in California, transformed the state into a military center and ushered in decades of growth that reshaped the Golden State. There is already a sense that in a different way, the coronavirus may create an inflection point of comparable significance. For better or worse, whenever the epidemic subsides, there will be no going back.

Read the complete article here.

The Great Google Revolt

From today’s New York Times:

Laurence Berland had just gotten out of the subway in New York, some 3,000 miles from his desk in San Francisco, when he learned that Google had fired him. It was the Monday before Thanksgiving, and the news came to him, bad-breakup-style, via email. “Following a thorough investigation, the company has found that you committed several acts in violation of Google’s policies,” the note said. It did not elaborate on what he had done to violate these policies.

Berland, an engineer who had spent more than a decade at the company, had reason to expect he might be fired. He had been suspended a few weeks earlier after subscribing to the open calendars of several senior Google employees, whom he suspected of meeting with outside consultants to suppress organizing activity at the company. During a subsequent meeting at which he was questioned by Google investigators, he had the feeling that they were pressuring him to say something that could be grounds for termination. Then, the Friday before he was fired, he had spoken at a well-publicized rally of his co-workers outside Google’s San Francisco offices, accusing the company of silencing dissent.

Even so, the timing and manner of his dismissal surprised him. “I thought they’d do it when all the media attention died down,” he said. “When the suspensions and the rally were no longer on people’s minds.” Instead, at a moment when the spotlight was shining brightly, Google had escalated — as if to make a point.

Berland was one of at least four employees Google fired that day. All four were locked in an ongoing conflict with the company, as they and other activists had stepped forward to denounce both its treatment of workers and its relationship with certain customers, like U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Berland’s terminated colleagues were even more shocked by the turn of events than he was. Rebecca Rivers, a software engineer based in Boulder, Colo., was dismissed over the phone after accessing internal documents. Rivers had only recently come out as transgender and was pursuing a medical transition. “I came out at Google expecting to stay at Google through the entire transition,” she said. “It’s terrifying to think about going to a job interview, because I’m so scared of how other companies treat trans employees.”

Sophie Waldman and Paul Duke, the two other Googlers fired that day, had not received so much as a warning, much less a suspension. Though they had been questioned by corporate security two months earlier about whether they had circulated documents referring to Customs and Border Protection contracts, they had been allowed to continue their work without incident. Waldman, a software developer in Cambridge, Mass., said she was given a 15-minute notice before she was summoned to the meeting where she was fired; Duke, an engineer in New York, said an invitation appeared on his calendar precisely one minute beforehand. Security officials escorted him out of the building without letting him return to his desk. “I had to describe to them what my jacket, scarf and bag looked like,” he said.

Read the complete article here.

Kickstarter Employees Vote to Unionize in a Big Step for Tech Workers

From today’s New York Times:

Employees at the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter voted on Tuesday to unionize, the first well-known technology company to take the step toward being represented by organized labor.

The decision, which was formalized by a vote count at the National Labor Relations Board, came down to a narrow margin, with 46 employees voting in favor of the move and 37 opposing it. The debate over a union — and whether such representation was appropriate for highly paid tech workers — had been a source of tension at the company for many months.

“I’m overjoyed by this result,” said Dannel Jurado, a Kickstarter senior software engineer who voted for a union. “There’s a long road ahead of us, but it’s a first step to the sustainable future in tech that I and so many others want to see.”

The pro-union vote is significant for the technology industry, where workers have become increasingly activist in recent years over issues as varied as sexual harassment and climate change. Behemoth companies such as Google and Amazon have struggled to get a handle on their employees, who have staged walkouts and demanded that their companies not work with government entities and others.

But large-scale unionization efforts have faltered. Only a group of contractors at a Google office in Pittsburgh unionized last year, and a small group of Instacart workers managed to do so this month. In the past, most unionization drives have been associated with blue-collar workers and lower-paid white-collar workers rather than white-collar tech workers, who are often paid upward of $150,000 a year.

Veena Dubal, an associate professor of employment law at the University of California, Hastings College of Law, called the Kickstarter vote “a hugely important step” that “signals to workers across the tech industry that it is both desirable and possible to build collective structures to influence wages, working conditions and even business decisions.”

Read the complete article here.

DoorDash’s anti-worker tactics just backfired spectacularly in court

From today’s Vox News Online:

The food delivery company DoorDash made its delivery workers sign away their right to sue if a legal dispute arises between a worker and the company. Instead, disputes would be resolved by a privatized arbitration system that tends to favor corporate parties.

It’s a common tactic, often used by companies seeking to discourage workers from asserting their legal rights at all. And, if a decision handed down Monday by a federal district judge stands, the tactic backfired spectacularly for DoorDash.

Under Judge William Alsup’s order in Abernathy v. DoorDash, DoorDash must arbitrate over 5,000 individual disputes with various workers who claim that they were misclassified as independent contractors, when they should be treated as employees. It also must pay a $1,900 fee for each of these individual arbitration proceedings.

Though DoorDash might settle the various claims before it is hit with these fees, Alsup’s order means that if it doesn’t, the delivery company will face a bill of nearly $10 million before any of the individual proceedings are even resolved. Add in the cost of paying for lawyers to represent them in each proceeding, plus the amount the company will have to pay to the workers in each proceeding that it loses, and DoorDash is likely to wind up paying far more money than it would have if it hadn’t tried to strip away many of its workers’ rights.

Ordinarily, when thousands of workers at the same company all raise very similar legal claims against that same employer, those workers will join together in a class action lawsuit — a process that allows all of the disputes to be resolved in a single suit rather than in thousands of separate proceedings. But DoorDash required these delivery workers to sign away their right to bring a class action as well.

That decision also appears to have backfired.

Read the complete article here.

New York Governor Lays Down Ultimatum on Gig Worker Rights

From today’s Bloomberg Law Online:

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) kicked gig worker rights out of the state’s budget discussion, instead creating a task force to study the issue. But he also provided lawmakers with an ultimatum.

If the issue isn’t resolved by May 1, the state’s labor department will be authorized to enact regulations protecting workers, Cuomo announced Jan. 21 as part of his executive budget proposal.

Policy is often negotiated alongside fiscal plans in the state’s budget process, which is kicked off by the governor. The state budget is due by March 31, before the next fiscal year begins.

One political expert says creating a task force is a way to delay a difficult decision that puts the governor between the state’s powerful unions and popular companies like Uber Technologies Inc. and Lyft Inc.

Some Albany insiders, companies, and lobbyists say the governor’s legislative proposal is vague. Several lawmakers and union leaders, however, are applauding Cuomo’s plan to further study whether many workers currently operating as independent contractors should instead be classified as employees, entitling them to benefits such as minimum wage, overtime, workers’ compensation, and the right to collectively bargain.

“We certainly are in a better place now, than we were at the end of last session,” New York State AFL-CIO President Mario Cilento said in an emailed statement. “In addition to creating a task force, the legislation would establish a framework to provide rights and protections to workers in the growing gig economy.”

Companies and business coalitions said they’re glad to have a seat at the table. “No matter the forum, we are ready to discuss solutions that provide workers with the protections they deserve while maintaining the flexibility they want and the economic growth vital to the state,” said Christina Fisher, a spokeswoman for Flexible Work for New York, a coalition of app-based technology companies, business groups, and civic organizations.

Read the complete article here.

The Gig Economy Is Coming for Jobs

From today’s New York Times:

A few years ago, Adalberto Martín began to see some troubling changes at work. As a veteran member of the room service staff at Marriott’s W Hotel in downtown San Francisco, he was an expert in delivering carefully assembled trays of food and drink to hungry guests. But the number of orders had sharply decreased. What was once 50 glasses of orange juice every morning had dwindled to 10, and Mr. Martín’s tip income fell accordingly. At lunchtime, he seemed to make more deliveries of plates and silverware than actual food.

Room service, as we imagine it in the movies, with white tablecloths and silver cloches, has long been in decline, even at the fanciest hotels. But Mr. Martín attributes his loss of earnings to the proliferation of food delivery apps such as Uber Eats, DoorDash and Postmates, successors of online ordering services like Seamless. Now he wonders if soon he’ll be out of a job altogether. “We’re always worrying and concerned when we see other hotels nearby closing room service,” Mr. Martín told me. “It’s just a matter of time.”

His co-workers at the W and staff members at other hotels report similar trends: The doormen and bellmen who once summoned cabs for guests, and were tipped in return, now watch lines of Ubers and Lyfts coil in front of the lobby doors, while concierges have had their work outsourced to iPad consoles. Some hotels offer tablets in every room preloaded with food-delivery apps, and give guests vouchers for Uber and Lyft rides. In the microcosm of the hotel, the app economy has expanded choices for some (the guests) and shrunk options for others (the workers).

These currents in hospitality represent a subtle, sneaky form of technological displacement, care of the gig economy. They’re not robots stepping in for humans on a factory floor, but rather smartphone-based independent contractors and supplemental “cobots” (a portmanteau of “co-worker” and “robot”) chipping away at the careers of full-time and in some cases unionized employees.

In the beginning of the gig economy, people most feared one-to-one job loss: An Uber driver comes in, a taxi driver goes out. And taxi drivers have indeed lost their livelihoods — and taken their own lives. Yet many app workers are only part-time, driving or TaskRabbit-ing to supplement their wages in a traditional job. App companies, for their part, deny that even full-timers are employees, perpetuating the fantasy that gig workers are solo entrepreneurs. It’s a business model that reduces everything to a series of app-enabled transactions, and calls it work, leaving what’s left of the welfare state to fill in the rest.

Aaron Benanav, a labor historian at the University of Chicago, explains that this process of “de-skilling” and misclassification is happening all over the world. The gig economy “is being used to replace skilled workers with less skilled, or continuing a process that’s happening all over the world of ‘disguised employment,’ where you bring in independent contractors to replace employees,” he said. “There’s an app for that” means that there’s less steady, reliable work for traditional employees.

Read the complete article here.

Major union launches campaign to organize video game and tech workers

From today’s Los Angeles Times:

The last two years have witnessed a wave of walkouts, petitions and other workplace actions at video game and tech companies.

But despite this swell in labor activism, employees at no major video game studios and only a handful of tech offices have formally voted to form or join a union.

A new campaign launched Tuesday by one of the nation’s largest labor unions — and spearheaded by one of the leading video game industry activists in Southern California — aims to change that.

The Campaign to Organize Digital Employees (CODE for short) is a new project of the Communications Workers of America aimed specifically at unionizing video game and tech companies.

It grew out of conversations between the CWA and Game Workers Unite, a grass-roots organization that sprang up in 2018 to push for wall-to-wall unionization of the $43-billion video game industry, alongside conversations with organizers across the larger tech industry.

Separate from the new initiative, the Toronto chapter of GWU has also signed a formal partnership agreement with CWA to work on organizing in the area. (CWA is also the parent union of the NewsGuild, which represents workers at the L.A. Times and most major newspapers in the country.)

Read the complete article here.

Data Privacy: What Californians can do about creepy data collection in 2020

From today’s The Mercury News:

Starting New Year’s Day, Californians creeped out by the trove of personal data companies collect on their online shopping, searching and social media habits will get sweeping new privacy rights that will let them opt out of having their information sold or shared and let them demand that it be deleted.

“This is really a watershed moment for consumers,” said Scott W. Pink, a Menlo Park lawyer who advises companies on cybersecurity and privacy. “It’s the first law in the United States outside specialized industries like health care that provides consumers some degree of control and access over data collected on them.”

The California Consumer Privacy Act approved in June 2018 was inspired by public outrage over data breaches at major companies such as Facebook, Yahoo and Equifax that exposed consumers to potential fraud and misuse of their personal information, and by the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation.

The new law requires that businesses disclose their data gathering and sharing practices and allows consumers to opt out of it and to demand that businesses delete collected information on them. It prohibits companies from penalizing consumers with higher rates or fewer services for exercising their privacy rights and from selling information about children under age 16 without their explicit consent.

But questions continue to swirl as companies scramble to comply. The state attorney general is still finalizing proposed regulations intended to guide consumers and businesses in order to meet a July deadline when enforcement is expected to begin.

And both consumer and business advocates continue to spar over whether the new privacy provisions go too far or not far enough, with proposed state and federal substitutes in the works.

Read the complete article here.

A brutal year: how ‘techlash’ caught up with Facebook, Google and Amazon

From The Guardian Online:

What goes up must come down, and in 2019, gravity reasserted itself for the tech industry.

After years of relatively unchecked growth, the tech industry found itself on the receiving end of increased scrutiny from lawmakers and the public and attacks from its own employees.

Facebook and Instagram ads were linked to a Russian effort to disrupt the American political process.
Social Media, Fake News, and the hijacking of democracy by reactionary forces at home and from abroad.

“The whole year has been brutal for tech companies,” said Peter Yared, chief executive officer and founder of data compliance firm InCountry. “The techlash we have seen in the rest of the world is just now catching up in the US – it’s been a long time coming.”

From new privacy legislation to internal strife, here are some of the major hurdles the tech industry has faced in the past year.

As the 2020 presidential race intensified, tech companies faced a growing backlash over the campaign-related content they allow on their platforms.Advertisement

In October, Facebook quietly revised its policy banning false claims in advertising to exempt politicians, drawing fierce criticism from users, misinformation watchdogs, and politicians. Following the change in policy, presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren took out advertisements on Facebook purposely making false statements to draw attention to the policy.

Democratic lawmaker Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez grilled Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, over the policy change in a congressional hearing in October. “Do you see a potential problem here with a complete lack of factchecking on political advertisements?” Ocasio-Cortez asked, as Zuckerberg struggled to answer. “So, you won’t take down lies or you will take down lies?”

Meanwhile, other tech companies took the opposite stance.TikTok, whose reported 500 million users makes it one of Facebook’s largest rivals, made clear in a blogpost in October it would not be hosting any political advertisements.

And Facebook rival Twitter banned almost all political advertising in October. Google stated in November it would no longer allow political advertisers to target voters based on their political affiliations.

Read the complete article here.

Opinion: One Man Can Bring Equifax to Justice (and Get You Your Money)

From today’s New York Times:

On Dec. 19, District Judge Thomas Thrash of Atlanta will hold a final approval hearing for the Equifax 2017 data breach settlement. There’s a lot at stake. If the settlement is approved, the $31 million pool earmarked for claims will be paid out to some victims. Others will get free credit monitoring (because the cash reward set aside for victims was so small, if all 147 million people affected by the breach filed a claim, everyone would get just 21 cents).

There’s another option. As I wrote in a September column, victims could file a formal, legal objection, which would nullify the settlement. If Judge Thrash finds those objections convincing, Equifax’s class-action counsel wouldn’t receive their $77.5 million fee and Equifax would be liable again to face a substantial penalty for the breach. I’m happy to report quite a few people — maybe even a record number — did just that.

Over the past month Reuben Metcalfe, the founder of Class Action Inc., helped 911 individuals object (another 294 objected but did not provide signatures by the Nov. 19 deadline) by creating a chatbot tool that allowed victims to file objections automatically for the Equifax settlement at no cost (Class Action Inc. waived its 5 percent fee for Equifax). Theodore H. Frank, a lawyer who specializes in class-action suits, has jumped in the ring himself along with another victim, David Watkins. Frank’s objections, which are more formal and detailed than Metcalfe’s many automated ones, argue that the settlement is too broad and doesn’t take into account state-by-state protections for data breaches (in Utah, where Watkins lives, victims could claim damages up to $2,000).

Now it’s up to Judge Thrash to sift through the settlement and its objections and decide. Thanks to Metcalfe and Frank, he’s likely to be feeling some pressure. Back in September a class-action lawyer told me that even if only 1,000 people object, it can send a powerful message. Frank is hopeful the settlement will look weak on its own merits. “If the judge gives an honest look, he’ll realize it doesn’t meet muster,” he told me recently.

I’d argue there’s even more resting on Judge Thrash’s shoulders, including whether companies can get away with abusing our data in the future. Metcalfe, who has steeped himself in the world of class-action suits, suggested that the settlements, initially a method for accountability, have become a mechanism for companies to knowingly skirt liability for not protecting consumers. “It’s becoming cheaper to say sorry after the fact than to obey the law in the first place,” he told me.

This feels especially true in the world of data privacy, where breaches are so frequent that a discovery last week of an open database containing the personal information of 1.2 billion people hardly made news. We seem locked in a vicious cycle: Companies that gather and trade data have few checks or regulations. This allows them to collect more, which means more money. And deeper pockets make it harder to impose meaningful penalties that might deter repeat and future offenders (see: the Federal Trade Commission’s $5 billion slap on the wrist of Facebook). Judge Thrash, then, has a unique opportunity to make a statement by objecting.

Read the complete article here.