Every day, Ed Stackhouse logs onto his computer to watch pornography. It’s his job; one that includes looking at porn, violent and upsetting videos and images, even suicide forums. His job, as one of more than 5,000 so-called “raters” across the country, is to test and evaluate Google’s search algorithms to help ensure its results are relevant, helpful and accurate.
He’s been doing this from his home in Asheville, North Carolina, since 2013, he says, “Yet I get paid less money than my daughter, who works in fast food.”
The college-educated Stackhouse earns $14 an hour and, like other raters who work on contract, does not have health insurance. For him, that’s critical, as he doesn’t have enough money to manage his diastolic heart failure.
The raters are among Google’s 121,000 contract workers, a force larger than its 102,000 direct employees, according to figures from the TechEquity Collaborative, an advocacy group based in Oakland. But, unlike most of the contract workers, the 5,000 raters failed to be included in the minimum standards Google signed onto for its extended workforce in 2019. Those standards include a minimum wage of $15 per hour, and benefits. Raters, however, remain outside of that group as, in 2017, Google imposed a 26-hour cap on them.
“An entire class of tech workers has been locked out of tech’s prosperity,” said Megan Abell, senior director of the TechEquity Collaborative.
On Wednesday, dozens of Google raters and employees gathered at Google parent company Alphabet’s Mountain View headquarters to protest the situation, demanding a raise and benefits. A petition calling for an in-person meeting between protesters and Google Senior Vice President Prabhakar Raghavan was submitted by the Alphabet Workers Union on Wednesday, after being signed by more than 600 raters and hundreds of other employees. So far, it has received no response.
“Google! Pay us!” the crowd chanted. “Equal pay for equal work!” Around them, Google employees on their lunch breaks quietly walked past, took a few photos, and then hurried away. Occasionally, the crowd was forced to split as employees rode through on their Google-themed bicycles.
A number of Google employees visited to show their support. “I’m here to support the cause,” said “3J,” a Google employee who came with a teammate. “I think, for me, it’s because I’m able to take this risk that I feel like I could, especially in these times.”
Roberto Clack, executive director of Temp Worker Justice, said that the raters are “among the workers with the worst labor standards.” In reference to the sleek contours of the company’s corporate campus, he added: “Look at this place! They can afford $20 and $25 an hour and give everyone health insurance and benefits. And that’s what we’re fighting for.”
Because raters work remotely, it’s “very possible” for Google to deliberately choose states with low minimum wages, particularly southern states that follow the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.
“I don’t know of any raters that actually live in California. I think the state laws are too stringent,” Stackhouse said.
Fortunately for Google, Stackhouse’s direct employer, Appen, is an Australian company, and he lives in North Carolina, where wages are lower.
It’s a “two-tiered system,” said Michelle Curtis, another Google rater. In 2017, Google stopped offering raters full-time work, and capped weekly working hours at 26, which disqualified them from health insurance.
They are also denied parental leave, tuition reimbursement and retirement benefits. Even after a recent raise from $10 per hour to $14 per hour, many remain in poverty. “The problem is that many raters like me are stay-at-home parents or caregivers or disabled or students or working two to three jobs to make ends meet,” said Michelle.
Google has yet to respond to an email requesting comment.
When asked why Google is still employing so many raters in the United States, rather than outsourcing to workers in other countries, Stackhouse feels the use of English as a primary language is likely the main reason. “Because we do have to understand, extensively, what a user means in an English locale,” he said.
Michael Jensen, a rater and stay-at-home dad from North Carolina, has a very personal complaint against the company. “I have many other colleagues who need to work from home because they’re caregivers. They’re disabled, or they’re LGBTQ workers who have faced harassment on the job during in-person work,” he said. “I think that Google takes advantage of the fact that their raters need a work-from-home option.”
Zai Snell, from New Jersey, became a rater because his spouse has an autoimmune disorder and he wanted to avoid bringing home illnesses from outside. But now, when he looks at retirement, he’s facing a “big empty void of a future.”
Terri Blazek, from Georgia, has a master’s degree in information technology and has problems with her vision because of a neurological condition. Asking for sick leave, she was threatened with termination. When she wanted to negotiate the situation with a superior, she surprisingly found she had no superior to email.
“They keep us isolated,” said Stackhouse, emphasizing that even the recent rally protesting Google was the result of years of work as the petitioners hunted each other down on social media. Rather than his real name, he is only allowed to appear as “EdwardS445” in his work chat. “They don’t come out and say, ‘Hey, you can’t do that.’ But at the same time, they tend to heavily discourage it. ‘Oh, don’t talk about that in work chat. That’s a website outside of the company.’”
Clack echoed that organizing is difficult for Google raters. “They’re not even aware of one another. I know that there’s some of these nondisclosure agreements, where they’re not even supposed to say whom they’re contracted for through their staffing agency, maybe. They’re not able to say that, ‘I’m doing work for Google.’”
This pressure has also been conveyed to the staffing agency. On Wednesday morning, Appen sent an email to the raters under the subject line “Information on Unions,” stating that “Our employees deserve to understand the process of unionization and its consequences, what it can do and what it cannot do for them.”
For Clack, a very serious goal lies ahead. “We can’t allow Google to hide behind their contractors and the staffing agencies they control,” he said. “They’re deliberately looking at states with weaker labor laws to farm out part of their workforce. But they have a responsibility to change and make sure these workers are included.”