18 Mar 2021
Today we hear from R. Leonard, a Haitian-American network engineer who, as a part of his contracted work, has spent time in hospitals before and during the pandemic to configure their Wi-Fi networks. This interview is part of our series in collaboration with Data & Society, spotlighting people who build and work with tech, who are organizing in unique, context-specific ways to build worker power in the tech industry. In conversation with Data & Society Labor Futures Program Director Aiha Nguyen, R. Leonard discusses how the pandemic has illuminated stark power imbalances within his workplace and often led him to take his safety into his own hands.
The Worker’s Perspective
By TWC and Data & Society
Aiha Nguyen: Thanks for speaking with us today. To start, can you tell us about what it means to be a Wi-Fi network engineer?
R. Leonard: A Wi-Fi network engineer is like the cable guy’s “cable guy.” Your internet service provider gives you the internet and my job is to install the infrastructure—such as routers and servers—to make it run. I’ve been contracted to do that in hospitals for about five years now. It’s not like your Wi-Fi router at home. At the hospital, there are thousands of access points and my job is to scope the entire building. I walk from room to room, floor to floor, measuring the square footage and understanding what types of technologies they are using that require Wi-Fi, such as an MRI machine.
Aiha: How often do you have to scope the building? Do hospital’s needs change and, especially since we’re talking about COVID, do you now see more remote tracking and contact tracing?
R.: Yeah that’s why I’ve been so busy since March. Before, it was standard work to make sure that doctors and nurses could communicate with each other throughout the hospital. One of the things we install is real-time location services so that you can track where a doctor or piece of equipment, such as a surgical device, is in the hospital at all times or even to monitor babies in case of kidnapping. Now with COVID, there have been a lot of hospitals asking about how they can track more things, including patients, to control spread and contamination.
Take contact tracing. In theory it sounds like a good idea, but it requires knowing whose cellular device is which on the network, but a lot of people don’t want to be tracked. In order to not be seen, people will purposely use the guest network on their cell phones. So it can be really effective for tracing hospital assets, for instance, if a surgical device has been used on a COVID patient, they can track it through the hospital, but not so much for actual people. The thing about technology is it’s never going to be 100%—its range of usability is usually around 75%.
Aiha: It sounds like you’re really constrained and really exposed at the same time in your job. How do you decide when you go in, if you get a choice, and what protections are you offered?
R.: I don’t have control over which projects I get, and I do have the fear that if I say no I could lose my job. I am still seen as the young kid there (R. Leonard is in his late 20s), despite having worked there for over six years. When COVID first started, I was living at my mom’s house. I told my job that I didn’t want to go in because I didn’t want to risk exposing my family. What they did to convince us at first was they offered control over our schedules. In the first two months they were pretty lenient and recognized that it would take us longer to do our work. They only gave us one N95 mask, a box of gloves, and some Lysol. That was it, and that was back in April and I haven’t heard anything since. The only reason I have supplies is because I’ve built relationships with people in the hospital who have been generous enough to share with me.
As time has gone on, I’ve found that senior level colleagues feel a lot more comfortable pressuring me to go into less COVID-safe areas, and I have to remind them that this is a serious situation. But they work from home, they’re not in the field. Meanwhile, I see the patients on ventilators in the ICU rooms firsthand. I even walked through the bio-waste room by accident the other day and someone saw and made sure to spray me down. There is solidarity between hospital workers, which I’ve appreciated. It’s hard. You’re trying to be safe, but you’re also trying to do your job. You’re often asking yourself if you need to quarantine. And a thing a lot of people don’t realize is that COVID tests at the hospitals are reserved for the patients, staff only get them if they’re showing symptoms. The only reason I get tested weekly is because of another project that I’m on that isn’t at a hospital.
Aiha: I’ve talked to hospital unions and workers who have said there’s a constant battle. The state says you need to get tested, but employers don’t want to take responsibility for it and employees end up having to pay out of pocket.
R.: That actually happened to me recently, where a unit I was working in turned into a COVID unit overnight. I was around a maskless patient who was coughing and I had to get a rapid test and stay home for two days. My job did eventually reimburse me for it.
Aiha: It’s been nine months since the beginning of the pandemic. Has your employer developed any policies or provided more PPE? Have they developed any new technologies to enable you to do your job more safely?
R.: Not really. If you ask for supplies, they’ll do what they can but they’re not proactively sending me PPE. They’ll only do it if my request is in an email because then it’s officially recorded and could be a potential HR issue. We only got PPE that one time early in the year because we requested it.
What’s really become clear is the underlying dynamics of the hospital, where nurses, because of their unions, are able to take time off to recover when they have symptoms, whereas clerical staff has to come in despite not interacting directly with patients. COVID has created a hierarchy of privilege. Some people are required to come in, like maintenance and other support staff. Then you have IT people like me, who people always forget about, who have to come. But then the execs are rarely in, and I know this because I have access to every room in the hospital. We’ll receive an email from an executive saying how impressed he is with everyone and how we’re all in this together. But meanwhile, I’ve just been in his office and know he hasn’t been around for the last three days. There’s a lot of hypocrisy in leadership, but maintenance always knows where people are. The people who are overlooked see everything because we have to be here.
Because I’m salaried, I receive the same amount of pay regardless of how much I work. I used to never say no to projects, but the pandemic has emboldened me in a way to say no because I know they need me more than I need them right now. Senior team members also aren’t in the field, so they can’t really argue with that. It’s also made me understand the responsibility I have to my peers and neighbors to let them know I’m working in a hospital, but also to be honest with my employer about what I can and cannot do.
Aiha: So, for the time being, you do feel like you can say no.
R.: It’s a balancing act. I have to say no sparingly. At the beginning of the pandemic, we all received pay cuts and they stopped matching our 401ks. We lost all the benefits with zero reward. A few of us got free lunches but that was it.
Aiha: It seems like you feel more secure, but less safe. If you’re working a lot more and there’s more business, then why were there cuts to your pay and benefits?
R.: Good question. About two weeks ago they reinstated our pay and benefits (this interview was conducted in December 2020). My company did what a lot of companies did by cutting benefits, but then it turned out we were profitable this year because all of these projects were coming in. Because my company is private and they can’t buy back stocks right now, they started acquiring other tech firms. Some people started to complain about that because, meanwhile, we had a hiring freeze and pay cuts. Eventually the CEO sent an email saying that they’ll retroactively pay everyone, but first they had to take care of the executives who had taken a 40% pay cut. It was a small moment of transparency, but at the same time we were getting emails from him like, oh we’ve expanded to London, we’ve acquired this company… and meanwhile I’m in a hospital during the pandemic. They were more profitable, but truly at the expense of employees. A lot of people left at first because they were burnt out. I think bringing back our pay is just a way to save engineers because we’re the assets. The company makes money through us, not through their technology.
Aiha: That’s really interesting, but not surprising. What do you hope changes moving forward, particularly as we face another surge and vaccine distribution?
R.: My CEO hasn’t mentioned the vaccine, which made me a little uncomfortable. I’ve been worried that because our company has classified ourselves as essential, that the vaccine would be mandatory for me as an engineer in the field. I think it’s tied up in the company trying to cover up having liability if someone gets sick on the job. I’m not an anti-vaxxer, but I want to wait a little while until I get the vaccine to see how it plays out for people.
To your second point, I want my company to start listening to me. There’s a dynamic where they don’t always want me to execute an idea that might make things more efficient because we bill hospitals hourly. So the longer I’m working the more money we make. But with the pandemic, I wish they would listen to my idea so that I can get out of the hospital faster. A lot of the higher-ups though only seem to think about the present and don’t want to invest in their employees’ futures.
Aiha: It’s so ironic that tech is constantly talking about efficiency and how efficiency is profitability but you’re saying they’re shooting down your ideas to make things more efficient because it’s efficiency versus money.
Do you see the impact of the work you’re doing? Is it helping the hospitals respond better?
R.: No, not really. Since I’m a contractor, once my job is done I’m gone and there isn’t anyone to maintain the network. If something breaks, I get called back in. There’s really a deprioritization of this kind of work — when it comes to technology people think it’s a quick fix and because they can’t see it, they don’t think they need someone dedicated to doing the work full-time. In front of the hospital you’ll see the doctors’ fancy cars, but then the closets where the network servers are, are covered in dust—they’re in disarray because so many teams have worked on them.
Advice to fellow workers
We asked R. what he might say to other workers in a similar situation. Here’s what he said:
“I would tell anybody in my position that it can wait, you can say no. Your life is more important than a paycheck. Be more assertive when you know you can do something, and be assertive when you can’t do something.”
This interview was edited by Natalie Kerby, digital content associate at Data & Society. Read more about our series here.