Issue 11: Tech Work Under the Pandemic - Materials Engineer

08 Apr 2021

Today we talk with Isabella R., nanomaterials engineer and a Midwesterner who lives in the Seattle area. Until recently, she worked on VR headsets at Facebook Reality Labs, but the pandemic and her contracting arrangement created a hierarchy of safety and control. And having previously worked at a legacy ‘tech’ company with excellent compensation and benefits for all employees, Isabella found Facebook’s arrangement less that satisfactory. She believes the path to a better future includes fighting for racial and climate justice, and increasing accessibility and representation in tech and higher education.

Image of Isabella in a clean room suit and goggles taking a selfie and a quote that says, If there wasn't a pandemic, I'd have to be in the lab every day... but it's just not clear if the option to work from home indefinitely applies also to me, as a contractor

For Facebook Reality Lab engineers on at-will contracts, lockdown created a hierarchy of safety. So they started organizing. / Source

The Worker’s Perspective

By TWC and Data & Society

Natalie Kerby: Can you start out by telling us about yourself?

Isabella R.: My name is Isabella, and I recently moved to the Seattle area around a year ago. My degree is in materials engineering; I’ve worked for about five years in what’s called microfabrication, which is basically hardware R&D, like chip-making. I’m now a contractor for Facebook Reality Labs (FRL) where I’m doing the same thing; it’s basically R&D for the lens of the Oculus headsets. I got my job at the beginning of the pandemic and I’m on contract, so I’m not a full-time employee.

The stay-at-home order in Seattle happened about four days before my start date. So I have been actually working at home the entire time. I went into the lab one day, and they told us it was optional to go in. It just didn’t feel very COVID-friendly. This was way back in June or July. And I was like, “Ah, no, I’m good. I opt-out.”

Natalie: You’re a contractor, and you said you’re not full-time. Are you working there part-time or do you mean you just aren’t getting full benefits?

Isabella: Yeah, I work full-time, like hourly, but I don’t get benefits. What my team and I have are like white-collar contract worker jobs.

Natalie: Can you talk a little bit about getting the job and then realizing that you were going to be starting during a pandemic?

Isabella: I didn’t really consider it when I was interviewing because I was interviewing around January and February, which was when COVID was mostly abroad. You know — back in those days where we didn’t think it would spread. When I was getting hired at the end of February, I ended up getting a lease because I thought I was going to be commuting in person. Then like a week before I had to move in, COVID restrictions started being put in place.

A lot of uncertainty followed. Facebook was communicating with our personal emails and even less than a week before, they were like, “No, you can’t come in.” Or they were saying, “Well, Facebook is completely remote for now. So on your first day, just attend this online training or online orientation.” They were contacting anyone who was starting at the Redmond site, so it was a big mix of contractors at the orientation. And then we were all like, “Well, what do we do now?” And they’re like, “You just wait.” And we’re like, “Will we get paid?” They’re like, “Yes.” We’re like, “Okay, good.”

So then I literally did nothing for a month and got paid. I’m very lucky in that respect. They had some issue where they couldn’t ship us our equipment, like our laptops. I don’t know if we really understand what the issue was, but we couldn’t get the Facebook proprietary equipment, so we couldn’t work on anything for like a month or two. Then at a later point when the restrictions lifted, people on my team started going into the lab.

Natalie: Is that by choice?

Isabella: Yes, but I feel some intense caution about going in. I think I was the only person in my team who opted out, and I was just talking to a coworker today, and he was like, How have you been working from home this whole time? I was like, “You know, you don’t have to go in.” He’s like, “Oh, I guess you’re right.” They don’t really underscore that it’s voluntary to go in. You feel the pressure to go into the lab and deliver the results.

For the whole year that I’ve been working at home, like every day, I’m like, “Oh, maybe I’m going to get fired today” because I’m not doing the jobs that are listed in my job description.

Danny Spitzberg: Can you illustrate, briefly, some of the lab space and what you can or cannot do outside of it?

Isabella: In the lab, we work in a clean room where the air doesn’t have very many particulates because we’re making really tiny devices where a dust particle or a strand of hair can mess everything up. You wear what we call a bunny suit because it covers you head-to-toe and is white.

It’s a lot of PPE because there are what we call “wet and dry processes,” which involve acids and bases, and plasma. It can be dangerous.

There are people who are in full PPE in this lab all day, going from tool to tool, like acid bench to another bench. It’s hard for them to work on their laptops in this lab. So the people working from home, we try to help with data analysis.

Natalie: If not for the pandemic, what would you be doing?

Isabella: If there wasn’t a pandemic, I’d have to be in the lab every day in my bunny suit. I definitely prefer working from home. But, like I said, it doesn’t feel as if it’s voluntary. It is in writing, but not very many people opt-out. For full-time and non-contract Facebook employees, they say no one’s coming into the offices until the summer, but it’s just not clear if the option to work from home indefinitely also applies to contractors like me, or if it only applies to full-time employees.

Natalie: It sounds like you and a few other contractors have been thinking about the difference between yourselves as contractors and the full-time workers. How did this arise?

Isabella: On my team, there are a lot of contract workers, there are the full-time employees above us, and then there’s management as well. But all of us contract workers, we have different employers. Like technically, I’m employed by a separate contracting company. Then this week, upper management had a meeting with like 40 or 50 of us.

They were like, “Just so you know, we are now switching to a vendor-managed service instead of a contract system.” The way they framed it was, “Now you don’t have to work for all these different companies. Now, you’re all going to work for this vendor.” But what we gradually have figured out is that they want us to quit our contracts and get rehired by this vendor. We had no say in this matter and it’s very sketchy, but it’s all developing right now, and we are organizing, like we have a chat group. I’m messaging my coworkers.

They are forcing our hand to quit our current contract and get rehired. In the meeting, someone asked, “What if I want to continue my contract?” And they were like, “Well, effectively, once we’ve finished this transition to the vendor-managed service, which should take four-to-six weeks, we’re going to end any contracts.” Basically, if we choose not to do this, we lose our jobs.

Natalie: Is there a guarantee that if you do quit your contract, you will be hired by Facebook?

Isabella: They said it, but it’s not in writing. So no, basically. We’ve asked it in the Q&A, but we have to go through what they’re calling one-on-ones, which is really a job interview again. We saw the vendor company posted job listings on LinkedIn the other day and they already deleted them, but we got screenshots. I think it’s hard for us to try to bargain based on wage because there are people with different job functions. There are technical writers. There are different levels of engineers. So we can’t say, “Oh, we all want this wage.” But we’re going to try to bargain based on benefits, I think. We still have to think about what we want to collectively ask for.

Danny: I’m wondering if there’s any other part of the dialogue you’re having with your peers about something a little farther ahead that you might have to escalate to? It might be a long way away, but just for the sake of the long view, I’m curious about that.

Isabella: I guess, long-term, what most people want is to get hired, like full-time with full benefits. What’s happening right now is a ploy for them to get around that. Microsoft had a permanent temp thing, where employees were contract tech workers, but instead of hiring them on full-time with full benefits, they kept extending the contract even though they were doing similar work as full-time employees. So then there was some kind of rule, which stated that a contract can only be two years long.

After that, you have to take a break, they can hire you, or whatever. What Facebook is doing by switching from contract to vendor service is getting around that regulation because now we’re not a contractor; we’re a vendor. There was someone in the group who said they’ve been through four different employers, and they’ve worked at Facebook as a contractor or a vendor for about four years. That’s clearly not supposed to be happening. They’ve just been taken along for the ride and pushed to different employers and different vendors.

Natalie: What is your relationship to your contracting company right now? They have you contracted out to Facebook and when that contract ends, they might contract you out to a different tech company. Is that how it works?

Isabella: I’m not sure. They could theoretically because I already told them I don’t like Facebook and asked them to look for positions, but they’re not very proactive. On the contract system, after two years, you have to work somewhere else. So theoretically they could get me a job somewhere else. But the thing about the contract system is that it makes everything even more vague and ambiguous because you can only talk about your day-to-day duties with the Facebook manager, and then with your contract people, you talk about HR stuff, but they have no idea what’s actually going on in the workplace. So I don’t really have a relationship with either. That’s what ends up happening.

Natalie: You were saying not all of you are part of the same contracting companies. What’s that experience been like navigating that?

Isabella: It’s possible that we all have different wages. I know that we all have different benefits. In the past group, someone was saying that there were two contractors who are doing the exact same job. One was making $20 an hour and one was making $60 an hour. That’s not specifically happening in my group, but that type of thing can happen because of the multiple different contract companies.

Danny: And what kind of assistance are you all looking for right now?

Isabella: I think we need legal resources. Legally, it would be nice if there was someone who knew about all these regulations with vendors versus contractors because what they’re doing seems very suspicious.

They were talking about how they waived some rule for us. That’s how they framed it. I’m like, “You waived what?” I think a lot of the legalese and that type of stuff would be helpful, but I’m not sure how to find that information. I’ve slowly been Googling, learning about organizing. I think right now what we need besides just legal info is to get more people. We need people power and legal advice.

Natalie: Do you see any benefits to everyone being under the same vendor contract?

Isabella: The only benefit I could see is if somehow everyone gets a pay raise and/or benefits, but knowing Facebook, I think it’s going to be the opposite. We have a suspicion they’re going to try to either keep our wages the same or lower. I don’t know much about being under a vendor, but everything seems negative from what I do know because you’re even more detached from the company and it’s harder to get hired full-time, which is the ultimate goal for a lot of people. The other thing with vendors is there’s no time limit, so they could string you along and keep you a vendor for 10 years and not change your pay or anything like that.

Natalie: You talked about generally feeling precarious in your role because you don’t feel like you’re doing the type of work that would have normally been in your job description. Can you talk more about that and how that anxiety also relates to this switch from contractor to vendor?

Isabella: Yeah. My contract is up for renewal at the end of March, so I was already assuming that I was going to get laid off. That was my mindset because there were two people on my team around November whose contracts didn’t get renewed, and they were going into the lab, so I was like, “I’m not going in, I’m not performing. They’re definitely not going to renew me because I’m not contributing to the bottom line nearly as much as even they were.” So I was totally assuming that I was going to be out the door. I was already planning that I would not have a job at the end of March, so that’s making me go all in with this organizing because I was already in the mindset of thinking I’m going to be gone in like a month. Now I’m like, “Okay, I’m definitely gonna be out of a job. I might as well organize people.”

I’ll be okay, but what I worry about is that for a lot of my coworkers, we’re really, really niche in what we do. There’s not really anyone hiring for what we do in the Seattle area, so some people are just going to be as if they lose their jobs. That’s the scary part.

Natalie: Is there anything else that you want to tell us?

Isabella: I remember thinking about how there is a very clear hierarchy. There’s management; and then there’s full-time workers; and then there’s the workers who go into the lab; and then there’s the work-from-home people at the bottom. Because we work from home, we have zero agency in what goes on. People just tell us what to do, and at this point, fellow contractors tell me what to do because they’re managing me. That’s another layer of the hierarchy. I would say that some contract workers are an extra level up because they opted to go into the lab.

Natalie: And that’s a hierarchy that wouldn’t exist if you were all working in the lab, right?

Isabella: Yeah. I don’t think it would exist if it were normal times.

Advice to fellow workers

We asked Isabella what she might tell workers in a similar situation, and she said:

“Make an effort to get to know coworkers virtually, and as soon as you can. I didn’t do this at first because I wasn’t clear how to do it effectively during WFH, and for me, this job was always going to be temporary. Regardless, I wish I had built relationships earlier to help in this organizing, and just generally for solidarity and community. I also feel I made the mistake of posting a lot in the wider chat group rather than messaging more individuals, but now I realize there is a lot of power in one-on-one support and organizing.”

This interview has been edited and condensed by Kaylen Sanders, Tech Workers Coalition volunteer. Read more about our series here.