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Blue-collar workers at Silicon Valley companies hope for better future

As tech companies continue to delay return to offices, some service workers hope for a full return in the coming months.
Madeleine Rivera in Fremont, Calif.
Madeleine Rivera is grateful to have kept her job as a contracted food service worker at Google’s campus for the entire pandemic.Clara Mokri / for NBC News

Madeleine Rivera, 33, a contracted food service worker at Google’s campus, is clinging to the smallest signs that someday workers will return to the company’s sprawling campus. In recent weeks, she has been handing out free peach ice pops to Google workers who have returned and trying not to think about the rise in Covid cases on the horizon. “That’s what we like to do. We like to make people happy,” she said. “It feels like things are normalizing a little bit despite the delta variant.”

But as the delta variant of the coronavirus enters a troubling new phase and more tech companies, from Lyft to Facebook, delay reopening their campuses to early next year, the companies’ contracted cafeteria workers, shuttle drivers and cleaners are especially anxious.

Many service workers at Silicon Valley tech campuses aren’t sure whether the delta variant will delay their returns even longer or even jeopardize their jobs entirely if in-office work becomes less critical than it once was. As many white-collar workers have settled into a work-from-home routine, blue-collar workers are struggling even more for answers after more than a year of unpredictability.

“My little ones, they say, ‘I don’t want you to go back to work.’ But we have to do it,” said Liliana Morales, 37, a food service worker at Facebook who recently returned to work after having been on paid furlough since the pandemic began. “Everyone has to go back to their normal activities. It’s been a lot of months that I have been out of work.”

IMAGE: he Google campus in Mountain View, Calif.
Empty desks and chairs on a business day at the Google campus in Mountain View, Calif., on July 29.Yichuan Cao / Sipa USA via AP

National anxieties

While some blue-collar workers in Silicon Valley may be better off, they still have the same anxieties as many blue-collar workers across the country. The director of the UCLA Labor Center, Kent Wong, a co-author of a book about the late Mike Garcia, a janitorial labor organizer who led organizing and strikes at Oracle and Apple, said that because Rivera and Morales are members of a labor union, they are likely to be doing better than their nonunionized counterparts. Amazon warehouse workers, famously, aren’t unionized — some are alleged to have been disciplined for union activism during the pandemic.

Previously, on a website Amazon set up this year to persuade workers in Alabama to vote against unionization, the company wrote: “We’ve got you covered with great hourly rates, best-in-class healthcare benefits, and career advancement. There’s so much MORE you can do for your career and your family without paying dues.”

But Wong said all blue-collar workers face challenges whether or not they have union protections. “At the end of the day, they are still very vulnerable,” he said, adding all of the other stresses such workers face working in such a high-priced community. “We’ve seen the impact of Silicon Valley in terms of skyrocketing real estate prices and rental prices and many low-wage workers getting pushed out of these communities, and that has been the trend, where you have this two-tiered workforce.”

Margaret O’Mara, a history professor at the University of Washington, said the blue-collar workers are essential to the functioning of massive tech campuses.

“Yet the uncomfortable truth remains that tech companies rely, as they always have, on a giant submerged iceberg of blue-collar labor to make their enterprises go, something that has become more obvious in the upheavals of the pandemic,” she said by email. “Relying on a large labor pool that does not enjoy the perks and security of the more visible white-collar workforce is now baked into the business model of large companies, and not just tech.”

Looking ahead

Blue-collar workers at tech companies said in interviews that they were largely supported by tech companies through the pandemic — some said the companies even tried to find them other jobs when their original work went away. Take, for example, Rivera, who previously worked in the kitchens and cafes spread across Google’s sprawling campus in Mountain View, California. She was temporarily posted to work as a receptionist in nearly empty office buildings.

IMAGE: Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.
An empty reception desk at Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., on July 29.Yichuan Cao / Sipa USA via AP

Some companies, such as Google, are already starting to ramp up their campuses to return to a sense of normalcy, especially as vaccination rates remain high — nearly 80 percent — in Santa Clara County, the geographic heart of Silicon Valley.

“Facebook is starting to recall all of their contractors, and drivers are being called to do training and practice runs, empty buses,” said Stacy Murphy, the business representative for Teamsters Local 853, the union for a number of the Silicon Valley bus and shuttle drivers contracted to several major companies.

While Facebook is preparing for a return to the office in the U.S. in January, spokesperson Chloe Meyere said, not all companies are following the same approach.

In fact, many workers don’t even know that some tech companies have delayed reopening. Morales, the food service worker, said she didn’t know Facebook had delayed its return until next year until she was informed by NBC News.

Meyere said Facebook has “communicated all of the changes to the vendor-partners,” using the company’s technical term for the contractors that directly employ workers like Morales.

Morales said: “Whatever my company says, we are going to do it. If they say go back to work, then we have to go back to work.”

Murphy, the union representative, said it has been a mixed bag in terms of Silicon Valley companies’ needing drivers for their shuttles. While Facebook continues to call drivers back for practice runs, Netflix and Amazon have been back to full capacity since June. Tesla has even expanded service during the pandemic era. Genentech never interrupted its buses, while Apple, LinkedIn, Twitter and Salesforce never brought theirs back.

“I don’t honestly know,” Murphy said. “Because every time I think we’re getting ready to get back, something happens. Since some of these guys have been starting back up, we’re getting these mini-outbreaks of Covid amongst some of our drivers — small ones.”

Meanwhile, Rivera, who stressed how grateful she is to have kept her job during the entire pandemic, said the recent change at Google suggests that campuses across the industry are slowly going to be reopening, even if, in some cases, they may do so a little more slowly than had been anticipated.

IMAGE: Madeleine Rivera and her son, August, in Fremont, Calif.
Madeleine Rivera and her son, August, in Fremont, Calif.Clara Mokri / for NBC News

Enrique Fernandez, the business manager at Local 19, the union that represents cafeteria workers like Rivera at Google, Facebook and Cisco, among others, said: “I’m confident that by the end of the third quarter or the beginning of the fourth quarter that people are going to be going back to the offices.”

Fernandez said that even if companies start to move to more permanent so-called hybrid models, in which many employees are in the office only part of the time, service workers would be able to adapt. But he said the long-term prospects of office life and what that means for the workers who serve them remain unclear.

“I worry all the time,” he said. “That’s what we do all the time in labor.”