Ned McNally, a temp worker at Google’s data center in Council Bluffs, Iowa, received notice in August that he would get a $200 weekly bonus until the end of the year for working a full week. It was a nod to the labor shortages ravaging businesses during the pandemic.
But by October, Mr. McNally and about 250 other data center temps stopped receiving the payments even though they had met the weekly attendance threshold.
According to an email sent to employees of Modis, a unit of Adecco, Google’s biggest staffing agency, the payment had raised a red flag with Google managers and the bonus program was put on pause. Then, on Oct. 27, Modis said the extra payments had been terminated and that workers would not receive back pay for the weeks that they had worked the full 40 hours.
What happened next was unusual for the technology industry’s many temps and contractors: Google and its staffing agency backtracked.
Mr. McNally is one of Google’s temp workers who are members of the Alphabet Workers Union, which was formed this year to protect workers and pressure the company into acting ethically. The union now has more than 800 members — which is still less than 1 percent of the company’s work force — consisting of full-time employees as well as temps and contractors.
After the bonus program was scrapped, the Alphabet union members who work as temps in Google data centers began to organize a coordinated response last week to protest the decision by Modis. But last Friday, the company said it was resuming the program.
“The union definitely strengthened people’s resolve to standing up for the fight,” said Mr. McNally, 27, who makes $15 an hour as a data center technician and joined the union when he started working at the Google facility in March.
The workers bombarded management with more than 100 messages and emails demanding an explanation why they were not receiving the payment. They also arranged a videoconference for 130 of the workers to discuss what more could be done, including drafting a letter laying out grievances. Some workers even discussed a work stoppage, which would be highly unusual in the technology industry.
Minutes before the scheduled videoconference with the union, the Modis manager who had sent the email announcing the end of the bonus program sent another message. He said the payments would resume the next week, that temp workers would receive back pay, and that the program would continue until Dec. 19.
It’s not clear whether the threat of labor action played a role in Modis’s announcement to reverse its decision. Modis did not respond to a request for comment.
Modis supplies many of the temps who work in Google’s 14 U.S. data centers. Most of the facilities are in states where Google does not have large offices and are in remote locations with access to cheap, renewable energy. When lobbying politicians, Google often holds up these centers as examples of jobs created by the company.
In a written statement, Google said the $200 weekly bonus program was set up by Modis and that it was “put on temporary hold” because of a “billing error and miscommunication.” The issue has been resolved and the workers have already started receiving the bonuses, the statement said.
The organized response offered a template for how labor unions of well-paid and well-treated employees at tech companies may be able to use their power to support the workplace rights of the armies of temps and contractors who work beside them. The union told the temp members that it would back whatever action they chose to do, and helped with drafting a potential letter as well as support to help organize the Modis workers.
Parul Koul, chair of the executive council of the Alphabet Workers Union, said what happened demonstrates “how Google’s two-tiered employment system is designed to exploit workers” in order “to extract labor from contractors, like Modis workers, who provide essential services to Google and other Alphabet subsidiaries.”
For years, Google has relied on a large work force of temporary and contract staff to meet its labor needs. While Google’s parent company Alphabet has more than 150,000 full-time employees, the number of temps and contractors exceeds that figure. It depends heavily on companies like Adecco to supply and manage these workers to free the company from the legal obligations of an employer.
This was not the first time Google and its staffing agencies have underpaid temp workers. Earlier this year, Google acknowledged that it had been using outdated pay rates for temps in many countries around the world in possible violation of equal pay laws.
Jade Coleman, 19, said they started working as a temp for Modis at Google’s Iowa data center in July. They say their work diagnosing the facility’s computer hardware is exactly the same as what Google’s full-time employees do at the facility. They are on a rolling three-month contract and are told three days before it expires whether their contract will be renewed.
“I go out on the floor and do the same work as the full-time Googlers,” they said. “But I am seen as a little more disposable.”