Facebook contractors tasked with sifting through some of the most heinous and traumatizing content on the internet faced a new hurdle this week when they were told to return to company offices to do their work in person as a pandemic runs rampant around them. Audio obtained by The Intercept suggests that their employer, Accenture, is downplaying the risk of indoor exposure to Covid-19.
When the United States began a patchwork national lockdown in March, Facebook contractors, paid a relatively low hourly wage with few of the generous perks afforded to the company’s full-time staffers, began to feel even more acutely dispensable to the $750 billion company. Beginning this week, as first reported by The Verge, these contractors must now resume working in the same facilities that Facebook’s full-time can safely avoid, having been told that they’ll be permitted to work from home through July 2021. “Based on guidance from health and government experts, as well as decisions drawn from our internal discussions about these matters, we are allowing employees to continue voluntarily working from home until July 2021,” a Facebook spokesperson explained to Business Insider.
Facebook has said that the contractors in question, who must wade through so-called priority zero content encompassing the worst of child sexual abuse and graphic violence, can’t safely do this work from home. Three Facebook moderators employed through Accenture who spoke to The Intercept on the condition of anonymity, because they are not permitted to speak with the press, expressed a profound worry that the company, and their ultimate bosses at Facebook HQ, are once again ignoring their safety in the name of keeping the social network running smoothly.
An October 2 virtual meeting, a recording of which was obtained by The Intercept, did little to lessen moderators’ dread over resuming indoor work at previously shuttered Facebook offices in Texas and California. Accenture moderators were told that the company considers them “essential workers” and therefore not subject to any state or local “stay at home” orders in effect. After providing an overview of coronavirus precautions Accenture would be taking — including reducing the number of workers allowed in the office, mandatory use of masks, and entry temperature checks — an Accenture manager began to address questions submitted by the contractors.
“Some of the questions we’re getting are what happens when I get sick, or what happens when somebody in the office gets sick,” the manager said. “So now I’m going to dive in to, you know, how Accenture handles these situations. Some of you have been in buildings where there have been notifications sent that somebody has tested positive, and that is a reality of where we’re at today, and that will happen as people test positive, and it’s not necessarily something to worry about” — audio cuts out briefly — “been in direct contact.” The executive then described the steps Accenture would take to contact and “take care of” any infected contractor, as well as conduct contact tracing to determine further exposure.
The workers in question were left less than reassured. “They’re getting talking points straight from Trump,” one Accenture moderator told The Intercept. Although Accenture said that returning moderators will be spaced out at least six feet from one another and required to wear masks when not eating or drinking, such steps minimize but do not eliminate the risk of contracting the virus. Accenture managers on the call touted the use of thermal fever-scanning cameras, as well as Facebook’s ability to track employee movements via their ID badges as a means of contact tracing to alert workers who are potentially exposed. They made no mention of any added air filtration efforts that could remove viral particles as they accumulate and spread indoors. Also unmentioned was the potential use of plexiglass barriers, increasingly popular to reduce the circulation of virus-carrying particles in indoor environments.
Accenture managers touted the use of thermal fever-scanning cameras, as well as Facebook’s ability to track employee movements via ID badges as a means of contact tracing.
Accenture spokesperson Rachel Frey declined to answer specific questions about moderator concerns, but told The Intercept, “We prioritize the safety and well-being of our people, and we’ll continue to proactively communicate with them about these measures and answer any questions they have.” In a written statement, Facebook spokesperson Drew Pusateri told The Intercept, “Since March, we’ve increased our use of technology and enabled an overwhelming majority of our reviewers to work from home. But considering some of the most sensitive content can’t be reviewed from home, we’ve begun allowing reviewers back into some of our sites as government guidance has permitted. Our focus on reopening any office is on how it can be done in a way that prioritizes people’s health and safety. We are putting strict measures in place, making sure they’re followed, and addressing any confirmed cases of illness.”
Moderators who asked if they could use building stairs to avoid a logjam of people waiting for an elevator were told that the answer was probably no. Accenture similarly demurred on the subject of routine testing; when asked if moderators would need a negative test result to enter the office, a company manager replied, “It’s a great question. We don’t require you to test negative when you come to the office. What we do ask is that everyone does that internal check before they show up: How do I feel? Have in been in touch or in contact with somebody who is Covid-positive or exhibiting symptoms?”
The call provided moderators with little in the way of concrete specifics in case they or a co-worker contracted Covid-19, or what they ought to do if their personal or household health made in-office work too great a risk. “We will work with you,” the moderators were told repeatedly, a claim met with skepticism given what contractors say is a yearslong record of deception and neglect by Accenture and its HR teams, specifically when it comes to personal health. “If one person tests positive, they get assigned an HR case manager,” explained an Accenture manager on the call. “I’m actually one of the HR case managers, you and I would be buddies. … You would get assigned to us and we would work with you to determine proper quarantine, health concerns, etc.”
When asked what would happen in case of a genuine outbreak among the Facebook moderators, an Accenture manager said only that “there are different protocols set up for that,” but clarified that anyone asked to quarantine in case of such an event would not have to use their vacation days. There was no indication from the call that Accenture or Facebook would actually shutter these work sites entirely in case of infections, instead relying on notifying people determined to have been at risk of exposure. “It’s absolutely sloppy,” one Accenture moderator told The Intercept of the company’s pandemic outreach so far. “They didn’t give us anything in writing.”
Accenture also declined to answer employee questions about hazard pay for those forced back into offices, a galling omission to many of these contractors who for years have complained of second-class treatment and inadequate compensation given the psychologically brutalizing nature of their work. An employee petition, first reported by Motherboard, called for a 50 percent increase in hourly wages for Facebook contract workers risking exposure by working on-site. By comparison, Facebook’s full-time employees, not only assured they can work from home through the middle of next year, will receive an additional $1,000 “for home office needs,” Business Insider reported. Per the meeting recording, Accenture said it will reimburse workers for the cost of taking an Uber or Lyft into the office, though that of course carries its own additional risks of virus transmission.
Some moderators said this friendly, informal pledge of accommodation from Accenture is already showing cracks, telling The Intercept that high-risk workers who’ve presented the company with doctors’ notes requesting to continue safely teleworking from home have been denied, with HR saying that the contractors in question must formally consent to releasing their medical records to the company so that they can be vetted. “There are people with immediate health concerns and they were told to contact HR,” said one moderator. The relationship between moderators and Accenture HR has been fraught, particularly with regards to sensitive health information; in August 2019, The Intercept reported that Accenture moderators alleged the company had pressured in-office therapists to divulge patient data. “I’m angry that they think so little of our lives,” the moderator added. “They couldn’t even bother to give us hazard pay in a pandemic.”