Just days after Facebook and one of its contractors, Accenture, sent teams responsible for content moderation back to their offices amid concerns about the coronavirus pandemic, one worker at the office tested positive for Covid-19, according to an internal email viewed by The Intercept.
According to a notification email sent to contractors working out of Accenture’s Facebook facility in Austin, Texas — where hourly contractors deal with the social media giant’s most graphic forms of violence and sexual abuse — the office has already been hit with a positive case. “We have learned that one of our people working at Facebook Domain 8 on the 12th floor has tested positive for COVID-19,” the email reads. “This individual was last in the office on 10/13, became symptomatic on 10/14 and received a positive test result on 10/16. Currently, this person is in self-quarantine.”
After months spent working from home since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, hourly contractors assigned to Facebook’s most sensitive, traumatizing content moderation teams were informed at the start of this month they would return to in-office work on October 12. The decision triggered immediate protest among the moderators, who feared they were being put at greater risk of contracting the coronavirus, while Facebook’s salaried full-time staffers were told they could continue working from home through at least June 2021.
Accenture, the global outsourcing firm that staffs and manages the moderation teams on Facebook’s behalf, told workers the company was taking special precautions to minimize the transmission of the virus, including mandatory face masks, increased cleaning, and reduced seating capacity.
According to audio obtained by The Intercept, an Accenture human resources executive told the affected contractors that the risk of Covid-19 infection from a coworker was “not necessarily something to worry about.” Both companies have argued that the graphic, disturbing, and generally illegal nature of the content in question makes remote work impossible.
Workers at the Facebook moderation office now fear that an outbreak could be on the way. According to Harvard Medical School, the incubation period for the coronavirus is considered to be three to 14 days, with those infected potentially contagious for up to 72 hours before symptoms occur.
The message to workers at the office included a note about the next steps Accenture will be taking. “We have followed up with this person, and any people who might have come in close contact with this individual have been contacted already and asked to self-quarantine,” the email said. “We also are continuing our protocol of thoroughly sanitizing our offices per the recommendations from public health experts and our own protocols.”
In response to an inquiry, Facebook spokesperson Drew Pusateri said, “We’re confident in the health and safety measures we’ve created for any in-office work. They include social distancing, mandating mask usage, daily deep cleanings and a contact tracing program in the event of a positive case.”
In a statement, Accenture spokesperson Rachel Frey said, “We have contact tracing protocols in place so that any of our people who come in close contact with a team member who has tested positive for COVID-19 are immediately notified and asked to self-quarantine.” The statement went on, “We prioritize the safety and well-being of our people, and only invite our people to return to offices in cases where there is a critical need to do so, and only when we are comfortable that the right safety measures are in place, in compliance with local orders.”
Workers remain concerned. “I’ve got friends I care about who are literally putting their lives on the line because Facebook says this work can’t be done from home,” a Facebook moderator who works in the Austin office told The Intercept. “If the content is too graphic to be worked from home, [then] they need to do better not allowing it on their platform to begin with.”
Update: October 20, 2020, 12:38 p.m.
This story has been updated to include a statement from Facebook received after publication.
Update: October 20, 2020, 7:03 p.m.
This story has been updated to include a statement from Accenture made after publication.