New York, NY – The last straw for Google subcontractor Shannon Wait came with a disagreement over a water bottle cap. The seemingly trivial episode, however, would soon give way to rising tensions about labor issues, a suspension — and a labor injunction against the contractor.
“I was contracted to work at Google, but not for Google,” the Level 1 data technician says. “The company I was employed by directly was Modis Engineering.”
According to Wait, Modis Engineering suspended her with little notice on Jan. 28, after she contacted a full-time Google employee one day prior about finding a replacement for a lost water bottle cap on Facebook, and then venting her frustrations about the staffing company.
“I went to a meeting and they said they were concerned I violated the [Non-Disclosure Agreement],” says Wait. “What I talked about was how I lost a water bottle cap, and I thought I was doing the right thing by asking another Google employee who was in charge of disbursing PPE (personal protective equipment), if he could replace it.”
Wait didn’t realize that Modis Engineering considered her request for a water bottle cap from a Google employee a problem and didn’t think much about it at the time.
“[Modis] said, ‘This is a one-time issuance,'” says Wait. “I left it alone. That same day, I received an email from Modis that we cannot ask Googlers for things like that [and] we are not to go to Google for anything.”
Wait had no problem with buying another water bottle. She made her request because she worked at a data center in South Carolina after returning to the company in April, during the height of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The workplace was consistently hot, hence Wait’s appeal for a replacement water cap. To her, management’s email to the subcontractors came across as tone-deaf.
Wait initially worked at Modis Engineering from February 2019 to December 2019. She left to work at a bakery while getting her Master’s degree. COVID-19 cost her the bakery job, so she decided to return to the staffing company.
“The tone was so disrespectful that not only myself but a lot of people [at Modis] were upset at that point,” says Wait. “I know it’s just a water bottle. I can get another one. It just sent the message that a $1 trillion company is deciding that they do not want to replace a water bottle on the off-chance an employee loses one.”
Modis accused Wait of being a security risk for making a post on Facebook. Still, according to the technician, her contract only stipulated that she could not release proprietary information about Google on her social media platforms. Nevertheless, she was suspended.
“I was to leave the site and hand over my badge,” says Wait.
Wait believes the real reason for her suspension from Modis Engineering is that she is an open member of the Alphabet Workers Union. She added her union status in her Google email signature shortly after the mass company email. She also wrote an email to her colleagues after the incident about why they too should join the AWU.
Wait wrote posts about the company increasing its workload, but the wages remaining stagnate. Her posts were also about the company’s habit of waiting the day before a contract was over to inform workers about contract renewals and encouraging her colleagues to be open about wages so they can get better compensation.
“They took that however they wanted to, and decided I can no longer stay on site,” says Wait. “I was depressed about the whole situation. I wondered if I made a mistake or did the right thing by speaking out in support of workers getting more fair treatment. Venting on Facebook might have been a little immature, but it feels like, at some point, you are pushed to the limit.”
For Wait, her irritation with the Modis had to do with a lot more than just a water bottle. There was also the issue of having to work for $15 an hour (previously, $10 and hour before Fight For $15 campaign) doing the same work as someone at Google who makes anywhere from $100,000 to $200,000, while also being treated as expendable on a biweekly basis.
“Shannon Wait’s experience highlights an all too common trend where management makes false claims about workers’ legal rights as a silencing tactic,” said Don Trementozzi, the president of CWA Local 1400.
Any doubts Wait may have had about speaking out, left when the AWU stepped in with a legal team and offered support when she needed it most.
“They asked if I needed help with my bills,” Wait says. “I didn’t have to go searching [for help]. They came to me.”
On February 4, the National Labor Relations Board filed a labor injunction against Modis Engineering, Google, and its parent company Alphabet Inc. for denying Wait the right to inquire about wages.
LaborPress reached out to both companies for comment, but has not gotten a response.
Modis Engineering, meanwhile, concluded an investigation into Wait, which determined that she did not violate her NDA. She accepted an invitation to fulfill the rest of her contract and leave the company in good standing, receiving back pay on Feb. 12. The injunction, however, is still going forward, according to the technician.
Once her contract is up, Wait intends to finish her Master’s degree in History and hopes to qualify for a Ph.D. program.
“The union is going to change this culture at the data centers,” says Wait. “I want to emphasize that being a part of the union is so important if anyone feels like going through the [Human Resources] department hasn’t worked out for them.”