The secret and frustrating life of a Google contract worker
Kevin Kiprovski had a lofty title, “expeditions associate,” and a fun job — he got to demo Google virtual reality gear to young students. When visiting schools, he wore a gray T-shirt with a cartoon whale and a Google logo.
But sometimes the company’s reputation made things awkward. Once, a teacher confronted Kiprovski. “‘How do you feel walking in here, showing stuff, when you know you’re making so much more than all of us?’” he recalled the teacher asking.
“I had to tell her,” he said, “I only make $40,000 a year.” He left out another revealing detail: Kiprovski didn’t actually work for Google.
He worked for Vaco Nashville, one of several staffing and contract firms Google uses. Kiprovski resigned in October and sent a blistering internal email criticizing the disparities of Google’s two-tiered workforce. While Google’s use of contract labor has received more attention in the last year, the company continued to take steps that meant contractors “are left out of conversations that affect our lives,” Kiprovski wrote. His email traveled widely within Google, which is reeling from internal turmoil over labor issues and how much say its gigantic staff should have over the company’s direction.
More than half of Google’s workers are temporary, vendor or contract staff, known as TVCs. This shadow workforce misses out on many of the famous benefits and perks that have burnished the internet giant’s reputation as one of the world’s best places to work. Last year, a group of TVCs called for better benefits and in September, TVCs working as data analysts in Pittsburgh voted to unionize, a rarity for the tech industry.
When 20,000 Google employees walked out in protest a year ago, it birthed a new era of tech workers banding together to influence their companies’ actions.
Kiprovski’s resignation highlights a predicament many TVCs face: They hold jobs that require them to act as representatives of Google, but they don’t actually work for the company.
Kiprovski began as a Google TVC in early 2018, working on a team that expanded Google’s reach into schools. His early hopes for the job soon slipped away. Turnover in his division was high and the schedules were inflexible. His responsibilities grew, but his compensation didn’t. “I got promoted four times with barely any increase in pay or benefits or anything,” he said.
He felt handicapped in other ways. Google uses scores of internal documents to plan projects and store information. This summer, the company cut TVC access to these documents, citing security concerns. Google also blocked contractors from many online social groups within the company. The “TVC lockdown,” as staff named it, came without warning, Kiprovski said. Multiple employees at Google and its contracting firms confirmed these events.
A Google spokeswoman said that these decisions were part of standard customer data security measures and that temporary staff were notified of the change and still have access to the tools needed to perform their work. Google doesn’t have a policy for promoting TVCs because they don’t work for Google.
Thousands of TVCs work at Google in white-collar jobs behind the scenes — marketing products or screening YouTube videos, for example. Kiprovski, though, had a job — pitching Google services inside schools — that required representing the company to the outside world.
Other TVCs also have jobs that require they toe an awkward line of being the public face of Google while not being on Google’s direct payroll. At some company offices, contractors escort Google job candidates and new hires around campus, taking them to interviews and answering small-talk questions during walks. The job candidates would often ask, “What are your favorite perks of being a Googler?” said one person who had the escort job. The tour guide would then have to explain: He wasn’t actually a Googler.
The hidden nature of contractors’ real employment status sometimes approached absurd levels. Another TVC, who has worked on Google projects for a contract firm, described being assigned to go on a school visit in New York last year to pitch Google’s workforce tools, G Suite, to students. The contractor hosted a panel called “Lunch With a Googler” that addressed how to get a job at the search giant.
Kiprovski said his managers at Google often hinted that he should obfuscate the fact that he didn’t work for Google. After the virtual reality job, Kiprovski moved to promoting G Suite at universities. When one of his fellow TVCs asked management if the contractors should identify their employment status, there was a mixed response. “Honesty is the best policy” was the official line from Google and Vaco. “But they would add,” said Kiprovski, who overheard the exchange, “‘Why do you have to tell them anyway?’”
Another former Vaco-employed Google contractor with a similar role said the lines could be blurred in other ways. Vaco contractors worked in the same office and even on the same floor as full-time Googlers. When interacting with the public, the contractors were “never given a formal directive” about how to answer questions about their employment, the worker said.
“Usually I just say I work at Google,” the contractor said. “I try to be as honest as I can without potentially crossing the line of actually saying I do or do not work for Google because I don’t know which one they want us to do. … If they don’t want us to tell people, what does that say about the fact that we exist? Are they acknowledging it kind of looks bad?”
Vaco didn’t respond to a request for comment, but the company says on its website that its service helps workers find meaningful liberty in their work. “We help people find freedom,” it says. “Freedom from a soulless job. … Freedom to find clarity in chaos.”
Google said its policy is that temporary staff should say on social media and in email signatures that they work for a contract firm such as Vaco and can add “on behalf of Google” or “supporting Google.” The policy also says that TVCs should not speak on behalf of Google at external speaking engagements, the spokeswoman said.
For Kiprovski, the final straw was a change he saw in Google’s career ladder. While he worked at Google’s offices, several people at the company told him his role could lead to a permanent position at the technology giant. Kiprovski hoped that if he became a full-time employee, he and his partner could use Google’s generous coverage for surrogacy or adoption. “That’s actually one of the reasons I stayed so long,” he said. “I wanted to get a job at Google to help have a family.”
Then he read Eileen Naughton’s response to Congress. Naughton, Google’s human resources chief, wrote in August to a group of senators who had asked Google to bring its temporary workers in-house. Naughton touted Google’s recent move to improve wages and benefits for TVCs, but noted the company needed flexibility to hire staff for areas where it lacked specialization. “Being a temporary worker is not intended to be a path to employment at Google,” she wrote.
Kiprovski read that as a sure sign of a policy reversal. “Google is talking out of two sides of its mouth on this,” he said. A Google spokeswoman said this hiring policy has not changed. She added that the company requires contracting firms to provide “comprehensive healthcare,” but directed the question about Kiprovski to Vaco, which did not respond.
Kiprovski decided to resign and prepared to email co-workers — contract and full-time — to share his thoughts about unfair treatment of TVCs. He also made a small protest to the public: A few weeks before he left, he changed his email signature to no longer mention Google and instead to say “Vaco,” his real employer. “But I don’t think anyone read it,” he said.
Bergen and Huet write for Bloomberg.
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