Ed Stackhouse is a search quality rater for Google, a job that involves training, testing and evaluating search engine algorithms, which bring in a significant chunk of the tech company’s annual revenue of more than $250 billion. But raters like Stackhouse receive no benefits, and currently make an hourly pay rate below California’s minimum wage.
Stackhouse is part of a largely invisible workforce of raters who are employed by third party companies to do this critical job for Google, the most used search engine in the world.
“There’s an artificial intelligence that spits out a set of results for Google, and the majority of our job is making sure that those results are meeting up with the expectation of the user,” Stackhouse, who has worked as a Google rater for nearly a decade, said in an interview.
Stackhouse and fellow raters from across the country flew into the Bay Area to deliver a petition on Feb. 1 to Prabhakar Raghavan, Google’s senior vice president, demanding that the company offer its third party search engine raters the same minimum wage and benefits that it promises its extended workforce in the United States.
According to Google, those benefits include earning a wage of at least $15 an hour, benefits eligibility, health care and paid sick leave – things that Stackhouse and other raters don’t currently receive.
Stackhouse said that because raters work remotely and are scattered throughout the country, its been challenging to connect with one another.
The power that they (Google) have is the fact that we dont know each other, Stackhouse said. Were finally getting a chance to learn who our coworkers are. But for the longest time, weve been basically kept in the dark as to who were working with.
Stackhouse and other raters managed to find each other and joined the Alphabet Workers Union, an organization of more than 1,100 employees and contract workers who work for Alphabet, Google’s parent company. About three dozen full time Google employees and union members showed up in solidarity with the rater’s Feb. 1 event and petition delivery at Google’s Mountain View headquarters.
The union action comes on the heels of a massive wave of layoffs within the company, with Google planning to cut more than 1,400 employees in Mountain View, according to SiliconValley.com, which cited filings Google sent to the state.
Michelle Curtis, a rater who spoke at the event, said that she originally received better pay and the flexibility to work up to 40 hours a week when she first started the job. But in the years since, “our job has changed a great deal,” she said.
“In 2017, we lost the ability to work full time, and our hours were capped at 26 hours a week,” Curtis said. “At that same time, workers at the company were asked to take a pay cut to continue on.”
The work itself has also grown harder, with workers asked to do more tasks in the same amount of time, Curtis said.
Despite the low pay and poor benefits, raters said they stick with the job because they need the flexibility it offers, often for reasons out of their control.
“We have the skills, but we need the flexibility of the job,” Stackhouse said. “For me, I have diastolic heart failure. I have an IT background, but I’ve had to scale back considerably as far as the ability to do work outside of the home.”
Many other raters are stay at home parents, Stackhouse said, and others have disabilities which prevent them from working outside the home.
“Our working from home in no way devalues the contributions that we make to Alphabet,” Curtis said as she addressed the crowd.
Google raters came from as far as North Carolina and Oklahoma to deliver their petition in person on Feb. 1, which was signed by more than 600 Google raters from across the country.
“We’re here today to demand that Google end this two-tiered system, a system that exploits a hidden workforce of its lowest paid workers who have a key role in developing its highest source of revenue,” Curtis said. “We demand that Alphabet include raters in their standard minimums and meet with workers to ensure we receive our fair share.”
Alphabet Workers Union members, including both raters and full time employees, attempted to deliver the petition together. Raters said they were asked to leave the building by security while full time employees dropped the petition off at Senior Vice President Raghavan’s door.
Megan Abell, director of advocacy at Tech Equity Collaborative, said at the Feb. 1 action that Google employs more contract workers than direct hires, with about 102,000 direct employees and 121,000 contract workers, which include raters. Tech Equity Collaborative research found that contracted tech workers are often locked out of the prosperity that direct hires have access to, Abell said, including pay, benefits and health care.
Alex Brown, a Mountain View resident and Alphabet Workers Union member, was among the few dozen full time Google employees who showed up in solidarity with the raters’ action.
“As a full time employee, I think that all workers are part of this, and everyone deserves to have fair treatment,” Brown said. “We don’t need a tiered system where some people are ineligible for support. There is no lesser work.”