Work/Life

As Tech Employees Party, Contract Workers Get Left Out

Holiday party invitations show which workers are valued by the company — and which aren’t.
Compared with other full-time employee benefits, a holiday party invite may seem a small matter, but it’s a difficult-to-avoid, public indication of contractors’ second-class status.
Compared with other full-time employee benefits, a holiday party invite may seem a small matter, but it’s a difficult-to-avoid, public indication of contractors’ second-class status.

The office holiday party is where employees gather to celebrate the past year and look forward to the next. It can be a time to gossip and bond with colleagues and bring home stories and swag. And at major tech companies that are notorious for both their lavish holiday parties and widespread use of contract employees, it’s yet one more perk those employees don’t get to share.

Compared with common full-time employee benefits like high-quality health insurance, paid family leave and retirement-plan employer contributions, a party invite may seem a small matter, but it’s a difficult-to-avoid annual indication of contractors’ second-class status. And it unfolds publicly.

In many cases, tech contractors work at the same buildings, work on the same projects and eat the same food as full-time employees, without getting the same perks and benefits. One Apple contractor said that he did not even know about the company’s holiday party this year until after it took place. Jaime, a former Google contractor who asked that we not use her last name, said that contractors were not invited to the holiday party during her time at the company. She said the event, which took place in multiple rooms and multiple floors of a rented space, is one of the flashiest perks Google offers. Contractors could attend only if they were a direct employee’s guest.

Asking and waiting for a willing and able employee to extend an invitation could make a contractor feel “like a charity case,” said Jaime, who was unable to score an invite.

Two Google contractors, who declined to be identified out of fear of jeopardizing their employment, said the party policy for contractors continues. Google’s 2018 holiday parties in California’s Bay Area took place at San Francisco City Hall, the Contemporary Jewish Museum, the Palace of Fine Arts, the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum and the Galleria at the San Francisco Design Center, among other locations, according to people who attended.

“You are doing work for this company on site full time, and it feels kind of arbitrary and kind of cruel.”

- Jaime, former Google contractor

“Once we were there, it was fine,” said a Google contractor who works on site and scored a plus-one. “But the whole getting of the ticket felt far more burdensome than it needed to be. It felt desperate [to ask].”

The purgatory of contract work

Contract workers outnumbered employees for the first time at Google last year, according to a Bloomberg report in July. One current Google contractor with access to the figures estimated that there are roughly 97,400 full-time employees and 97,300 contractors worldwide at Google’s parent company, Alphabet, not counting workers in facilities, food service, security, transportation, travel and certain wellness services.

Such contracting is not a temporary annoyance; it can be a second-tier citizenship that can last for years. And members of this shadow workforce are growing increasingly disgruntled about their treatment, demanding better wages and access to all-staff communications, among other things.

“For most [temps, vendors and contractors] here, it’s not like we’re a temp filling in for the week at the front desk. It feels like a regular job,” one Google contractor said. But then there are everyday reminders ― like not getting invited to a company party ― that remind contractors theirs is not like a regular job with career development opportunities.

“It’s natural to feel like you have a foot in the door as a contractor, but TVCs are not seen as a pipeline to employment at Google,” said a Google contractor.

Yana Calou is the director of training and engagement at nonprofit Coworker.org, which supports employees working toward improving employment conditions. Calou speaks with employees and contractors at Google, Apple, Facebook and others and said that employees may be discouraged from interacting with contractors.

At Google, for example, there are strict guidelines for how employees should treat contractors, The Guardian reported. Contractors may not get simple perks like company T-shirts. They may not be invited to team off-site events or all-hands meetings. And they must wear different-colored badges identifying them as contractors.

Nicole Sanchez, the CEO of Vaya Consulting, which works with companies on inclusion, outlined the hierarchal system that technology workers can get sorted into: At the top are salaried employees with full benefits, then professional-level contractors, then the service workers.

“There are so many indications inside a company culture of where you stand in this caste system, and they are reinforced by things like the color of your badge, where you get to park, where you get to eat, and the holiday party is one of those things,” Sanchez said.

Lilly Irani, a Google user experience designer from 2003 to 2007, said that even a decade ago, “the contractor system created a hierarchical system where contractors were promised inclusion among the full-timers in exchange for taking depressed wages, strainingly competitive work circumstances and strict disciplinary structures. Full-time Google workers like me at the time were usually unaware of this tiered system unless we were friends with people on the other side.”

“I think that really limits the kind of interactions you have and the kind of friendships that you would make where you would even be in a position where someone would ask, ‘Do you want to be my plus-one?’” Calou said. “I think there is a fear instilled on the side of employees that they might be putting themselves or that contractor at risk by engaging like they would another colleague.”

Google declined to comment on whether contractors are invited to holiday parties. A Google spokesperson said, “Temps, vendors and contractors are an important part of our extended workforce, but they are employed by other companies, not Google.” Facebook and Apple — two other companies that reportedly rely on a large shadow workforce of contractors for their products — did not respond to questions about their holiday party policies.

Each of these companies appeared on a 2019 Glassdoor list of the best places to work, based on reviews from all employee types.

The party invite signals who is valued and who is not

The social humiliation of getting excluded is less about going to the swanky office holiday party itself than what that invitation symbolizes: appreciation at the end of the year for employees’ hard work. “It is a social activity that is an indication of your enfranchisement as a full member of that community,” Sanchez said.

“They don’t want the contractors to feel like employees. They don’t want them to be motivated to feel like they could have the same benefits as the regular employees.”

- Veena Dubal, associate professor of law, University of California, Hastings

Regular exclusion from meetings and off-site events fosters resentment and a sense of division for many contractors. Jaime called her experience as a contractor “morale crushing.”

“You feel like there is this thing you should have access to. You are doing work for this company on site full time, and it feels kind of arbitrary and kind of cruel in its execution,” Jaime said. “I wish they would see that they have the same responsibility to their vendors and contractors that they do to their full-time employees.”

The everyday slights and indignities that contractors experience can add up. “Your company, should you decide not to include your contractors, is clearly indicating to your workforce who we value and who we don’t,” Sanchez said.

That demoralizing message could be delivered by design. Some legal experts suggest the rule may be borne of an extreme fear of misclassifying contractors as employees.

Generally, employers and contractors in the United States are distinguished by the amount of control and direction an employer exerts over the worker. In 2000, Microsoft found this out the hard way and had to pay $97 million in a settlement with the company’s permatemps, who often worked more than two years at the company, doing work similar to employees’ without getting the same benefits.

If Google was found to be a joint employer of its contractors, then the company could be held liable for them as employees. Silicon Valley companies may be trying to avoid this expensive obligation. Bob See, a former Google engineering recruiter, said as much in a 2015 Quora post. “Contractors indeed aren’t invited to company ski trips, the company holiday party, and other such company-funded social events ... to avoid co-employment misclassification that can have severe, negative legal, tax, and other financial implications on the company,“ he wrote.

Terri Gerstein, a fellow in the Harvard Law School Labor and Worklife Program, suggested that contractor exclusion from holiday parties may happen because these companies are “extra cautious to take every opportunity to differentiate between employees and people working for contractors or staffing agencies.“

For Veena Dubal, an associate professor of law at the University of California, Hastings, the reasons for exclusion could be more strategic.

“More than a legal fear is a fear of collective action,” she said. “They don’t want the contractors to feel like employees. They don’t want them to be motivated to feel like they could have the same benefits as the regular employees.”

Knowing one’s place applies to employees too.

“They do not want employees to form relationships with contractors,” Dubal said, noting that those “bonds that could lead to a large-scale mobilization.”

The lasting division of not being invited

Contractors are working not just at technology giants. One 2018 NPR/Marist poll estimated that 1 in 5 Americans holds a job as a contractor. As employers increasingly outsource labor to cheaper contractors, temporary contractors working in purgatory arrangements are becoming a permanent part of work life. They could be working at your office too, as they are at mine. A spokesperson for Verizon Media Services, HuffPost’s parent company, said in an email that only direct employees are invited to the company’s holiday party, “but they are each allowed a guest (so a contingent worker could attend as a guest if so invited).”

If employers do not give workers with similar roles the same perks and benefits, workforces can reflect the same inequalities of haves and have-nots seen outside the office, Sanchez said.

“I still do not understand why this is so hard for people to recognize that, as much as we all complain how we are divided as a country, leaders are doing the same damn thing inside their companies and then wring their hands and go, ‘Why are we so divided?’ This is how people become divided,” she said.