Google Maps Workers Say They Can’t Afford the Trip Back to the Office

Google Maps contract employees who are required to return to their office in Washington State recently circulated a petition to keep working from home since some cannot afford their commutes, presenting another challenge to Google’s plan to refill offices and restore campus life.

The issue affects more than 200 workers who are employed by the outsourcing firm Cognizant Technology Solutions, which mandated that they work in an office in Bothell five days a week starting on June 6. The workers play an essential role updating routes and destinations on Google Maps, a service used by more than one billion people a month.

About 60 percent of the 200 workers signed the petition. They demanded that managers suspend the return-to-office timeline and first address employees’ financial, health and child care concerns.

“Gas is around $5 per gallon currently, and many of us in the office are not able to afford to live close to the office due to our low salaries and the high cost of housing in Bothell,” the Cognizant employees wrote. The petition was supported by the Alphabet Workers Union, which has more than 900 members employed by Google’s parent company, Alphabet, and its suppliers.

Full-time Google employees with office jobs have been told to come in three days a week. In interviews, the Cognizant employees called for the same flexibility. Starting June 6, they will no longer have access to work systems from home.

The Return of Return-to-Office Plans

After the Omicron variant crushed companies’ hopes for a return to in-person work late last year, a new R.T.O. chapter now appears to be opening.

  • Conference Rooms: These once-boring spaces are getting a reboot, with more democratic designs and cozier spaces.
  • Separation Anxiety: As New Yorkers increasingly contemplate a return to the office, a day of reckoning has arrived — for them, and their beloved dogs.
  • Putting Off Retirement: Millions of older Americans who left the labor force early in the pandemic are back on the job, to the surprise of many economists.
  • Inflation Woes: As prices continue to go up, the cost of an R.T.O. routine — travel, coffee, food — is adding to workers’ concerns.

The policies highlight disparities between Google’s direct employees and contractors. Google is estimated to have well more than 100,000 temporary, vendor and contract workers who spend their time on Google projects but officially work for other companies. Google does not disclose the number.

Cognizant said in a statement that its return-to-office policy depended on the kind of work employees did and the needs of its clients. “The health and safety of our employees remains our top priority, and we require our employees to be vaccinated to return to our offices in the United States,” Jeff DeMarrais, Cognizant’s chief communications officer, wrote in an email.

Courtenay Mencini, a spokeswoman for Google, said in a statement that the health of its community, including contract workers, was a company priority. Google gave its suppliers in Washington State 90 days’ notice for workers to return to the office, and those suppliers decided how to execute that policy, she said.

Google has told full-time employees that they can return to its campuses in Mountain View, Calif., and elsewhere for only three days a week.Credit…Christie Hemm Klok for The New York Times

The contractors in Washington said most of them made between $16 and $28 an hour, far less than typical full-time Google employees. Cognizant managers denied their requests for gas cards or other financial offsets. They said they hadn’t been offered Google’s private bus services — a popular perk in Silicon Valley — to ease their commutes.

Tyler Brown, a maps operator who was hired during the pandemic, estimated that he would have to spend $280 of his $1,000 biweekly pay on gas to drive his 2006 Toyota Sienna to the office, 73 miles away from his home in Olympia, Wash.

“I’m getting paid $19 an hour,” Mr. Brown said. “It doesn’t make sense for me to continue to do” the job. He plans to quit if the return-to-office plan goes ahead.

William Houser, a geospatial data specialist, also said he was wary of a long, expensive commute. His 100-mile round trip each day from Puyallup, Wash., would take more than four hours total. He started the job in April 2021, 13 months after Google closed its offices.

The Cognizant employees expressed other concerns. They said managers had given them 40 days’ notice to work in person, not a promised 60-day minimum. That means less time to find child care or move. And they are afraid of contracting Covid-19 in the office.

That’s of particular concern to Shelby Hunter, a policy trainer who has had four lung operations. He said his bosses had told him that the return-to-office plan had no medical exemptions.

“I like knowing the work I do makes a difference,” Mr. Hunter said. “It just feels like I’ve been disrespected.”

Google, which expanded its office footprint throughout the coronavirus pandemic, has used perks like free electric scooters and a concert by the pop star Lizzo to entice 164,000 employees to return to campuses. The search giant approved 85 percent of employees’ requests to work remotely or transfer to a different location last year.

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