Facebook moderators employed by third-party contracting firm Accenture and based in Austin, Texas are being forced to return to the office on October 12th, The Verge has learned.
Employees, almost all of whom are contractors, were instructed of the new policy at a company-wide town hall meeting today, say multiple people familiar with Accenture’s plans. Accenture, which has allowed its workforce of hundreds of moderators to work from home since March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, has not given the employees a reason for why they must return to the office. Accenture did not take questions at the town hall meeting, telling concerned employees that it would schedule a second call to answer COVID-specific questions regarding matters like sick leave and time off. High-risk workers are being asked to make alternate arrangements, and will not have to come in.
Facebook has an estimated 15,000 paid contractors almost entirely employed by third-party firms, and therefore not eligible for many of the same benefits as corporate employees. These contractors often spend their days looking at graphic videos, hate speech, and other disturbing material posted to the social network in large volumes on a daily basis. Some Facebook moderators, including those employed by Accenture, have developed post-traumatic stress disorders, and Facebook in May settled with current and former moderators for $52 million in a ruling that concluded the job had severe negative mental health effects.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic, however, tech employees and a large swath of those companies’ contract workforces have shifted to remote work. Some platform owners, including Facebook and YouTube, say this shift has hindered their moderation work because of privacy issues that involve employees working in the office on protected machines that handle sensitive user data.
YouTube in March said it would rely more on artificial intelligence to fill the gap, but the company last month said its AI moderation failed to match the accuracy of humans after a huge swell in video removals and incorrect takedowns, and the company decided to bring back more human moderators to address the issue. Facebook has not openly talked about how its handled moderation during the pandemic, but one Accenture contractor confirms the firm has allowed its workforce to work from home since March.
Facebook did say at the onset of the pandemic that contract workers would receive full salaries even in the event they could not perform all of their required duties, but the company denied those contractors access to a $1,000 bonus it paid to all full-time corporate employees to purchase remote work equipment like office chairs and desks, according to TechCrunch.
One Accenture contractor tells The Verge the company will require everyone wear masks, and only four people at a time may use the elevators in the building. Accenture is also saying it will clean high-contact surfaces every two hours and will clean the entire office every 24 hours, as well as taking employee temperatures and enforcing socially distanced seating.
“However, there is no staggering of our return. The entire community ops teams in Austin and California will be returning all at once, and will be given no other options,” says one concerned Accenture contractor. “We [are] expected to keep our regular shifts, even though this will lead to everyone arriving at the office at the same time and creating a bottleneck. We were told in a separate town hall on Monday that they would be returning ‘only essential employees’ to the office ‘slowly,’ and their message today directly contradicts that.”
The employee tells The Verge there has been no mention of added sick time or changes in attendance policy, which they fear will mean employees come into work sick. “Many of us asked questions about this in the town hall question box through Microsoft teams, and our questions were ignored,” the employee says. “We’re being told we’re having to return because the ‘essential’ work we do must be done in an office setting.”
In a statement, a Facebook spokesperson said, “A lot of the work done by the Accenture Austin team involves work streams that can’t be done from home.” The company is currently under intense scrutiny to enforce policies banning incitements to violence and election misinformation — policies human moderators are much better at enforcing than algorithms.
In an internal letter, Accenture contractors asked for increased pay and benefits due to the risks associated with returning to the office during a pandemic. “Because much of our work is too sensitive to be done at home, there has been a recent push from management to return to working in the office,” they wrote. “Accenture has a responsibility to take care of employees that put themselves at risk.”
In a list of demands, the moderators asked for hourly wages to be increased by 50 percent, and for the company to cover all costs associated with the testing and treatment of COVID-19. They also asked for paid time off should they get sick with the virus.
According to another individual with knowledge of Accenture’s town hall meeting, a contract worker for the company contracted COVID-19 from the office just two weeks ago. “They are mandating that over 300 contract workers are to return to the office on October 12th,” the individual tells The Verge. “They were asked multiple times during this meeting what medical data they had used to confirm that this would be safe for their employees. They refused to answer. The majority of the employees are in extreme distress over this news and worried for their safety.”
Meanwhile, a vast majority of Facebook’s full-time corporate workforce now enjoys a permanent remote work policy, with employees not mandated to inform Facebook of where they’re going to be permanently working from until July of 2021. That’s when the company intends to fully reopen its headquarters in Menlo Park, California. An Accenture contractor says full-time Facebook employees in Austin are not being asked to return to the office.
Lawyers involved in Facebook’s settlement with content moderators earlier this year determined that as many as half of all Facebook moderators may develop mental health issues on the job. A competitor of Accenture central to the settlement was Cognizant, a similarly structured third-party contractor that decided to exit the moderation business last fall following two investigations from The Verge into the company’s working conditions.
“So no sick days, no hazard pay, no staggering of the return to the office, and only just a week and a half ago, Texas saw the largest spike in COVID cases since the pandemic began,” says one of the Accenture moderators. “They are confident that they can handle this rush of people back to the office because they’ve had a handful working from a different office voluntarily, so now they’re being cavalier with our lives.”
In a statement emailed to The Verge, Accenture wrote: “We are gradually returning people to client offices in cases where there is a critical business reason to do so. We prioritize the safety and well-being of our people, and only return people to offices when we are comfortable that the right measures and protocols are in place, properly evaluated for each country or local situation.”
Update October 1st, 6:22PM ET: Added a statement from Accenture.
Update October 1st, 6:54PM ET: Added a statement from Facebook.