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Waymo workers complain about cuts to benefits and needles in self-driving cars

Workers have raised concerns about recent changes at the self-driving car company

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At first, when Waymo told the workers at its Chandler, Arizona facility last year that they would be vendors instead of contractors, the workers were thrilled. 

As contractors, the workers — including the drivers who sit behind the wheel of the company’s autonomous cars — had been required by labor law to take a six-month break every two years and then reapply for their jobs. As vendors, they wouldn’t have to take the break and reapply for jobs they already did.

“We were all happy about this idea of not losing our jobs in two years,” one worker at the facility said. Another person recalled being told they “would be treated more as ‘equals’ to the full-time Waymo employees.”

“We were all happy about this idea of not losing our jobs in two years”

But that transition wasn’t all good news, according to six Waymo workers who spoke to The Verge on condition of anonymity. As a result of the shake-up, their vacation time was substantially cut, from 25 unpaid days to five paid and five unpaid. “I get so few days off now that it is practically impossible to plan any vacations,” one worker said. (The workers received five more unpaid days starting on January 1st, after complaints.)

The health insurance, meanwhile, which some workers had already privately complained about, did not improve, the workers said. One described the health plan as “literally the worst benefits I have ever had in my life for a full-time job.” (A Waymo spokesperson said the company provides competitive benefits and that the health plan did, in fact, improve after the transition.)

Waymo spun out of Google in 2016, and is now a full subsidiary, like Google, of the parent company Alphabet. The company’s all-white, sensor-laden Chrysler Pacifica minivans have been a ubiquitous sight for over three years in Chandler and other suburban Phoenix communities, where the company serves about 1,000 active customers in an Uber-like ride-hailing service. Its 60,000-square-foot facility in Chandler is where its robot taxis go to be fueled, cleaned, and tuned up, while safety drivers take breaks between shifts. The company recently announced it has racked up 20 million miles of autonomous driving on public roads. Waymo is widely considered to be the global leader in self-driving technology. 

Alphabet relies on an army of so-called “TVCs”

To run the program, like its many other projects, Google parent company Alphabet relies on an army of so-called “TVCs” — short for temps, vendors, and contractors — which are estimated to make up more than half of Alphabet’s workforce. 

As part of last year’s transition changing workers’ status from contractors to vendors, Waymo started work with a French transit company called Transdev. The deal provides test-driving as a service, eliminating the required break period while putting more legal distance between Waymo and its safety drivers, according to Bloomberg. Transdev did not respond to requests for comment.

Under Transdev, the self-driving project is set to expand rapidly. Waymo is also building an even larger facility in neighboring Mesa, in anticipation of expanding its commercial operations in Arizona. Once it opens, the company expects to add hundreds more workers to its ranks of employees and contractors.

But the workers who spoke to The Verge also raised additional concerns about workplace safety.

Those problems include drivers being forced to deal with occasionally unruly customers, as any taxi service might expect. “I have had riders yell at me, argue with me, and some invade my personal space,” one worker said. But the issues have expanded to what those customers leave behind. The workers said hypodermic needles have been found in the cars, and they were dissatisfied with how the potentially hazardous material had been handled. 

“I know a lot of the times they’re just told to pick it up and clean it out and go on with their day when, you know, that’s a needle,” one worker said.

“I have had riders yell at me, argue with me, and some invade my personal space”

A spokesperson for Waymo said in a statement they were only aware of a few incidents where needles were found in cars and that supervisors had been trained for those situations. Waymo said it was unaware of any instances where untrained workers were asked to handle needles, and the spokesperson suggested the needles may have contained a harmless substance like insulin, rather than illegal drugs. 

At the end of 2018, The Arizona Republic reported the company’s cars had been involved in at least 21 police incidents in about two years. People have thrown rocks at the cars, slashed their tires, and even put operators’ safety in jeopardy. 

Many of the incidents documented in the Republic’s article seemed to stem from animosity toward the project in general. Chandler police said in an incident report that one man had intentionally tried to run Waymo vehicles off the road. “There are other places they can test,” the man told The New York Times recently. The police wrote in another incident report that a man “was sick and tired of the Waymo vehicles driving in his neighborhood, and apparently thought the best idea to resolve this was to stand in front of one of these vehicles.”

Operators rely on an in-vehicle button that connects them with Waymo. Otherwise, they’re meant to try to stay invisible, keeping the process as close to a fully driverless ride as possible, the workers say. But some workers wondered whether that was sufficient for the most dangerous situations.  

In one previously reported example from 2018, a man brandished a gun at a Waymo vehicle operator. The man was arrested after the incident, but for some people within the facility, it raised questions about proper safety protocols. “If somebody’s pointing a gun at your face and you’re driving the Waymo car, what should you do?” one worker wondered. (Waymo said that, in addition to the in-car button, workers are empowered to call emergency services when necessary.)

While Waymo maintains that it offers highly detailed training and information for several scenarios, not all workers remember hearing that information, either. “I don’t remember ever receiving a handbook,” one of the workers said.

“We’re committed to working with our partners to ensure the safety of our entire community, including vehicle operators and riders and we’re proud to partner with Transdev, a global provider of mobility services, to recruit, employ, train, and manage vehicle operators, and provide them with competitive compensation, health and vacation benefits, 401k options, and long-term employment and growth opportunities,” a Waymo spokesperson said in a statement. 

“We’re committed to working with our partners to ensure the safety of our entire community”

As The Verge was reporting this story, workers received a “reminder” message that they should reach out to the Waymo dispatch team if they feel unsafe, and call 911 “if it is a life threatening emergency,” according to a copy of the message provided to The Verge.

Mostly, the workers said they were aware that, while they may work alongside Waymo employees, their positions were much more precarious. “There would be no Waymo without any of these people,” one worker said, “but somehow we have become a second class with the gap growing wider.”

The complaints have grown to the point that some workers have been discussing organizing. ”We have had to whisper the word ‘union’ to get them to perk their ears and finally take the drivers seriously,” one worker said. 

Some of the workers said, while they’d been excited about the self-driving car project in the past, they’ve felt more and more estranged from the full-timers at Waymo. “It’s consistently agreed upon that a lot of it is not how it used to be,” according to one of the workers.

“Now we don’t really need to talk to them,” another said, “and there seems to be this sort of feeling that we can’t talk to them.”

Updated February 5, 2020, 1:29PM ET: Waymo’s facility in Chandler is 60,000-square feet. A previous version of this story had that number incorrect.