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Google Maps workers say they can’t afford to return to the office

May 24, 2022, 11:20 AM UTC

Unable to afford the daily commute, lower-paid contractors for Alphabet’s Google Maps business are revolting against a compulsory return to office work in Seattle.

According to a report in The New York Times, roughly 60% of the more than 200 employees at outsource firm Cognizant have signed a petition refusing to comply with a requirement to be in the office all five working days from June 6. As of that date, they will no longer have access to work systems from home. 

“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,” they wrote, referring to a city in the Seattle metropolitan area where Cognizant has an office.

Since the employees work for Cognizant, rather than Google directly, they cannot take advantage of the tech giant’s three-day workweek policy and are petitioning for the same flexibility.

The workers play an essential role updating routes and destinations on Google Maps, a service used by more than 1 billion people a month, according to the paper.

Their demands are being supported by Alphabet Workers Union, which has more than 900 members employed by Google’s parent company, Alphabet, and its suppliers, the Times wrote.

The open revolt highlights industry’s rampant use of independent contractors that do not enjoy many of the benefits of full-time staff despite working on similar projects, creating a kind of two-tiered labor force. 

Alphabet is estimated to have well over 100,000 temporary, vendor, and contract workers assigned to Google projects that officially work for other companies, according to the paper.

By comparison, employers like San Francisco–based Salesforce are willing to give top talent the choice to work from virtually anywhere so long as they are in the same time zone as many of their colleagues.

Cost-of-living crisis

In statements sent to the Times, Google said it gave third-party firms in Washington state 90 days’ notice for workers to return to the office, leaving it up to these contractors to decide how to execute. Cognizant said its decisions depended on the needs of its clients.

Google and Cognizant did not immediately reply to Fortune’s request for comment.

Tyler Brown, a Google Maps operator, estimated his commute from Olympia some 73 miles away would cost him 28% of his wages.

“I’m getting paid $19 an hour,” he told the paper, adding he would quit if the plan goes ahead. “It doesn’t make sense for me.”

With the economy slowly emerging from the pandemic, consumers in the United States as well as the rest of the world are facing some of the highest rates of inflation seen in decades. The primary driver for this cost-of-living crisis has been fossil fuels like gasoline, natural gas, and heating oil. 

Soaring prices have been spurred mainly by unprecedented levels of central bank stimulus that increased the supply of money at a time when events like the Ukraine war have shrank the amount of available goods that can be purchased.

Countries like Germany have responded in part though planned temporary reductions in fuel levies, while others like the U.K. debate imposing windfall taxes on the profits of energy companies. 

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