In April, with travel halted worldwide and revenue plunging, the cofounders of Airbnb raised $2 billion in debt and equity financing. Two weeks later, I was laid off.
Anna Furman is a Los Angeles-based writer. She covers arts and culture stories for the New York Times, The Guardian, and other publications.
For 13 months, I worked full-time as a contract copywriter on a social impact initiative at Airbnb—and before that, for four months on a marketing project for the company. My office life resembled that of any full-time employee: I snacked on charcuterie boards and fresh ahi poke bowls, rejiggered my calendar to accommodate conflicting meetings, and cheered for employees on their work anniversaries (a peculiar Silicon Valley ritual that celebrates equity accruing).
Unlike full-time employees, contract workers aren’t entitled to Airbnb’s premium health care, generous 401(k), unlimited paid vacation time, transportation coverage, and stock options. I was employed by the temp agency Pro Unlimited, but my only contact with the agency was to file time sheets and to inquire about accrued sick-day hours.
On April 21, over a sterile one-way video call, a representative from Pro Unlimited read from what appeared to be a script to inform me and hundreds of others that our contracts would be cut short, effective the following week. In a blog post, Airbnb’s chief executive Brian Chesky claimed that the company would “optimize for 1:1 communication” regarding layoffs, a curious promise given that the ratio for communicating with contractors was more like 1:500. For a company that prides itself on cultivating human connection, Airbnb’s approach to laying off 534 contractors with its partner agency was remarkably callous. (In May, 300 additional contractors were laid off; employed by agencies like California-based catering company Bon Appétit, they filled food, facilities, and security roles.)
Two weeks later, the company laid off 1,900 employees. They received at least 14 weeks severance pay, four months of mental health support, and health insurance coverage for one year for US employees, in addition to receiving equity. Forbes lauded Chesky for giving “a master class in empathy and compassion,” and Business Insider praised the company’s approach to layoffs as “uniquely generous.” This glowing coverage failed to reckon with the full picture of layoffs, which includes an invisible workforce of contractors locked out from accessing those benefits.
After termination, I received one week’s pay, less than 7 percent of what laid off employees were offered. Contractors who opted into health insurance coverage from Pro Unlimited saw their plans immediately terminated. And of course, contractors don’t have stock options.
Like so many companies in Silicon Valley, Airbnb relies heavily on contract labor—for roles ranging from copywriters and photographers to food preparation, security, and janitorial staff. (Food service jobs at Airbnb’s offices in San Francisco and Portland, according to a 2018 Gizmodo report, are composed almost entirely of subcontractors.) In 2019, they worked with more than 30 agencies globally, according to Christopher Nulty, Airbnb's head of public policy. Across the industry, companies are increasingly working with third-party agencies to accelerate and simplify the hiring process, bringing large groups of workers on at once with less risk and often at a lower cost than full-time employees. At some tech companies, contract workers comprise more than 50 percent of the workforce. (Disclosure: WIRED employs long-term subcontractors for some roles.)
This glowing coverage failed to reckon with the full picture of layoffs, which includes an invisible workforce of contractors locked out from accessing those benefits.
This two-tier labor system allows companies to boast generous benefits on the one hand and to treat contractors as dispensable labor on the other. Though California’s new AB 5 law attempts to restrict companies’ use of contract labor, while its jurisdiction is being debated, many companies like Airbnb have continued to do business as usual; when laid off, contractors across Silicon Valley—at companies including Apple, Facebook, and Google—typically face unequal severance packages. This is especially troubling given that tech contractors are disproportionately people of color. (The law also applies to film production, news publishers, and cleaning companies, among other businesses.)
“Airbnb is a company that positions itself as a brand for the people, of the people—and then internally, people are treated like second-class citizens,” says a current employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It’s hypocritical.” More than a dozen former contract workers say Airbnb was their employer in everything but name and benefits. Airbnb, not Pro Unlimited, assigned me a specific manager, dictated my work schedule, determined my rate, and decided when to hire and fire me.
On an internal companywide webcast on April 16, Chesky said that the company would erect a “special fund” for laid-off contractors. Eleven days later, I received an email from cofounder Joe Gebbia that called this offer a “modest fund.” Did he mean … severance? Nearly a month later, the company announced a “relief fund” with a $3,000 cap per person. Laid off contractors needed to submit an application with itemized expenses (rent, child care, etc.) in order to be considered. The application process is so cumbersome that Airbnb created a lengthy “how to” document to guide applicants.
Adding insult to injury, after the layoffs the agency refused to pay out sick days that contractors earned but did not use. When approached for comment, Airbnb referred me back to Pro Unlimited. The company also initially excluded all contractors from the public-facing talent directory it created to help laid off workers find new jobs, even though many of the out-of-work contractors had been at Airbnb longer than the former employees. Chesky boasted on Twitter that as of May 7, the directory had gained traction with more than 250,000 people—many of whom, ostensibly, are recruiters. After mounting internal pressure, Airbnb finally added a second tab for contractors to the directory. “We came up with the idea for a Talent Directory after contracts for contingent workers were ended, and then worked quickly to make the directory available for them to join," says Nulty.
"They talked a lot about diversity and belonging, but we [contractors] weren’t even able to ask questions during the company’s weekly Q&A,” says a former contractor, who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity. “It was like we didn’t have a voice. We were never equal."
Miles Mattison spent five years contracting for the company, even managing other contractors beneath him and traveling to train other teams, but he says he was never offered a full-time role in the city he lived in. “Dividing the labor pool feels like an act of gatekeeping to a perceived inner circle of wealth and prosperity,” he says. “Being full-time comes to feel like this exclusive club.”
“It was easy to feel like [full-time employees],” former Airbnb contractor Amy Silverman wrote on Linkedin. “We worked the same hours and were equally invested in projects, often acting as project leads.” Silverman worked as a photo editor at Airbnb for one year before being laid off in April; more than half of her team members were contractors. "Finding out what full-time employees received after layoffs was a really hard pill to swallow. When you look at one week of severance versus 14 weeks and a year of insurance, it’s rough,” she says. “In the media coverage of the layoffs, contractors weren’t even seen. I didn’t understand why we weren’t being counted." (Silverman is a former employee of WIRED.)
In a tone-deaf blog post that reads oddly like a eulogy, Chesky writes: “One of the most important ways we can honor those who are leaving is for them to know that their contributions mattered, and that they will always be part of Airbnb’s story. I am confident their work will live on, just like this mission will live on.”
If Airbnb really wanted to honor laid off contractors, it could start by offering us equal severance.
WIRED Opinion publishes articles by outside contributors representing a wide range of viewpoints. Read more opinions here. Submit an op-ed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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