Apr 9, 2020

Axios Login

I recently had the chance to sit down with the Technology Policy Institute for their Two Think Minimum podcast, discussing all manner of issues related to tech and the pandemic, and also appeared yesterday on Cheddar to discuss the recent story I did on domestic violence amid the outbreak.

Situational awareness:

  • Yelp is laying off 1,000 employees and furloughing another 1,100 as the coronavirus wreaks havoc on the small businesses that power its revenue engine.
  • TikTok is donating $250 million, plus offering $100 million in ad credits, to coronavirus relief for health care workers, local organizations, educators and small businesses.

Today's Login is 1,225 words, a 5-minute read.

1 big thing: Pandemic sparks tech workers' interest in unions

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Tech and gig economy workers are talking to unions about organizing as they worry the industry isn't doing enough to protect them from the coronavirus, Axios' Kyle Daly reports.

Why it matters: The crisis could breathe life into a tech labor movement that has had trouble gaining traction — though skyrocketing unemployment could also erode workers' leverage.

What's happening: Unions that have previously pushed for the tech and gig economy labor force to organize are seeing an uptick in engagement as the coronavirus' spread puts people like e-commerce fulfillment workers, ride-share drivers and gig shoppers on the front lines of a deadly pandemic.

The Teamsters have been fielding calls from both full-time tech company employees and contractors, said Rome Aloise, head of the union's Northern California chapter.

  • Callers in both categories have voiced concerns about personal safety and job security and have asked about labor rights, Aloise said.
  • The union already represents some shuttle drivers for tech companies like Facebook, Apple and Google and has an open call for other people employed by the tech industry to join.

The Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) has seen "an increase in inquiries from non-union workers over the last couple of weeks who want advice about their options for delivering safety and economic demands to their employers," said Cindy Schu, director of organizing.

  • The uptick is not specific to the tech industry and has been strongest in the nonprofit sector, she noted.
  • Kickstarter employees voted to join OPEIU in February.

The Communications Workers of America recently heard from a group of tech company contractors that successfully pushed to work from home as the pandemic escalated, according to a transcript of an organizing call obtained by Axios.

  • The union, which predominantly serves the media and telecom industries, launched an initiative in January dubbed CODE-CWA aimed at unionizing the workforce at video game companies and other tech firms. The employees of app developer Glitch joined CWA last month.

The big picture: Tech workers fall into several categories that form an almost caste-like employment system:

  • Full-time employees at big companies and startups usually have generous salaries and benefits and stock options.
  • Bigger firms also rely on armies of contractors — some skilled and high-paid, others not — who don't get the same benefits.
  • Over the past decade, tech companies have also organized a new gig economy of ride-share drivers, food deliverers, and similar providers, and their employment status has become a legal battleground.

The other side: Unions have long sought entree into Silicon Valley. Tech has successfully kept them out by arguing that unions hamper the flexibility needed to thrive in a fast-changing industry — and by lavishing valuable perks on employees.

Context: The fresh organizing push comes amid high-profile coronavirus-centric clashes between workers and tech companies.

  • Amazon last week fired Chris Smalls, a Staten Island warehouse worker who led a walkout.
  • Some Instacart shoppers recently went on strike to demand protective equipment, hazard pay and expanded paid sick leave policies. Instacart met some of the demands, including giving face masks, hand sanitizer and thermometers to its shoppers.

Yes, but: An unprecedented spike in U.S. unemployment claims thanks to the pandemic could dilute workers' bargaining power. But labor activists say they're not seeing that impact yet.

  • "Our labor is valued right now," Vanessa Bain, who leads the Gig Workers Collective group behind the Instacart strike, told Axios. "We've known how essential our labor is for a long time, but there's always been this culture of, if workers are unhappy, just find another job. We're not hearing that now."

Go deeper: The new labor movement inspired by the coronavirus

2. Coronavirus drives startup layoffs

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

As the coronavirus continues to paralyze much of American daily life, startups that aren’t directly affected by the sudden shift in consumer behavior are now laying off employees too, worried that their products and services won't be in demand anytime soon.

Why it matters: Startups create a lot of jobs — in 2015 alone they created 2.5 million — and their pain could make a recovery from the virus downturn harder, Axios' Kia Kokalitcheva reports.

Driving the news: More young companies are announcing cutbacks, including buzzy retailers like luggage maker Away, and software plays like restaurant service provider Toast, which in February announced $400 million in new funding. Others making cuts as the economic ripples pick up include:

Between the lines: Restaurants, stores, hotels and airlines were among the businesses to immediately suffer as a result of the pandemic. Now, we're seeing companies whose revenue relies on such businesses feel the pain.

  • If people aren't booking flights for vacations or work trips, they don't need to buy luggage.
  • If restaurants are shuttering or scaling back operations to offer takeout only, they're not spending money on software and tools.
  • With most workers no longer reporting to offices right now, their employers aren't ordering catered lunches or other office-related services.

Moreover, some startups are taking precautionary cuts as the fog over the economy makes it hard to predict the future.

  • Others, like direct-to-consumer lingerie-maker ThirdLove and beverage company Iris Nova, are trimming staff as consumers decrease their spending or shift it elsewhere.

The big picture: Similar dynamics are playing out beyond startup land. News companies — especially local newspapers — are cutting staff as local businesses stop purchasing ads. Travel agencies are taking a hit, as are ticketing and event businesses.

Go deeper: The coronavirus dip is worse than anything startups predicted

3. Senate looks at data use in pandemic

The Senate Commerce Committee will examine how companies and the government are using consumer data in response to the coronavirus pandemic through a so-called paper hearing Thursday, Axios' Margaret Harding McGill reports.

The big picture: Lawmakers' efforts to pass a bipartisan federal privacy law have stalled, but expect privacy considerations to be a key driver in questions about data use.

"The collection of consumer location data to track the coronavirus, although well intentioned and possibly necessary at this time, further underscores the need for uniform, national privacy legislation."
— Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker, in his opening statement

What's happening: The committee will post testimony on Thursday from witnesses, including Kinsa Smart Thermometers CEO Inder Singh; Stacey Gray, senior counsel for the Future of Privacy Forum; and Dave Grimaldi, Interactive Advertising Bureau's executive vice president for public policy.

  • Lawmakers will have until 6pm ET to submit questions to the witnesses, who will then respond within 96 business hours.
4. Zoom taps Alex Stamos to help with security

Alex Stamos. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images

Zoom, which is under fire over a number of security issues, is turning to former Facebook security executive Alex Stamos, who will serve as an adviser.

Why it matters: The moves come as companies and government entities have started to ban the video chat service citing security concerns.

Driving the news:

  • The German foreign ministry and Google said Wednesday they were clamping down on use of Zoom, following moves by Taiwan, the New York City's Department of Education and others.
  • Schools in Berkeley, California, also opted to stop online Zoom classes after a naked "zoombomber" showed up inside a lesson.

Zoom, which has seen a surge in usage amid pandemic-related closures, has paused product development to focus on security and repeatedly apologized for various lapses.

Go deeper: Zoom's tarnished moment of glory

5. Take Note

Trading Places

  • Mozilla named longtime board chair Mitchell Baker as CEO.
  • IT firm New Relic has hired 20-year Dell and EMC veteran Jay Snyder as executive vice president and chief customer officer.


6. After you Login

Credit to this person for making their Zoom Passover seder extra awesome.