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.
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 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.