In many ways, Denise Belardes feels lucky to work at Google.
She has been working on and off as an early-childhood educator since the ’80s. Now an educator at one of Google’s four on-site child-care centers, she knows she is immensely “privileged” to have access to the resources and benefits her employer provides. When schools shut down in March 2020, for example, Google educators had all the tools they needed to go virtual.
But Belardes said she has also felt out of place and “less than” in the greater Google community.
“We just come from such a different situation,” Belardes said. “I don’t drive a Tesla. My car had a broken window.”
That feeling of not quite belonging has been even more prominent over the past month, after Google announced that its child-care centers would be reopening at the end of May, despite the company’s widely used transportation services still being unavailable because of safety concerns.
Those private transportation services were essential for at least 10 child-care employees, Belardes said, some of whom live up to 50 miles away from the Googleplex campus in Mountain View, Calif.
It also raised deeper questions for the educators and child-care workers, said Belardes, a member of the company’s Alphabet Workers Union: If it wasn’t safe to reopen transportation services, why was it safe to open the child-care centers?
“Am I just considered a perk, or am I considered a peer?” Belardes wondered.
On May 7, members of the Alphabet Workers Union circulated a petition addressed to some of the company’s top executives asking for a $1,500-a-month transportation stipend for the affected employees.
“When workers raised this issue, the corporate response was ‘Transportation is just a perk, not a benefit,’” the petition read. “Shifting this cost to essential workers, who earn far less than the Googlers whose children they care for, is unacceptable.”
“Google has saved $1 billion per year as a result of employees working from home,” it continued. “This is in large part because many of the benefits Google is famous for have been suspended during the pandemic.”
The petition now has nearly 600 signatures from across the company. Members of the Alphabet Workers Union say management has initiated conversations with the affected employees, but it’s still unclear what the plan will be.
In a statement, Google said their shuttle services will be available as soon as local guidelines and regulations allow and that the company is also working directly with educators impacted by the lack of shuttle service by identifying short-term transportation solutions, including carpools.
On-site child-care can be a highly coveted benefit for workers, and Google’s child-care centers are no exception. Listed as one of the company’s top employee perks by Business Insider, entry into the centers is decided by a lottery, educators said.
Work as a Google educator pays comparatively well for the child-care industry — many earn around $20 an hour — and the centers are well resourced. But employees typically make far less than other Google employees, and many can’t afford to live close to campus.
Camille Crittenden, executive director of the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society at the University of California at Berkeley, pointed out that Google and other tech companies have driven this lack of affordable housing in the Bay Area and its surrounding communities, profoundly reshaping neighborhoods.
Workers at these companies, especially those who earn lower wages, she added, end up being reliant on free shuttles and other transportation services.
Child-care benefits are also crucial to employees, Crittenden said, with on-site care providing further convenience and “peace of mind” to workers. Without fully taking into consideration the needs of these employees, the company is sending a concerning message.
“By requiring the workers to come in, but not making it actually logistically possible for some of them to come in, that really diminishes the company’s pledged commitment to equity concerns.”
Chelsea Price-Gallinat, an infant and toddler educator, said she and Belardes were first made aware of the transportation issue several weeks ago by their co-workers, who felt they were getting the “runaround” from Google when they tried to raise the issue themselves.
Price-Gallinat, also a member of the Alphabet Workers Union, said it seemed that the concerns of these workers, most of whom are women of color, “were not being listened to as readily or as seriously as White educators” at the company.
She said educators were further upset by a recent Bloomberg News article, in which Google highlighted that child-care staff “were paid in full during the pandemic” when the centers were closed, and received the same $1,000 work-from-home stipend other Google employees received.
Of course they were paid — Google’s educators were working full-time from home throughout the pandemic, Price-Gallinat said. They developed virtual programs for their students and organized resources Google parents around the world could use with their children. After George Floyd’s murder, Google’s educators developed anti-racist exercises parents could do with their kids.
“We were not on a welfare dole for the last 16 months,” Price-Gallinat said.
Google spokesperson Shannon Newberry said in an email: “We work hard to provide a rewarding and fulfilling experience for all our employees, including for our Google early childhood educators — and we’ve continued this while the Children’s Centers have been physically closed for the last year.”
“We’ve had positive conversations with educators who are excited about reopening and welcoming the kids back after a hard year for all. We will continue to work with any educators who have concerns as we start to reopen and return regular services.”
According to Google, the company’s child-care center will reopen in person on May 24 to a small group of employees who already work on site or who are considered essential workers. The centers have been open to some educators and leadership team members during the past two weeks to prepare classrooms. The centers are providing water and food to those employees, including prepared lunches and snacks.
But Price-Gallinat said that wasn’t the case for some educators, who reported not being able to get into the buildings and having no food or drink on hand.
“We’re just like the vanguard” when it comes to reopening, Price-Gallinat said.
Like Belardes, Price-Gallinat questioned whether the company truly values her and her fellow educators’ contributions. They still don’t have the transparency they would like about the reopening plans, and they would like to see the company respond with greater urgency to their concerns.
“Transportation is a perk, just like child-care is a perk. And who’s using that perk? Is that what is dictating [what’s] open?” Price-Gallinat asked. “It’s the wealthy White families who live close to campus that need the child-care. And it’s the BIPOC folks who live all spread out who need the transportation.”