Employer-Tied Health Care Is Also a Tech Accountability Issue

Can you afford to speak up if losing your job also means losing access to physical and mental health services?

Photo: Cavan Images/Getty Images

Last year, I blew the whistle on race and gender discrimination I experienced at Pinterest. My story and that of my former colleague Aerica Shimizu Banks has so far led to a shareholder lawsuit and a moment of reckoning for a company that for so long held itself up as the positive corner of the tech industry.

But what few people may realize is that if I had dependents, like a child or spouse, I might never have told this story — all because of the cost of health insurance.

Whenever I see a story of another tech worker pushed out of a job for exposing their employer’s egregious and often illegal behavior, I take a look at what day of the month it is and wonder what they’ll do about health care next month — in the midst of a pandemic, no less.

Since leaving Pinterest in May 2020, I have paid $884 a month for COBRA ($895 as of January) to keep access to my therapist, the physical health services that I need, as well as insurance that could become necessary at any time in the event of an emergency, like the rare cancer that claimed my mother’s life before she turned 50. At a time when I was considering the career costs of speaking up against a multibillion-dollar corporation, I had to literally calculate whether I could pay to advocate for myself and still cover my physical and mental health needs. That calculus has and will continue to keep many people working within the industry silent when their potential disclosures on worker abuses and violations against consumers are in the public interest.

“Tech accountability” is currently a popular call — whether it be from government, civil society, media, or inside the industry itself — but what does it mean if related efforts are not centered on the rights and protections of those workers within the tech industry? Real reform will only come from the combined efforts of workers, external advocates, and regulators. For workers to be able to disclose information that can be used to demand and ensure accountability, there must be a basic level of safety in place, and there’s nothing more basic than access to physical and mental health care.

For the past few months, I have been working with Omidyar Network on identifying the most impactful ways to support tech whistleblowers and, in turn, support the tech accountability ecosystem. There have been a few positive developments in the past five years, as a number of tech companies dropped their forced arbitration provisions in employment contracts following employee-led pressure, and organizations like Coworker have focused on providing direct support to those looking to improve their companies and the industry. On February 8, California Senator Connie Leyva introduced the Silenced No More Act, legislation that would allow victims of any type of workplace harassment or discrimination to speak freely about their experiences even after signing a nondisclosure agreements (NDA). I’m proud to be part of the team working toward passage of the act and look forward to fighting for similar protections for workers across the country.

You pay with your body as much as you pay with your career as a whistleblower.

Still, every single conversation I’ve had with those who have gone through the excruciating process of whistleblowing, as well as with those who have supported whistleblowers for years, has included a discussion about the ways tech companies have used access to health care as a threat and a tool to silence those with serious concerns. “How the hell am I going to pay for my health insurance next month?” is a particularly gutting question during a pandemic.

We have seen the undue power these unbelievably large companies use against outspoken workers in instances like the Google firings of the Thanksgiving Four (four employees terminated before Thanksgiving for organizing to stop unethical behavior, including a contract with the Department of Defense) and Dr. Timnit Gebru (an ethical artificial intelligence researcher recently retaliated against for raising concerns about diversity and equity issues); Aerica Shimizu Banks and me at Pinterest; and through the experiences of countless content moderators and fulfillment center, culinary, security, and cleaning staff every single day. When you consider the fact that most tech workers are not even full-time employees and are predominantly low-paid Black and Brown contractors, the financial and health costs of speaking up are that much more dire. You pay with your body as much as you pay with your career as a whistleblower.

What we ultimately need is for Congress to step up and disentangle physical and mental health care access from employment. Until then, the organizations, foundations, and individuals who claim to champion tech accountability must find ways to come together and provide direct support to whistleblowers within the tech industry — at all employment levels — who have lost their access to physical and mental health care resources after being pushed out from their roles.

When individuals expose themselves to retaliation, doxing, and harassment from the legal teams of big tech companies in order to share information that benefits all of us, we must make sure that access to their therapist and primary care doctor is not one more thing they have to give up. Nine hundred dollars a month should not stand in the way of us holding companies that affect every area of our lives accountable.

Founder and Principal of Earthseed | First Draft News Board | ex Pinterest, Facebook, Google | Yale

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