April 2, 2019

Daphne: Moderating Facebook At Barely Minimum Wage

This story comes from Daphne, a contingent worker at Facebook. Their name and a few details have been changed to protect their privacy.

My name is Daphne and I’m a contingent worker for Facebook through Accenture Flex. I work in content moderation in Austin, Texas. I’ve been a CW for Facebook in Austin for over 3 years, and started the content mod role a few months ago. I was a social worker before going into the tech industry and thus into the contingent worker life; social work was my first taste of working a thankless job. Both positions I’ve held with Accenture for Facebook are the same level and the same pay, so I still go unthanked.

I love Austin! I’ve lived here for a decade. I moved here to go to UT, and stayed on after graduating with a BS. I think the best part about living in Austin is how fun the city is! There’s always something to do, whether you want to be inside, outside, active, lazy, whatever. It’s also not a huge city yet so it’s not overwhelming - except for traffic. But knowing the job market here, it worries me that I’ll have to leave if I’m not able to get out of contract work soon.

I know that some contract companies limit how long you can work for them for the same client; luckily, Accenture doesn’t have a policy like that because they have a never-ending contract with Facebook. When I first started, though, they said this was a “contract to hire” situation: we'd be converted to Facebook full-time employees after a year, so they didn’t want us to be in contract positions for too terribly long. But as I have been here for over 3 years, that’s not the case.

I first started in the Ad Review department. I was told by my manager to never talk to a full-time employee of Facebook (FTE) unless they spoke to me first. That department was pretty self-sustaining so not being able to talk to FTEs didn’t affect my ability to do my job, but it was pretty demoralizing to be treated like a child. We did have FTE points of contact, but only our team lead and SMEs were able to meet with them regularly. they had weekly meetings that regular representatives weren’t invited to or allowed to go to. This attitude felt weird and gaslighty: we were told they wanted us to become FTEs, but it seemed impossible to do so without knowing existing FTEs, and we were forbidden from getting to know them.

My move to content moderation from ad review was a difficult and deeply personal choice. I know content moderation has been in the spotlight lately, but Ad Review is way more fucked up. The way it is run is a total shit show. First of all, as reps, we were sub-contracted - not even Accenture full time employees. This meant that we got the bare minimum legally-allowable health insurance: expensive premium, sky-high deductible, so I spent a lot of money on something I could barely ever use. There were very few other benefits, and certainly no raises or bonuses or anything. Getting a promotion was the only way to become Accenture full time and gain actual benefits. The biggest issue I had being sub-contracted was that the three times I had HR issues, nobody ever dealt with them because the employment was so convoluted. In my time there, I had 3 HR complaints go unmonitored that were hindering my career growth. Promotions depended on you belonging to the clique that management formed: if you aren’t drinking with them, partying with them, going to the gym with them, you don’t stand a chance. After dealing with that for more than 2 years, I'd had enough. I applied to a ton of jobs just trying to get out of my toxic environment, and the only offer I got was for content mod. I accepted it, hoping that being Accenture full time and on a different project would make a difference in how miserable I was going to work every day.

Since moving into content moderation, honestly, not much has changed. It’s still mostly run by Accenture. There is little accountability to Facebook. I’m being intentionally vague here so as not to traumatize you, but my team sees a lot of graphic content across every violation type; medical situations, graphic violence, porn, and child porn. All day, most days, I’m looking at graphic content from the time I clock in until I leave, except for breaks.

Speaking of breaks, I’d like to clear some things up surrounding our “wellness breaks.” There has been conflicting information floating around our internal communication tools, as well as in other articles that have been published here, here, and here. In my experience in content mod, we’re told in training that the expectation is 45 minutes of wellness time per week, which works out to less than 10 minutes per day. The expectation is that if you see something disturbing, you can take a few minutes to step away, clear your mind, and get back to work. Then several months ago, they changed it - now some teams get 2 hours of wellness breaks a day, some get 1 hour, and some are still held to that 45 minutes a week. It all depends on who you ask or who your team lead is, and theoretically on the level of graphic content in your queue. I wish I could say that we can take extra wellness time if we need it, but it is completely inconsistent as it depends on your team lead.

We also have wellness coaches on site, which is a great resource. However, there are only four of them for over a thousand of us. Across all shifts. That's 1 wellness coach for every 250 content mods, who otherwise get only a few minutes away from traumatic content each workday. I don't think most humans talk to 250 people in one day. The four wellness coaches are amazing people and great at what they do, but at the end of the day there aren’t enough of them to help all of us one on one when we most need it. Many of us feel like we have to protect the wellness coaches’ time because we know they’re a limited resource, so we don’t reach out to them when we probably should. But wellness breaks and coaches are the only two things we have to help us deal with the content we see, and in my opinion, it’s simply not enough.

Speaking from my personal experience, I kind of think I’m a fucked up person. I know that sounds dramatic, but part of me thinks there’s something broken inside my brain, because I don’t feel affected by the horrific things I see every day. I don’t feel that looking at graphic content all day every day is causing me to lose my sanity - and that feeling in itself worries me. According to our wellness coaches, feelings about the content could creep up on us at any time, and I worry about that - what if I start having dreams about graphic violence? What if next time I’m at the doctor I start thinking about the graphic medical images I’ve seen at work? What if seeing graphic sexual content affects my own sex life? I’m not equipped to handle any of those scenarios myself, and outside of seeing a wellness coach at work, finding time in their incredibly busy schedule, I’m not sure what else I could do that I could afford in terms of both my money and my time.

Because of our collective mental health problems - or maybe it’s unrelated, I’m not a doctor - I feel like there is a lot of pressure within content mod to drink or use illicit substances. Maybe that’s a product of the tech industry in general or of living in a progressive city, but it worries me that I could again fall into a trap where I can’t get ahead in my career unless I start drinking with my coworkers and with management.

If I could have my way, I’d make content moderators Facebook full-time employees. I’m not sure how that would look; I assume that Facebook needs certain skills in its workers that perhaps not all of us have, but the company has so many varied roles and different kinds of people doing them. Even having access to some of the development courses Facebook offers its own FTEs would be amazing, and maybe that would help us to get hired. If becoming an FTE isn’t possible, I’d like to see strong oversight of the Facebook/Accenture contract and enforcement of some basic human rights for us. Though they may claim otherwise, Accenture does not abide by the same standards for its workers that Facebook does, and it is very apparent day-to-day in our offices when no reporters or Facebook bigshots are visiting. It is extremely disheartening to be in the same building with FTEs and see how they are treated, and then constantly being put in “our place” in the workforce. I still count myself lucky because I’m in a Facebook building: it’s so much worse for the multitudes of contingent workers in temporary spaces. “Temporary” spaces, as though we're not worth giving permanency.

Most importantly, though, I’d like to get a real pay raise. I’ve made the same $16.50/hr for the entire three years I’ve worked for the company; no raises, no cost of living increases, nothing. My rent is $300 higher now than it was when I started with Accenture over three years ago, and it’s still below “market rent” for my area. At this rate, there’s no way I’d be able to afford to rent a place on my own, much less buy a house or start a family someday. In fact, my roommate is moving when our lease is up, and I’m already stressing about what I’ll do when that time comes as I can’t afford to live by myself. On top of everything I see and experience at work, this is the last thing I need. Even if I were to get a promotion, it would only be a $1.60/hr raise, which would help a little but not solve any of my problems.

I know it’s hard for us to be hopeful, but there’s strength in numbers. I know that I’m not the only one in my office or in the company who feels this way. Hopefully over time we will be able to create the change that we want, sooner or later. You, the reader, should take a minute and think about how messed up all of this is. I am one person among tens of thousands, across the United States and the world. We keep Internet safe and clean for you and your children. We live in pain and are not afforded dignity. Please, take a stand for us, with us. We're workers, and we're here for workers.