Google raters at Leapforce settle legal complaints over abuse, wages owed
Meanwhile, Leapforce has suddenly been acquired by competitor Appen.
Leapforce’s work-at-home model was a lifesaver for people living in remote areas or housebound due to disabilities, and until earlier this year it was also a financial boon. By working thousands of 1- to 15-minute tasks each month via a special Google portal, many raters maintained a 40-hour workweek. But, as Ars Technica reported in April, there were problems. Raters would sometimes find themselves shut out of the system, unable to get work for days at a time. Evaluations of their work sometimes seemed arbitrary or capricious, and low scores on one evaluation could mean less access—and therefore fewer hours.
Compounding these problems was Leapforce’s peculiar management system, where none of the raters knew their managers’ names. Some managers would show up in the Leapforce internal chat system to offer guidance, but only under pseudonyms. Evaluations came from a generic admin email. If raters had questions or concerns about their work, they had to email this same admin account, and they often got no response for days.
Then Leapforce CEO Daren Jackson—known to most of his employees only as LFAdmin—abruptly announced that all hours would be capped at 26 per week. It was a blow. Hundreds of people depending on full-time work had just days to scramble to make up for the change. Jackson blamed the change on Google, the company’s main client. At least three raters who complained were fired. One, Kyle Madeiros, was fired specifically for discussing his employment conditions with Ars Technica.
Needless to say, things did not go well for Leapforce after that. Many raters left, and so did employees who worked in the company’s small office in Pleasanton, California. One rater who continued to work at the company told Ars that communication from their pseudonymous managers stopped completely: “We get almost no official communication, and the communication we do get is usually automated messages that tell us basic things we already know, is vaguely threatening, or is automated and incorrect.”
Ars also heard from an employee who worked in the Pleasanton offices. This employee spoke to Ars on condition of anonymity, and they described a company descending into chaos over the past six months. CEO Jackson was almost never there, and some employees were left wondering what their jobs were after several people quit. Leapforce only employed about 20 people in its office, with about 10 of them managing 6,500 raters online.
This employee admitted that the pseudonymous management system created an insulating barrier between people in the office and the raters. “When we let go of raters, to us it’s a matter of sending an email,” the employee said. “So there’s a separation where we’re divorced from their day to day. That happens after years.” The employee said they felt bad when the raters’ rates were cut, but there was nothing they could do. Plus, they were also paid “substantially lower than any company in the area.” People who worked in the office typically started at 40K per year, which is not market rate in the Bay Area tech industry.
“One of the things that Appen said was that they would bring salaries up to market rate,” the employee said, referring to the recent acquisition. “For some people, that should be substantially more than they would be making now.” Though this employee said they knew they weren’t dealing with the same magnitude of problems that the raters did, employees in Pleasanton were still not happy. “One thing that affected the morale of the office was how little we are actually paid,” the employee said.
Though it appears that everyone who worked for Leapforce dealt with problems, the raters bore the brunt of them. Several have filed complaints with employee rights groups about their treatment at Leapforce. Two, Kyle Medeiros and Kari Lehman, were both fired in the wake of the hour reductions in April. Both brought complaints to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), a federal agency that protects employee rights.
One of the interesting twists in this case is that most of the raters felt that they were jointly employed by Google and Leapforce. All the task work they did at Leapforce was for Google and was carried out on Google servers via a portal Jackson designed while still working at Google. In their complaints, Medeiros and Lehman named Leapforce and Google as joint employers, citing abusive conditions as well as retaliation (AKA firing) for speaking up about labor conditions. Both settled with Leapforce in the fall of this year, and they are not allowed to disclose the amounts due to the rules of their agreement.
Medeiros, who is studying computer science at Florida Polytechnic University, said, “this whole thing has turned me off to the idea of working for any major Silicon Valley tech company.” But, he added, he does take some hope from his experience with the NLRB. “If [employees] ever run into an issue, they should not hesitate to file a charge. It can happen to anyone, no matter how much you like the job or your employer. They need to understand how important it is to stand up to companies who do stuff like this.”
Speaking on background, a rep for Google said the company was not involved in the negotiation despite being named in the complaint. Leapforce’s Jackson would not return a request for comment.
It appears that the sale to Appen marks the ignominious end to a troubled company, but its legal troubles aren’t over. Another rater who had been fired, Rachel, went to Washington state’s Department of Labor and Industries, a state version of the NLRB. She was let go after being unable to complete some of the Google rater tasks in the few minutes allotted for each. In her complaint, she summed up in legal terms what many raters told Ars in conversations, which is that most people could not complete tasks in the “proper” time.
In essence, a lot of raters were working many hours without pay. And that’s exactly what Rachel argued in her complaint. Rachel started working with Labor and Industries investigators in July to determine whether the complaint was valid. She told Ars that it was easy to prove, because she used a browser plug-in custom-designed for raters called RaterAide, which tabulates how many minutes the rater works every day. Generally it’s used for billing, but in this case her hourly logs revealed how much time she couldn’t bill for.
Labor and Industries issued a citation to Leapforce in November, ordering the company to pay Rachel $7,456.26 in unpaid wages (this number includes a $1,000 penalty). So far the company has refused to pay, though the deadline for Leapforce to pay or file an appeal comes December 17. Now that Leapforce is part of Appen, however, the debt is still owed. If the company doesn’t pay, said Labor and Industries representative Matthew Erlich, the agency has a number of options. Via email, he explained:
Because the definition of “employer” in the Wage Payment Act includes: “…any individual, partnership, association, corporation, business trust, or any person or group of persons acting directly or indirectly in the interest of an employer in relation to an employee,” L&I has additional options. The agency can hold a person or group liable for wages, interest, and penalties. The agency has personally cited business owners, managers, and even corporate officers when they act directly or indirectly in the interest of the employer in relation to an employee – basically piercing the corporate veil.
Potentially that means Jackson himself could be on the hook for Rachel’s unpaid wages.
Speaking by phone from Washington, Rachel said the complaint process took a while, but it was worth it. “I went through a public agency to complain because I want to be able to tell everybody else here’s how you can make them squeal,” she said. “I want people to be able to see that it can be done and it doesn’t cost anything… it’s OK to come fight with us for something better. You shouldn’t lose your job for wanting better conditions.”