Google employees frustrated after office Covid outbreaks, some call to modify vaccine policy

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Google employees are receiving regular notifications from management of Covid-19 infections, causing some to question the company’s return-to-office mandates.

The employees, who spoke with CNBC on the condition of anonymity, said since they have been asked to return to offices, infections notifications pop up in their email inboxes regularly. Employees are reacting with frustration and memes.

The company began requiring most employees to return to physical offices at least three days a week in April. Since then, staffers have pushed back on the mandate after they worked efficiently for so long at home while the company enjoyed some of its fastest revenue growth in 15 years. Google has offered full-time employees the option to request permanent remote work, but it’s unclear how many workers have been approved.

Google’s Covid-19 outbreak in Los Angeles is currently the largest of any employer in LA., according to the city’s public health dashboard. Deadline.com first reported that the tech giant’s trendy Silicon Beach campus in Venice, Calif., recorded 145 infections while 135 cases were recorded at the company’s large Playa Vista campus.

A spokesperson for Google told CNBC, “There has not been a significant increase of onsite COVID-19 transmission on our campuses. The numbers that have been reported in Playa Vista and Venice reflect total cases over the last few months, not current or active cases.” 

Staffers have been filling Memegen, an internal company image-sharing site, with memes about the increased number of exposure notifications they’re receiving. One meme, which was upvoted 2,840 times, showed a photo of an inbox with the email subject from a San Francisco-based facilities manager stating “We’re so excited to see you back in the office!” and a subsequent email subject line stating “Notification of Confirmed COVID-19 Case.”

Another meme with hundreds of upvotes said “How it started” with an image of a rainbow arch followed by “How it’s going” and a wall of text saying “Notification of confirmed Covid-19 case.” Another featured an illustration of a happy Pokemon touring a Bay Area campus next to another photo of a worried Pokemon after getting a Covid-19 notification followed by an alarmed Pokemon with 29 exposure notifications. Another meme shows a picture of Star Wars character Rey, whose caption says “I didn’t know there was this much ‘Notification of Confirmed COVID-19 Cases’ in the whole galaxy.”

Some employees said they received a spike in notifications from the Mountain View, Calif. headquarters and in San Francisco offices after the company held a return-to-office celebration, where Grammy award-winning artist Lizzo performed for thousands of employees at the Shoreline Amphitheater, near Google’s main campus.

The spokesperson for Google also noted that the company follows methodology laid out by state and local laws in determining the definition of a Covid outbreak, and when to send exposure emails.

Unvaccinated employees fight to get back in the office

Last December, Google told employees that they must comply with vaccine policies or they’d face losing pay and then losing their job. Then in February, ahead of asking employees to come back, it relaxed rules around vaccines being a requirement for employment, as well as other rules around testing, social distancing and masks.

But it continued to require Covid-19 vaccination to enter physical offices.  

Now, some Google employees are asking the company to drop the vaccine mandate, arguing Covid-19 outbreaks keep happening anyway in the offices where employees are fully vaccinated. While it still provides a level of protection, the vaccines aren’t as strong against the highly transmissible BA.5 variant, the fastest-spreading variant of Covid-19 to date, the group argues in a manifesto called “No Vaccine Mandate,” which was posted this month and viewed by CNBC. (The vaccines are still providing good protection against severe disease and death, including with the BA.5 variant, but are not providing substantial protection against infection or mild illness.)

The anonymous manifesto says the group, which calls itself Googlers for No Vaccine Mandate, is frustrated that non-vaccinated employees and those who decline to declare their vaccination status are still banned from offices and other gatherings including off-sites, summits and team events. It also claims that some Google employees still haven’t met their teams since March 2020 and some were never notified of the vaccination policy during their hiring process.

“We’ve seen waves of Covid-particularly since December 2021 with Omicron and its sub variants spread through Google offices with little regard for vaccination status. We’ve seen many fully vaccinated and boosted colleagues call out sick for multiple days with Covid. We’ve seen both panics and good natured responses to the flood of exposure notifications received by officegoers.”

Other companies that once mandated Covid vaccination requirements have since dropped them, including  Boeing, Intel, and United Airlines, citing a federal court’s decision to prohibit enforcement of the federal contractor executive order that required vaccination of large employers that are also government contractors. The group’s manifesto says it is hoping Google leadership does the same thing.

The group is largely anonymous, although some members’ identities are known to CNBC. It claims to include hundreds of employees with tenures of up to 10 years, in roles such as engineering, program management, UX design, education, sales, marketing and finance. It also includes Googlers who are fully vaccinated and “believe the company’s vaccine policy is an invasion of privacy and is insensitive to individual circumstances and risk factors.”

“We’re writing to ask for your help for a group of Googlers who still aren’t allowed back to our offices,” the memo states. “We are reaching out to you as colleagues and peers because our direct appeals to Google leadership have been ignored. When planning an in-person meeting, summit or offsite, think about how Googlers who are barred from full participation by the vaccine policy can be acknowledged and included.”

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