by Lana Polansky
UPDATE 3/23/20: Since the publication of this piece, RankandFile.ca has learned that Keywords has suspended penalties for permanent QA testers. We have also learned that after our piece was widely circulated, Keywords has responded by speeding up “social distancing” measures in their offices, which has resulted in project cancellation for a number of vulnerable workers. We are working on a followup piece to track Keywords’ response to both public pressure and the province’s recent provincial shutdown of all non-essential services, which they have already stated in previous announcements would likely result in temporary layoffs.
Game workers employed at Keywords Studio, the largest Quality Assurance studio in Montreal, say they are pressured to work on-site through the COVID-19 pandemic while senior staff and management are allowed to work from home.
As public health officials recommend self-isolation and social distancing to limit the spread of COVID-19, digital video game sales are seeing a sizeable boost.
That means game workers keep putting in hours to churn out entertainment products without interruption.. While many are telecommuting, others have no choice but to cram into offices and share equipment alongside others who may be sick, while shouldering the responsibility for “social distancing” practices without adequate health equipment and supplies.
Recently, I wrote about tax credits in Quebec subsidizing a revolving door of precarious minimum wage quality assurance (or “QA”) jobs. Now the conditions already faced by these workers are turning a bad job into a public health risk.
I worked at a studio later bought by Keywords where many of my friends work Quality Assurance (QA) jobs now. This includes my roommate, who is a newly-minted tester at another studio. Right now, he has no real choice but to keep going into work, putting himself, my partner and me at additional risk of contracting the virus despite the measures we have all taken to adhere to social distancing protocols.
So when I heard what was happening at Keywords, I reached out to workers to find out more.
Company memos indicate paltry sick leave
A functionality tester named Anne* provided me with a “Health and Safety Precautions” document from March 13 detailing the company’s official policy for workers affected by COVID-19. The document states that any worker who has traveled outside of Canada to certain “affected areas” is required to stay home for 14 days following the date of their return as per provincial regulations, and may work from home or be paid for those days if “your job doesn’t allow you to do so.”
The following bullet points get complicated: for workers who had already made travel plans and their departure date is latest the Monday after the release of the memo, they will still receive 14 paid days. If it’s the Tuesday or after, however, they will not—save if they happen to have paid personal days or days saved in their “Holiday Bank.”
Anne says “permanent” QA workers are granted five paid personal days compared to “non-permanent” workers, who only receive the provincially-mandated two, but are also on the hook for a weekly work quota of 40 hours, and so are generally less likely to use them for fear of being penalized for taking too much time off.
“If, for example, you got infected in Montreal, because there are confirmed cases in Montreal, and you take a couple of days off and you’re on a permanent contract, you can actually potentially be penalized for taking too much time off. It’s very unlikely, but it is something that is within the scope of what they can do based on how their contract is worded,” Anne explains.
“The office culture around taking days off is very restrictive and I’ve been working there for a year and a half or so, and my days off, plus my five guaranteed days from being permanent, still would only give me just barely two weeks off and then I’d have no time off for months.”
The vast majority of QA workers, who are non-permanent, have no extra sick days beyond the quarantine period outlined in the company memo, which they may only receive if they have visited certain affected countries and reported their travel and health status to the company before the cutoff date.
“If someone doesn’t have the sick days and can’t afford to not work for two weeks, they’re going to go in,” says Anne bluntly. “I can guarantee that there are going to be people who, simply because there’s a lack of compensation, cannot afford not to work for two weeks. I can’t afford not to work for two weeks. If I get sick I am pretty much screwed.”
Crunch time continues despite COVID-19
“Yesterday when I was in, it was a full floor of QA staff,” says John*, a level two functionality tester who also confirmed that the vast majority of workers are either coming in to work or telecommuting at their own expense. Bosses, project leads, managers and their clients get to work from home.
John has been compiling a record of all the official memos and statements put out by management justifying their policies. He shared this memo with me, as well as other memos reinforcing the responsibility placed on the workers for their own hygiene and health.
While Keywords has taken some steps to allow workers to stay home, workers believe they fall far short of what’s needed in order for all workers to be safe and to limit spread of the illness. They feel management has dragged their feet to implement these changes.
A number of documents spanning March 15 to March 19 describe the company’s “slowdown phases”—a consecutive series of policies regarding telecommuting and “social distancing” within the office. The first document lists the employees permitted to work from home, excluding functionality testers and linguistic testing employees, the largest pool of testers.
Another document, from March 17, justifies its refusal to shut down as a matter of the company’s sustainability, reading, “By shutting down, the Studio would simply not have any revenue stream coming, making paying salaries almost impossible.”
The same document notes that in the event of a forced shutdown, QA staff would be subject to “temporary layoffs” and eligible for Employment Insurance. The same document insists that it’s not taking on any new projects, while documents from March 18 and March 19 proudly celebrate the company meeting its own standards for social distancing protocols within the office.
John told me that as of Thursday, March 18, the office was still full of workers. He has also been working overtime because everyone on the main floor is working to meet the benchmarks for their biggest client.
“It’s money, I know it’s money. It has to be. It’s the only reason,” he says.” And the project is on crunch time because it’s going to release in a couple weeks.”
Then why not allow testers to work from home? Chat logs show that a major part of the rationale for the policy is because workers are under strict Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA), and management simply doesn’t trust them not to “leak” potentially compromising information about their clients’ projects.
“That’s why a lot of us can’t work from home, it’s because we’re a liability to the company.”
He also provided me with a screenshot of a chat between a lead and several workers, in which the lead writes, “Right now you are liable. That liability needs to be waived for you to work from home.”
In another chat window, a worker laments, “The company only cares about the bottom line and not their workers.”
Anne says it is ridiculous that the company NDA and “info-security” are being used as excuses to preclude testers from working from home, despite there being an established history of telecommuting at Keywords.
“There’s really no reason why anything needs to be confined to a physical location other than like, them maybe being afraid that we would steal a phone,” she says, “Which, I mean, sure, but it’s pretty obvious if someone is like, ‘Hey, I don’t know what happened to the phone that you gave me.’ You know what it’s on them.”
“Almost everyone I’ve talked to has pretty much said unanimously, we should be working from home or we should be compensated for the quarantine,” she adds.
Sanitation materials not supplied
John also explains that testers are not being given adequate cleaning supplies. They’re being made to work dangerously close to one another, and are sharing equipment with one another out of necessity.
“We still share devices. By devices I mean like, phones. A lot of us work in mobile. The only thing we have is wipes and they’re telling us to be diligent with them. The VR headsets are definitely being shared. The only thing they’re saying is to wipe them down before they use them, but that’s it,” he tells me. In a screenshot of a chat log, one worker asks if anyone has “an IOS they [sic] arent using.”
The Health and Safety Precautions memo outlines the specific personal hygiene expectations that Keywords places on its workers, including “Wash your hands frequently” and “Clean all your devices at the beginning and end of your shift”.
Nowhere in the document does Keywords actually commit to providing anything like masks, gloves, additional wipes or even hand sanitizer. In multiple screenshots of chat logs on the topic of hand sanitizer, frustrated workers argue with a lead about the lack of supplies provided by the company despite their demands for personal cleanliness.
“So there’s lie number one – adding more hand sanitizers.” says one worker, to which the lead responds, “It’s being installed.”
Another worker recalls that sanitizer dispensers were “physically removed” with the exception of two on the floor, which were empty. The lead, who appears to be an intermediary between management and the workers, reveals later that part of the issue with the lack of sanitizer and wipes is that despite placing orders weeks in advance, medical facilities have priority.
“If they can’t do what they’ve set out to do, why are they talking like they’ve done it?” responds one worker.
Anne separately confirmed all of the concerns brought up in these logs, saying hand sanitizer pumps are often empty and sanitation wipes are running low. Despite the lack of resources, the company says it is the employees’ responsibility to make sure equipment is clean.
“One guy in our team publicly said that he had a throat infection. Wasn’t sent home. He’s working all week,” John says. “Management has put out a notice saying they’re not going to do anything until there’s a case in our building, on our staff. That’s not really something they should be waiting for, there’s so many of us.”
“A lot of people have been talking about like, if anyone gets sick, the whole floor is going to get sick,” Anne adds.
“The testers are seated in such close proximity that, as much as they tell us to wipe down our devices, the doorknobs are not being sanitized, the chairs, desks, phones, controllers—it’s nice to tell people it’s being sanitized. People will forget. And at this point it’s essentially set up so that if you forget and you get sick, well it’s your fault for forgetting.”
John goes into further detail, saying that the cleaning staff—who are themselves contracted out from a third party company—are themselves not being given adequate safety supplies, many of whom are coughing.
“I just see them wearing t-shirts, so I don’t see much being done to keep them safe which is probably why a lot of them are sick. Not a lot of them are wearing gloves either. They don’t wear masks. I kind of feel bad for them, I know they’re not getting paid enough.”
What has Keywords management given workers during this difficult time?
“They did fix the urinals that have been broken for a month or so now. So that’s it.” says John.
That and free coffee for the next two weeks, according to a memo dated March 17.
Building worker solidarity across sectors
The story of labour during the outbreak has focused primarily on essential front-line workers such as food service employees, delivery drivers, healthcare workers, sanitation workers, and grocery store staff. Without question, this crisis has revealed how vital so-called “unskilled” labour actually is, despite being consistently underpaid and undervalued. There has also been much discussion about the cruelty of mass layoffs of “non-essential” workers, as more and more businesses shut down and no longer want to incur the cost of retaining staff.
All of this is worthy of our attention, but so are the thousands of invisible, “non-essential” and also purportedly “unskilled” workers whose labour continues at their own personal risk while the companies they work for capitalize on a sudden, massive surge in sales.
This is true for QA workers as well as other minimum wage workers in the games industry, like GameStop employees angered to learn that the company has opted to keep stores open (excluding those in California) because it has deemed them “essential.”
It’s true for the cleaning staff on contract at Keywords, for McDonald’s employees whose bosses are lobbying to prevent a bill requiring sick leave, and for the servers at Tim Hortons who up until recently, according to a PressProgress report, were required to provide a doctor’s note in order to obtain unpaid sick leave.
When asked if there was possible solidarity to be built with other workers being put in similar situations—whether essential or not—they both agreed emphatically and without hesitation.
“This is definitely going to create an opportunity for solidarity and mutual aid in kind of the same way as the ’98 ice storm where a lot of people kind of just came together because they realized that there was nothing else to lean on but the community,” says Anne.
“I’m sure if we all got together and we got to have this conversation with them, we’d be able to have some kind of agreement and maybe fight back a little bit, and maybe have something done, I hope,” says John.
John also reports that he has communicated with fellow testers at the facility in Japan and says the company is providing them with far more safety measures than he and his coworkers Montreal.
“It just feels like they care more about them than us,” he says.