The Remote Work Pay Cut Class War

In yet another sign that even the most futuristic companies can’t find their asses from their earholes, Google (as well as Twitter and Facebook) are planning to cut pay to those working remotely, lowering salaries based on how far from the office you live. Reuters reported that one employee, working from a county outside of Seattle, would see a 10% pay cut if they chose to work remotely, and someone would get a cut as high as 25% if they lived in Lake Tahoe. Specifically, those who choose to work remotely but live near the office wouldn’t see a pay cut, despite not going into the office.

It all feels so arbitrary - Google justifies it as based on some sort of algorithm involving census bureau information, but somehow the company that literally indexes the entire Internet can’t come up with a calculator or matrix that spits out the answer “we should just pay people the same amount.”

The entire reason that companies pay different amounts based on people living in different places is because of the flimsy justification that the cost of living was lower, and thus pay would “match the local rates.” This may make sense for a local business selling to locals, but it doesn’t make sense if someone is doing work on the computer - and it definitely doesn’t make sense when you’re deciding to pay someone less money to do exactly the same work. Yet the largest and richest companies in the world are nakedly punishing those who want to work from home, and sending a message to those who might join later - if you don’t come to the office, you’re worth less to us.

It’s a frustrating, depressing, yet unsurprising turn of events. Companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter are incredibly influential, and their approach to remote work is going to be what other companies copy. They are deliberately creating a class system within their companies, both in the division of who is and who is not in the office and who makes the most money, and one has to wonder if elder Googler Urs Hölzle will take a 25%+ pay cut now that he lives in New Zealand. While it’s obvious that these companies are attempting to save money, it’s also a transparent attempt to create division among the ranks - to make those who want to work remotely suffer, and give people who stay in the office more money for basically no reason.

This all neatly lines up with the “most Americans would take a pay cut to work remotely” narrative. People would take less pay to work remotely, but companies are fully capable of simply not reducing their pay. They’re doing it because they’re allowed to - like it or not, large tech companies are illustrative of what most companies will decide to do with remote workers, and now companies will simply point to Google and Facebook when asked why they’re paying you less. It’s insufferable, because one can make the compelling argument that a remote worker is worth more to you - if they can do the same amount of work at home that they could in the office, that’s one less desk you need, one less person needing to commute in, one less parking spot, one less thing you’re physically responsible for.

It’s a cataclysmically stupid approach to the situation, especially from companies that have profited heavily from remote work. My own business has run almost entirely on Google Docs and Gmail for nearly a decade, and yet the company that makes the software would consider my business less valuable because I don’t share the same oxygen with my people. And had Google been daring enough to pay people the same amount regardless of their location, they’d be considered a trailblazer and likely attract more talented people.

The big reason may also be that they’re terrified of not being able to take advantage of cheap labor, both home and abroad. If you pay people working remotely the same amount of money as they’d make in the Bay, you likely can’t justify the lower salaries you likely pay in Detroit, or Chapel Hill, or Pittsburgh. Apple is currently embroiled in an internal saga over pay inequality, where they’ve been shutting down attempts to survey and calculate pay across the company. While this is also likely due to their worries around underpaying women and underrepresented minorities, it’s also, I’m sure, going to make it clear how much fewer people make based on their location, and based on who at the company judges them “worthy.”

The entire “cost of living” argument around geography is laughable, mostly because it doesn’t seem to go both ways. If I move to a bigger house, I doubt a company is going to pay me more despite my costs of living going up. Another kid? Nope. Nicer car? Nope. Not the company’s problem. Yet doing the same job in the same way but occupying a different space is now the necessary justification they needed to cut my pay, ironically based on a faceless and formless HR department.

One might ask why these companies don’t try and do things simply, and the answer may be an obvious one - that to go fully remote would cause them to have to fix far too many things at once. When you remove the physical office, you’re removing the unsaid power structure of the company - you come to us, we have you for this time, and we pay you to both work for us and be with us. This line of thinking leads to the kind of geographic, race, and class-based judgments that inform pay inequity, and removing the office makes reinforcing biased hegemony that bit more difficult. If you remove the office, you have to start paying people based on their actual job rather than their access to transport, and by paying them less for working remotely, you are admitting that you were never just paying them for their ability to do work.

All of this is an attempt to reinforce control. It is not about flexible work environments, or “maintaining office culture,” or a “hybrid office,” it’s about making people come back to the office because it’s easier to control people and make them work longer when they’re in your place of work.

Sadly, it’s also a way to make sure you hire a certain kind of person - the kind that can afford to live and commute to your office, who look the right way and sound the right way to fit into your “culture.”