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Microsoft President Brad Smith speaking at the 2019 GeekWire Summit. (GeekWire Photo / Dan DeLong)

Seattle’s largest technology companies plan to pay their hourly workers normal wages even as their need for support staff diminishes due to telecommuting policies that employers are pushing to stem the spread of COVID-19.

Microsoft, Amazon, and Expedia said this week that they will continue to pay hourly vendors their regular compensation even though the companies have asked employees who can work from home to do so. Widespread telecommuting in the Seattle tech industry is in response to recommendations from public health officials seeking to stymie the novel coronavirus outbreak in the region.

The virus puts large technology companies in a tricky position and highlights equity issues in the innovation economy. It’s relatively easy for knowledge workers to work remotely while the servers, janitors, shuttle drivers, and other hourly workers that support the tech industry can’t. In a public health crisis, that makes it difficult for employers to offer the same levels of protection to all of their workers.

The situation is even more difficult for gig economy workers who do not qualify for the same benefits as traditional employees.

Microsoft was the first to announce it would continue paying hourly workers and charged its peers in the tech industry to do the same.

“We appreciate that what’s affordable for a large employer may not be affordable for a small business, but we believe that large employers who can afford to take this type of step should consider doing so,” said Microsoft President Brad Smith in a blog post published Thursday.

Amazon made a similar announcement Friday and said it will subsidize one month of rent for retail businesses that operate in the company’s buildings.

“We will continue to pay all hourly employees that support our campus in Seattle and Bellevue – from food service, to security guards to janitorial staff – during the time our employees are asked to work from home,” an Amazon spokesperson said.

Expedia followed suit a few hours later.

“Expedia Group has made the decision to continue to pay our hourly workers their normal wages during this time when their hours may be reduced,” said Mark Nagle, the company’s vice president of global real estate. “These teams provide indispensable services that make our campus a special place to work, and we value their contribution to our community.”

Facebook, Google, and Twitter made similar announcements.

Some large employers in the Seattle area are taking a different approach to the equity issue. Costco will not allow employees at its corporate offices to work remotely as “a matter of equity and fairness,” because retail workers can’t telecommute, The Seattle Times reports.

Though tech companies say the telecommuting policies are precautionary, a handful of tech workers have tested positive for COVID-19. Two Microsoft employees are in quarantine with the virus. Earlier this week, Amazon notified workers that an employee tested positive for COVID-19. A Facebook contractor in Seattle also contracted the virus.

The Washington Department of Health reported 79 cases of COVID-19 and 11 deaths associated with the virus as of Friday morning.

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