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The widespread business closures at the start of the pandemic marked the first time in nearly 20 years that Marcial Delgado couldn’t cook or serve lunch in the cafeteria at Nvidia. He didn’t return to the company’s massive Santa Clara headquarters for nine months, but the single father-of-three still got paid.

He just learned he’ll be going back to work later this month — two weeks on followed by six weeks off. Delgado is among the more than 14,000 service workers employed by contractors that supply tech companies with the people who clean, cook and tend their offices in Santa Clara and San Mateo counties.

While some tech companies have decided to let janitors and cafeteria workers go, most — including graphics chip-maker Nvidia, Apple, Facebook and Google — have kept contracted service workers on the books even as they stay home, according to experts, workers and labor unions. That’s a marked contrast to the experiences of other essential workers who are still on the job or the millions of Californians who are unemployed, including those in hard-hit industries like hospitality, retail and service workers at non-tech companies.

“It’s not typical,” said UC Berkeley economics professor Enrico Moretti, adding that the move presumably reflects the colossal economic gains the tech sector has made during the pandemic. “Maybe that’s the first thing to recognize: What they’re doing is quite unique.”

But as the months drag on, many of those service workers are wondering how long tech companies can keep paying them. The worry that the money might stop at any time, Delgado said, is constantly looming. “I’m grateful to the company, but I know nothing about the future,” he said in Spanish. “Things could change again tomorrow.”

“Maybe that’s the first thing to recognize: What they’re doing is quite unique.”

enrico moretti, economics professor at uc berkeley

Currently, Moretti said, about 88% of office workers in the Bay Area are working from home. With tech offices mostly shuttered, at least a few hundred service workers have been laid off, including some contracted by Agilent Technologies, Lyft, Genentech, and Verizon-owned Yahoo, which in September laid off 120 of its subcontracted cafeteria workers, according to the unions who represented them.

Alma Cardenas was among them. A single mother-of-two who worked as a barista for six years at Yahoo’s headquarters in Sunnyvale, Cardenas sold her daughter’s car last month so she could pay the rent for her two-bedroom trailer home in East San Jose. She’s been looking, but jobs in the service sector are scarce. “We dedicated so much time working for them,” Cardenas said. “It’s an injustice.”

But a majority of the tech sector’s blue-collar workers are still employed, according to labor unions and subcontractors.

“We’ve seen some disruption,” said Billy Hatler, a senior vice president at ABM Industries, which provides thousands of Silicon Valley service workers to some of the region’s tech giants. “But not what you would expect given this pandemic.”

ABM’s blue-collar workforce is mostly janitorial and cleaning staff, who’ve been able to return to work at higher rates than cafeteria workers or drivers, according to Stephen Boardman, communications director for SEIU United Service Workers West, a union representing security officers and janitorial staff. He said a small minority of janitors at Facebook had their hours reduced but they were still getting paid for full-time work.

Nvidia, Google and Apple did not respond to requests for comment on their decisions to continue their contracts for service workers. In an emailed statement, Facebook spokesperson Chloe Meyere said, “We have to look out for one another during this difficult time, so we’re paying drivers, janitors, food service employees, and other contract workers who are unable to do their jobs from home.”

Labor advocates and experts say there are likely multiple factors behind the continuing contracts.

“These decisions are likely to be based not purely on financial considerations, but considerations of fairness, or image,” Moretti said.

“We have to look out for one another during this difficult time, so we’re paying drivers, janitors, food service employees, and other contract workers who are unable to do their jobs from home.”

chloe meyere, facebook spokesperson

In addition, about 63 percent of Silicon Valley’s blue-collar tech workers are Black or Latinx, according to a recent study by Louise Auerhahn, director of economic and workforce policy for Working Partnerships USA co-published with Silicon Valley Rising.

“There is a certain responsibility on the part of these companies not to be a driver of inequality,” said Enrique Fernandez, business manager for the labor union Unite Here Local 19, which represents many of the cafeteria workers subcontracted by Silicon Valley tech firms.

Delgado and others don’t know when or if things could change. Their employers typically are the staffing agencies or specialized contractors that supply a majority of the tech companies with blue-collar workers, so they don’t have much direct access to the decisions of the tech firm they report to. 

“All I know comes from our union,” said Delgado, who makes $3,000 a month after taxes, of which $2,400 goes to the two-bedroom apartment he rents in Campbell. If Nvidia was to cancel its contract with Bon Appétit Management Company, the subcontractor he works for, Delgado knows it wouldn’t be long before he’d be out of a job — and potentially a home.

At some point, experts say, they expect tech companies to return to campus-style offices even though some companies like Twitter, Square, Facebook and Dropbox are planning to let employees work from home forever or make remote work the company default. In the long run, experts agree, those service jobs will come back, as office work again becomes the norm.

“They’re going to want their workers to come back in because we’re losing a lot in terms of culture, of collaboration, and in terms of being together to solve big problems,” Hatler said.

This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.

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Laurence Du Sault covers inequality and the income gap for The Mercury News as part of CalMatters' California Divide collaboration. She has reported on child welfare and police misconduct at the Investigative...