Tech far from uni­fied on tax to aid home­less

San Francisco Chronicle (Sunday) - - BUSINESS REPORT - By Melia Rus­sell

The day she moved to San Fran­cisco in her early 20s, Dana Sniezko said it felt like home. That was more than a decade ago. As tent cities bloomed across the city and she saw peo­ple close to her strug­gle with home­less­ness, Sniezko, now a soft­ware en­gi­neer at Stripe, de­cided she needed to do more to make her adopted home feel whole.

She be­gan knock­ing on

doors for the cam­paign to pass Propo­si­tion C, a bal­lot mea­sure to re­duce home­less­ness with a new busi­ness tax, and per­son­ally do­nated $4,100 to the Yes on C cam­paign.

Her em­ployer, an on­line-pay­ments startup val­ued by in­vestors at $20 bil­lion, is spend­ing a hun­dred times Sniezko’s amount to de­feat the mea­sure, do­nat­ing $419,999, ac­cord­ing to cam­paign fil­ings.

Stripe, in turn, has been out­spent by a crosstown foe: Sales­force chief Marc Be­nioff, who has com­mit­ted $7.9 mil­lion in per­sonal and cor­po­rate money to get Prop. C passed.

Prop. C, one of the city’s most closely watched

mea­sures in Tues­day’s elec­tion, has spurred a mon­e­tary arms race be­tween tech moguls. Be­nioff is the most no­table “yes” voice; Stripe CEO Pa­trick Col­li­son and Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twit­ter and Square, op­pose the mea­sure. The three of them are worth an es­ti­mated $15 bil­lion and em­ploy a large seg­ment of the city’s fast-grow­ing tech work­force. But all their wealth and power hasn’t won them lock­step loy­alty from their em­ploy­ees.

“I sup­port Prop. C,” Sniezko said in an email, “be­cause home­less­ness in S.F. is a hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis and we have a moral obli­ga­tion to ad­dress that head on.”

Blind, an app that lets work­ers talk about their com­pa­nies anony­mously, con­ducted a poll of its users for The Chron­i­cle in late Oc­to­ber, ask­ing em­ploy­ees of Sales­force, as well as Stripe and other com­pa­nies op­pos­ing Prop. C, how they feel about the tax. Blind ver­i­fies users’ work emails to de­ter­mine their em­ployer.

While not sci­en­tific — par­tic­i­pants vol­un­teer their an­swers, they are not ran­domly sam­pled — the re­sults give a glimpse into how di­vided San Fran­cisco tech work­ers may be. Nearly 330 peo­ple par­tic­i­pated, with 60 per­cent say­ing they op­pose Prop. C.

An over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of Stripe and Square em­ploy­ees said they would vote no on Prop. C, echo­ing the sen­ti­ments of their CEOs. Dorsey has pitched in $125,000 to the op­po­si­tion cam­paign, and Square has con­trib­uted an ad­di­tional $50,000.

Even across Dorsey’s com­pa­nies, opin­ions dif­fer. At Twit­ter, which has not taken a po­si­tion, 15 re­spon­dents said they sup­port Prop. C, and 16 op­pose it. Twit­ter de­clined to com­ment.

De­spite Be­nioff ’s vol­u­ble sup­port for Prop. C — a cam­paign of­fice in­side Sales­force Tower houses a phone bank for vol­un­teers with the Yes on C cam­paign — only a nar­row ma­jor­ity of Sales­force work­ers sur­veyed on the Blind app said they would vote for Prop. C.

At least 65 tech pro­fes­sion­als have each do­nated more than $100 to the Yes on C cam­paign, ac­cord­ing to pub­lic records. (The city doesn’t re­quire donors who give less than $100 to pro­vide em­ployer in­for­ma­tion.) Those sup­port­ers range from an Airbnb ex­pe­ri­ence de­signer who gave $100, to a Pin­ter­est search qual­ity en­gi­neer who con­trib­uted $500, to Evan Owski, a startup founder who now works at LinkedIn and has spent more than $39,000 to pass Prop. C.

Sniezko is one of two Stripe em­ploy­ees who do­nated at least $100 to the Yes on C cam­paign, ac­cord­ing to pub­lic records, though she said she sus­pects that more of her col­leagues do­nated smaller amounts.

She said she be­lieves the mea­sure would “make the city a bet­ter place to live and work” through in­creas­ing the num­ber of shel­ter beds, pro­vid­ing men­tal health care ser­vices, and cre­at­ing pub­lic re­strooms.

Sniezko said she could not com­ment on Stripe’s po­si­tion specif­i­cally, but has heard “few sub­stan­tive pol­icy ar­gu­ments” and “a lot of ex­cuses” from the mea­sure’s op­po­nents, which in­clude Stripe.

Col­li­son, Sniezko’s boss, has ar­gued that Prop. C doesn’t have the teeth to en­sure new funds would be prop­erly spent. But some peo­ple have called into ques­tion the tech bil­lion­aire’s mo­tives. Ob­servers be­lieve Stripe and other fi­nan­cial ser­vices com­pa­nies would pay more in taxes un­der Prop. C than a busi­ness like Sales­force, be­cause San Fran­cisco taxes com­pa­nies of dif­fer­ent in­dus­tries at dif­fer­ent rates.

Sniezko shrugged off the claim.

“Large com­pa­nies re­ceived a wind­fall from per­ma­nent cor­po­rate tax cuts en­acted by a Repub­li­can-con­trolled Congress,” she said, “and most will still come out ahead with a mod­est in­crease in gross re­ceipts tax from Prop. C.”

Be­nioff says Sales­force has saved much more from cuts in the fed­eral cor­po­rate in­come tax than the $10 mil­lion ad­di­tional tax he es­ti­mates the com­pany would owe. Stripe is pri­vately held, so its fi­nan­cial per­for­mance is not known, but if it is un­prof­itable like many star­tups, it would not see any im­me­di­ate ben­e­fit from the fed­eral tax cuts.

Travis Brown, who un­til a few weeks ago worked as a soft­ware en­gi­neer at Stripe, do­nated $100 in sup­port of Prop. C. Brown tweeted that he left the com­pany “in part be­cause of de­ci­sions like this,” in­clud­ing a screen­shot of a cam­paign fi­nance state­ment show­ing Stripe’s six­fig­ure con­tri­bu­tion to the No on C cam­paign.

Brown did not re­spond to mul­ti­ple re­quests for an in­ter­view. Stripe de­clined to com­ment for pri­vacy rea­sons.

Em­ploy­ment law ex­perts say rank-and-file tech work­ers have good rea­son to avoid shar­ing their po­lit­i­cal dif­fer­ences with com­pany ex­ec­u­tives in pub­lic, be­cause their com­ments could be seen as dis­parag­ing their com­pa­nies. Yet many tech com­pa­nies de­lib­er­ately foster a cul­ture of in­ter­nal

de­bate, and crack­ing down on work­ers for ex­press­ing their views could hurt their prospects of re­cruit­ing sought-af­ter can­di­dates.

John Hy­land, a part­ner at em­ploy­ment law firm Rukin Hy­land & Rig­gin, said a much greater num­ber of peo­ple are willing to crit­i­cize their em­ployer in to­day’s po­lit­i­cal cli­mate. Some­times, as when thou­sands of Google em­ploy­ees staged walk­outs around the world Thurs­day to protest the com­pany’s han­dling of sex­ual mis­con­duct claims, they do so with the bosses’ ex­press sanc­tion.

Most em­ploy­ees in the U.S. work “at will,” which means they can be fired at any time, for any rea­son, un­less that rea­son is il­le­gal, said Ceilidh Gao, an at­tor­ney with the Na­tional Em­ploy­ment Law Project.

Hy­land said if a Square em­ployee came out strongly in fa­vor of Prop. C and was fired for that rea­son, she “would have a pretty good claim for vi­o­la­tion” of the Cal­i­for­nia La­bor Code, which pro­tects em­ploy­ees’ right to en­gage in the po­lit­i­cal process and pro­hibits em­ploy­ers from try­ing to co­erce em­ploy­ees to sup­port a par­tic­u­lar po­lit­i­cal view or ac­tiv­ity.

But if a worker’s on­line com­men­tary “veers into the area of crit­i­ciz­ing Dorsey for be­ing so op­posed to it,” that’s where an em­ployee could face a prob­lem, Hy­land said.

In pub­lic tweets, Dorsey has been so­lic­i­tous of oth­ers’ opin­ions about Prop. C, ad­mit­ting he may be wrong and invit­ing de­bate, and Square said the CEO has en­cour­aged dis­cus­sion of the is­sue in­ter­nally as well.

Cather­ine Bracy, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of TechEquity Col­lab­o­ra­tive, an Oak­land non­profit that seeks to ed­u­cate and en­gage Bay Area tech work­ers on civic is­sues, said some Square and Stripe em­ploy­ees may fear a back­lash not from their bosses but from peers.

“There’s a crit­i­cal mass of peo­ple who work at tech com­pa­nies who think our in­dus­try could be do­ing bet­ter to help the com­mu­nity and wants to be part of the so­lu­tion, not the prob­lem,” Bracy said. “But those same em­ploy­ees might ask them­selves, ‘What can I, this mid-level cus­tomer suc­cess rep­re­sen­ta­tive at some large, multi­na­tional cor­po­ra­tion, really do?’ ”

In Oc­to­ber, as Be­nioff and Dorsey volleyed tweets back and forth, a small group of peo­ple gath­ered out­side the South of Mar­ket head­quar­ters of Stripe, of­fer­ing dough­nuts and Yes on C cam­paign lit­er­a­ture to Stripe em­ploy­ees. They con­vened again out­side Square head­quar­ters on Mar­ket Street, and at Lyft, which do­nated $100,000 to the No on C cam­paign.

Not ev­ery­one wel­comed them. When Ja­son Prado, a Face­book soft­ware en­gi­neer who joined the protest, tweeted pho­tos from the rally out­side Square’s of­fices, sev­eral Square em­ploy­ees re­sponded in anger.

“Can you not lump us all to­gether?” Jana­iah McClure, a pro­gram man­ager at Square, tweeted. “I have a voice here.”

David Ha­ley, a Square tech­ni­cal lead, agreed. “There is a very ac­tive cul­ture of in­ter­nal crit­i­cism here, lead­er­ship gets called out in front of the whole com­pany quite of­ten,” Ha­ley wrote.

“In fact some peo­ple are even tired of it,” he said, adding a wink­ing emoti­con.

“There is a very ac­tive cul­ture of in­ter­nal crit­i­cism here, lead­er­ship gets called out in front of the whole com­pany quite of­ten.” Tweet from David Ha­ley, a Square tech­ni­cal lead

Lea Suzuki / The Chron­i­cle

Elec­tion work­ers Lil­lian Grable and John Rosario rally vot­ers for Propo­si­tion C, which would tax busi­nesses to fund home­less ser­vices, at Sales­force Tower.

Lea Suzuki / The Chron­i­cle

Propo­si­tion C worker Fabian Ramirez works the phone bank at Sales­force Tower. The mea­sure, one of the most closely watched items on the bal­lot, would tax the city’s top busi­nesses to sup­port home­less ser­vices.

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