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A former YouTube content moderator is suing the company over what she says were its “failure to provide a safe workplace for the thousands of contractors that scrub YouTube’s platform of disturbing content.”
In the lawsuit, which was filed Monday, the ex-moderator claimed YouTube’s negligence played a role in her developing PTSD symptoms and depression while on the job.
She also claimed YouTube ignored its own workplace safety best practices and that “underqualified and undertrained” wellness coaches told moderators to “trust in God” and “take illegal drugs.”
The lawsuit places YouTube back under the spotlight after The Verge detailed moderators’ oppressive working conditions and resulting mental health conditions in a report last year, as well as Facebook’s $52 million settlement over a similar issue in May.
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A former YouTube moderator is suing the company over allegations that it violated California law by failing to provide a safe workplace and protect moderators’ mental health, which she said caused her to develop “severe psychological trauma including depression and symptoms associated with anxiety and PTSD.”
In a proposed class-action lawsuit filed Monday, the ex-moderator claimed that YouTube, which is owned by Google, “failed to implement the workplace safety standards it helped create” and required moderators “to work under conditions it knows cause and exacerbate psychological trauma.”
The ex-moderator, who is not named in the suit, worked as a YouTube contractor via a staffing agency called Collabera from January 2018 to August 2019. She’s seeking to force YouTube to implement stronger safety guidelines as well as create and pay into a fund to cover the medical costs required to diagnose and treat her and other moderators who may have developed mental health conditions.
YouTube and Collabera did not respond to requests for comment.
Thousands of YouTube moderators spend hours each day reviewing hours of videos containing disturbing content such as rape, torture, murder, suicide, bestiality — anywhere between 100 and 300 videos per day with an error rate of 5% or less, according to the lawsuit.
YouTube has long acknowledged the mental health risks to which it exposes moderators — and even helped develop best practices for reducing them.
Despite that, the ex-moderator said YouTube: downplayed those risks during training and on the job; required moderators to work longer hours because of demanding quotas, high turnover, and the company being “chronically understaffed”; and tried to silence moderators who raised concerns through non-disclosure agreements.
She said in the suit that prospective hires are told they “might be required to review graphic content,” but aren’t given examples, told they’ll have to review such content daily, or that doing so “can have negative mental health impacts.”
She alleged that YouTube repeatedly refused to implement product features requested by moderators that could have made reviewing content less traumatic. In one case, she said, YouTube rejected a proposed change that would have taken just a few hours to create — and even reprimanded a moderator for raising the issue again following widespread ethnic violence in Myanmar.
Her complaint also raised issues with the “wellness coaches” YouTube provided for psychological support, which allegedly weren’t available at all to moderators working the evening shift. Even those who did have access “did not receive any on-site medical care because Wellness Coaches are not medical doctors and cannot diagnose or treat mental health disorders,” she said, calling them “underqualified and undertrained.”
When she met with one coach in 2018, the coach allegedly recommended that she “take illegal drugs” to cope. In another instance, her coworker said a different coach had advised them to “‘trust in God,’ advice that was unhelpful.”
At the same time moderators feared their conversations with wellness coaches were being reported back to management, they also couldn’t voice concerns externally due to YouTube’s “sweeping” NDAs and requirements that contract agencies like Collabera instruct moderators “not to speak about the content or workplace conditions to anyone outside of their review team, including therapists, psychiatrists, or psychologists,” her complaint alleged.
Because they would lose healthcare coverage if they quit, she said moderators were faced with a dilemma: “quit and lose access to an income and medical insurance or continue to suffer in silence to keep their job.”
The lawsuit brings fresh scrutiny to YouTube’s treatment of moderators, which received major attention last December when The Verge reported extensive details about the grueling conditions endured by moderators in Texas.
A former Facebook moderator brought a similar lawsuit in 2018, which the company settled in May by agreeing to pay a total of $52 million to current and former moderators who developed mental health conditions on the job. Third-party staffing agencies are also increasingly being swept up in the spotlight. Cognizant, a major firm used by Facebook and other tech platforms, ended its contract with the social media giant last year following reporting on working conditions from The Verge and Tampa Bay Times.
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