Facebook Agrees to $52 Million Settlement over Work-Trauma Claims

By Toni Vranjes May 22, 2020
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Facebook has reached a $52 million deal to settle a class action claiming that the social media giant failed to shield content moderators from psychological trauma.

The content moderators, who work for Facebook vendors, review material posted to the site by users and decide whether the material violates Facebook standards and must be removed from the site. Their work exposes them to extremely graphic content depicting rape, murder and other disturbing images.

The 2018 lawsuit, which was filed in the Superior Court of California for the County of San Mateo, alleged that Facebook failed to shield the moderators from the psychological trauma their jobs can cause. Some of these workers have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and other conditions.

Under the preliminary settlement, content moderators will receive payments, and Facebook will take steps to improve working conditions. The settlement applies to more than 10,000 moderators who worked in California, Arizona, Texas or Florida.

Facebook praised the content moderators' work and said the company is dedicated to helping them. "We are grateful to the people who do this important work to make Facebook a safe environment for everyone," the company said in a press statement. "We're committed to providing them additional support through this settlement and in the future."

Mark Gaston Pearce, executive director of the Workers' Rights Institute at Georgetown University Law Center, said the settlement is a step in the right direction. "Whether or not it's enough, it's too early to say," Pearce added.

Monetary Relief and Safer Conditions

According to court documents, each class member will receive $1,000 for medical screening "for exposure to graphic or disturbing material in the course of his or her work as a content moderator."

Class members who are diagnosed with specific psychological conditions will be compensated for necessary medical treatment, and they also may submit claims for additional damages.

The settlement features a number of measures to improve working conditions, which were developed with input from mental health experts.

Under the new system, content moderators are gaining access to better review tools. Facebook is already rolling out these improvements, and the company will continue to do so, according to court documents.

For instance, moderators will be able to change default settings to mitigate exposure to disturbing content. This will allow them to:

  • View images in black and white.
  • Blur images.
  • Block faces within images.
  • Blur video previews.
  • Mute audio.

Additionally, content moderators will be able to use Facebook's anonymous whistleblower hotline, and Facebook vendors will be required to provide access to mental health support and to screen for "resiliency" during the hiring process.

Takeaways for Employers

The Facebook settlement offers lessons for other employers that rely on content moderators to remove disturbing content.

"I think it's most definitely a cautionary tale for other technology companies," said Pearce, who served as chairman of the National Labor Relations Board during the Obama administration.

These companies should launch programs to provide mental health support if they don't already have them in place, said Ron Zambrano, an attorney with West Coast Trial Lawyers in Los Angeles.

Other technology companies might look to the mental health support offered in the Facebook settlement as a model, said Sonya Goodwin, an attorney with Sauer & Wagner in Los Angeles. Furthermore, with the settlement making headlines, the content moderators at other companies might insist on greater protections, she added.

[SHRM members-only platform: SHRM Connect]

Karina Sterman, an attorney with Greenberg Glusker in Los Angeles, noted that companies have an obligation to provide a safe work environment, both physically and psychologically.

All California employers are required to have an Injury and Illness Prevention Program (IIPP). When thinking about an IIPP, many employers focus on physical protections, such as ergonomic office furniture, Sterman observed, but companies also should keep in mind psychological protections.

Employers should assess whether the nature of a job is "objectively likely" to be psychologically traumatic, she suggested. If so, the company should determine what can be reasonably done to mitigate the situation. This could involve bringing in a team of psychologists and other experts who would evaluate the work environment to see if improvements could be made.

Pearce sees some similarities between the mental distress the Facebook content moderators experienced and the stress essential workers have been under during the coronavirus emergency. Many essential workers are experiencing intense anxiety in high-risk environments. Their employers should be sensitive to this, and they should be proactive about providing mental health support, Pearce said.

Toni Vranjes is a freelance business writer in San Pedro, Calif.

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