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Facebook agrees to $52 million settlement with content moderators who suffered trauma on the job

Former and current content moderators in Florida and across the country will receive $1,000 each and may be eligible for more money to cover medical treatments and damages.
Cognizant’s content moderators described stressful working conditions for those who regularly reviewed graphic violence and hate speech. The company this year laid off its moderators in Tampa.
Cognizant’s content moderators described stressful working conditions for those who regularly reviewed graphic violence and hate speech. The company this year laid off its moderators in Tampa. [ RON BORRESEN | Times ]
Published May 12, 2020|Updated May 13, 2020

Facebook content moderators spend their days in the internet’s darkest corners, monitoring the child abuse, beheadings and animal cruelty that is constantly uploaded onto the platform.

Those moderators make sure that content never makes it onto your feed — but they say the job comes with a personal cost.

The social media giant on Tuesday finally acknowledged the mental health consequences those employees face on the job, agreeing to a landmark $52 million settlement with current and former workers who alleged the company failed to protect them from severe psychological injury.

The settlement is expected to apply to more than 10,000 workers across the country, including hundreds of former Tampa Bay moderators who worked for Cognizant Technology Solutions. The company is a third-party Facebook contractor who employed content moderators at a Carrollwood office park.

Workers there described grueling and dysfunctional work conditions to the Verge and later the Tampa Bay Times last year. The Tampa office was closed earlier this year and those workers were laid off.

The class-action lawsuit was filed in California state court in September 2018 by Selena Scola, a former moderator who said she developed post-traumatic stress disorder after nine months of viewing rapes, murders and abuse while at work. Former moderators in four other states eventually joined the suit, alleging Facebook failed to provide a safe work environment.

Related: These Tampa workers see disturbing Facebook posts so you don’t. But it takes a toll.

While Facebook “will implement significant reforms,” according to the settlement, the company still denies the allegations in the lawsuit and that it violated any California laws.

Under the settlement’s terms, every current and former content moderator who worked for Facebook contractors in Arizona, California, Florida and Texas can receive $1,000 for medical screening.

If those workers are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder or other conditions due to their work, they can receive compensation that would help pay for medical treatment of those conditions and may also be eligible for additional damage awards up to $50,000.

The settlement will also require third-party vendors to offer employees coaching sessions with licensed mental health counselors and other support, as well as improved review tools that allow content moderators more control over their exposure to graphic content.

At its Tampa operation, Cognizant said Facebook moderators has access to mental health resources and “wellness time” to recover from viewing traumatic content. But in practice, employees told the Times breaks were strictly monitored and managers pushed them to work faster.

The office was also often left without any counselor on duty, especially on the overnight shift, when the worst content streamed in, those workers said.

The settlement guidelines say that employees who regularly view graphic content must have access to weekly 30-minute one-on-one coaching sessions, and moderators who urgently request to speak with a counselor must be able to do so by the next working day. Contractors will also need to provide moderators with clear guidelines for when they can remove themselves from specific types of content and pre-screen job applicants for resiliency.

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In December, Cognizant announced that it was getting out of the content moderation business and would lay off 556 employees who worked at the campus at 7725 Woodland Center Blvd., about two miles north of Tampa International Airport.

Related: Tampa Facebook content moderator to lay off 556

Attorneys say the settlement needs preliminary approval from a California judge, then they’ll seek final approval.

“We are so pleased that Facebook worked with us to create an unprecedented program to help people performing work that was unimaginable even a few years ago,” said Steve Williams, a partner at the Joseph Saveri Law Firm in San Francisco, one of the law firms involved in the case. ”The harm that can be suffered from this work is real and severe. This settlement will provide meaningful relief.”

A Facebook spokesman sent the Times this statement:

"We are grateful to the people who do this important work to make Facebook a safe environment for everyone. We’re committed to providing them additional support through this settlement and in the future.”

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