This is the second article in a two-part series about Paper. The first part focused on how the District spent over half a million on the service while few students used it.
“I am fed up with being told that in the name of speed, it’s okay to let a student memorize concepts in math or physics instead of truly understanding them. Especially when I’m dealing with students lacking foundational math skills. This company is f**king over students to turn a profit,” said Isabella*, a current tutor.
Current and former Paper tutors have described poor working conditions and resentment towards management. Some tutors claimed that Paper illegally required an agreement to a non-disclosure clause to receive money they were owed. Additionally, the District specifically chose Paper over other tutoring resources because Paper told the District that they fingerprinted tutors, yet tutors said Paper did not fingerprint them.
In 2021, after two years of using Paper specifically for AVID students, the District signed a contract with Paper to provide tutoring services to all its students. Associate Superintendent of Education Services Bonnie Hansen said that the District preferred Paper to other services because it “requires fingerprinting of tutors.” However, former tutor Jamie Achenbach, who started working for Paper in the fall of 2021, said, “I was not fingerprinted when I worked at Paper.” Isabella*, who has been at Paper for two years, added, “I wasn’t fingerprinted, but they did a background check.” Paper also did not fingerprint Natasha*, a former tutor who started working for Paper in January 2022. Some tutors had heard that Paper was going to start requiring fingerprinting.
When the M-A Chronicle tested Paper’s Review Center, which is supposed to provide feedback on essays, we found that the feedback included “[insert positive comment about student work]” rather than a positive comment.
Isabella blamed Paper CEO Phil Cutler and her manager for the Review Center’s poor quality. She said, “Cutler has told us at town halls that Review Center tutors should rush through reviewing essays to decrease the ‘cost per essay’ for the shareholders. My manager outright encouraged me to have generic comments saved in a document and then copy and paste them directly to students in the live classroom or as essay feedback.”
Tutors accused Paper of firing employees because they advocated for better conditions, as well. “If a tutor is too vocal about issues of pay, education practices, employment laws, etc; they will be fired with no warning,” wrote Achenbach. Natasha added, “Paper is like a digital gulag. They monitored Slack to an Orwellian degree.”
Paper’s Corporate Communications Manager Ava Paydar said, “Paper follows all local labor laws as it relates to our tutors and all employees.” Regarding accusations of firing tutors because of their advocacy, she added, “We have never fired any employee or tutor for expressing their concerns. In fact, we create regular opportunities for tutors and employees to openly discuss and provide feedback on their concerns and challenges.”
Four tutors interviewed disliked Paper’s management. Natasha said, “The culture of toxic positivity and micromanagement paralyzes tutors and stifles innovation, putting stress on the tutor managers and impeding their progress within the company. It was a horrible company, and I dreaded every shift.” Alli*, a current tutor, added, “Retaliation is real; tutors are just a number here at Paper and they’re not afraid to remind us of that.”
Tutors also said they are under pressure to rush through tutoring sessions, which lowers the quality of help each student receives. Alli said, “Especially in the Review Center, tutors are under immense timing pressure with some having disciplinary action or outright getting fired for taking too long. It’s clearly become a ‘quantity over quality’-type deal at Paper.”
Tutors also said that they wished they could build more of a relationship with the students they help. Natasha said, “Paper doesn’t allow us to create the relationships we’d like to with students since it’s always randomized.” Isabella said, “A lot of us tutors have been begging the company to better enable us to communicate directly with a student’s teacher and/or parents, especially in cases where they are lacking foundational skills and need someone to spend additional time with them re-teaching the basics. The company won’t listen to what comes from us tutors. Honestly, the job feels less and less like a tutoring job and more like a call-center job.”
She added, “I am regularly handling sessions where I see things like a tenth grader lacking middle-school math skills. When I complete assessments to send to the teachers I am limited to 180 characters if I want to raise concerns, making it crazy difficult to tell the teacher the specifics about what skills the student needs to work. All they care about is that we don’t spend too long on assessments so we can move on to the next student.”
Two current and one former tutor accused Paper of wage theft and violating a California labor law. Achenbach said, “A group of advocate tutors had been informing the company that they were in violation of [IWC Order No. 2-2001], which requires 10-minute breaks. The company’s response was to fire those tutors and hope it goes away.”
According to Achenbach, after more tutors voiced their grievance, the company informed tutors they would receive one-hour’s pay for every day Paper denied them a 10-minute rest period. But, to receive the compensation, Paper required tutors to sign an agreement that stated, “The information set forth in this agreement is strictly confidential and shall not be disclosed by the recipient.”
However, California Labor Code § 206.5 states that an employer cannot require employees to sign a confidentiality agreement to receive their owed wages. Tutors believe that this law makes the agreement illegal.
Another section of the agreement said, “[Paper] shall pay, and the Recipient shall be entitled to receive in consideration of the Release set forth in Section 3 of this Agreement, an amount of $5.00.” When asked about California employment law, local lawyer Michael Doran said, “Employers can require additional conditions like a non-disclosure agreement and release if they pay additional consideration beyond wages due.” This could mean that the agreement is valid as long as a court believes that $5 is sufficient compensation.
Tutors could face an uphill battle proving otherwise. Doran said, “Courts used to be very reluctant to question the adequacy of compensation. More recently, under consumer protection and employee protection statutes, they have been more willing to do so. I don’t know the California case law on this and frankly, I don’t know where a court would come out on the question in this case.”
Achenbach said, “What [Paper] actually offers is a way for decision-makers at schools to feel like they’ve done their job to ‘do something online’ for students during the pandemic. The overall method is not educationally sound, and the business model is not at all sustainable. They are here to get in and make as much money before they eventually are found out as fakers.”
He concluded, “I’m not saying that students aren’t being helped; I know for a fact that they definitely are. Paper has hired some really passionate tutors, who really care about the students. We tutors wanted so, so much for this company to be what it said it was, and we worked really hard in good faith to help them get there. But we learned that the leadership and management teams simply do not know about education and they are not interested in learning about education. It is so disheartening to have them take up that space that an actually effective organization could have filled.”
*Some tutors have pseudonyms in order to preserve their confidentiality.