Coronavirus will be devastating for gig workers

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Drivers for ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft are finding themselves in an awkward place as many people upend their routine over fears caused by coronavirus. While many businesses are telling their employees to stay home and work remotely, drivers have no such luxury. They remain on the roads, picking up dozens of people each day and serving as a primary alternative to buses and subways at a time when many major cities are urging people to avoid mass transit. While some rideshare companies have started to take action to address coronavirus concerns, much of it appears to be insufficient in the eyes of those behind the wheel.

Ridesharing services have started issuing guidance to drivers and riders — as well as delivery recipients and restaurants, for platforms that offer on-demand delivery services — on how to continue operating. Both Uber and Lyft are recommending that drivers take extra care to keep their vehicles clean and disinfected. To that end, the companies have started offering drivers free hand sanitizer. Lyft is promising "to distribute more than 200,000 bottles" to its drivers as part of a partnership with body care company EO Products — though they will only be available in 10 major cities: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New York City, Sacramento, San Francisco, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. Drivers on a number of community forums have noted that while the hand sanitizer is being provided to them for free, they have to drive to Lyft headquarters in the chosen cities to pick them up. Meanwhile, Uber told Mic that supplies of its disinfectants are "limited" and the company will be "prioritizing the distribution to drivers in cities with the greatest need."

"We are always working to help keep everyone who uses Uber safe. We have a dedicated global team, guided by the advice of a consulting public health expert, working to respond in every market where we operate around the world," a spokesperson for Uber told Mic. "We remain in close contact with local public health authorities and will continue to follow their guidance to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.”

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Both Lyft and Uber are also keeping anyone who has been exposed to coronavirus off their platforms until they receive medical clearance. Mic asked both companies to clarify if this will rely on users self-reporting exposure, but neither company responded. But being barred from driving could be devastating to those who make their living from the ridesharing app. To counteract the negative financial impact on drivers, both companies have promised to provide financial assistance to anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 or is placed under individual quarantine by a public health agency. Uber did not respond to requests from Mic to provide details on how compensation will be determined or how much will be provided. A spokesperson for Lyft declined to provide information, but after questions from Mic updated its Frequently Asked Questions to note "We will provide funds to affected drivers based on the rides they provided on the Lyft platform over the last four weeks." It does not clarify for how long those funds will be provided.

Drivers on online forums and Reddit who use the platforms have also expressed a lack of clarity regarding just how much support will be available to them, or if they will be able to get compensation from multiple platforms, since many drivers are active on both Uber and Lyft, as well as other delivery platforms like Postmates and Doordash. When contacted, Doordash told Mic it is offering "up to two weeks of assistance" to couriers who are diagnosed with COVID-19 or who are subject to quarantine at the direction of public health officials. Postmates said that it has created an "emergency fleet relief fund" that it has made available to its workers for doctor’s appointments and medical expenses. The company said those funds will be available for medical check-ups "regardless of whether the courier has been quarantined or diagnosed with COVID-19." It did not provide details as to whether the full cost of testing and treatment will be covered, nor if a fund will be available for lost wages for workers who test positive for coronavirus and are unable to work.

At least one Uber driver, a New York man in his 30s, has already tested positive for COVID-19. While he remains in isolation in the hospital on the path to recovery, Uber has struggled to figure out how to handle the situation, according to a report from Business Insider. The company immediately suspended the driver from the platform, but has not determined — or at least has not publicly disclosed — if it will inform passengers who rode in the driver's vehicle that they may have been exposed to coronavirus. Likewise, Lyft has not established a policy regarding how it will inform users who may have been exposed to the virus. Mic asked both companies about their plan to inform potentially exposed users but did not receive a response. Drivers on the platforms have started to express concern that "pool" options are still available and could increase potential exposure. Neither company responded when asked about these concerns.

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It's also worth noting that while the companies will at least partially provide income for those who test positive for coronavirus, they do not offer paid sick leave to workers who may exhibit symptoms but have been unable or unwilling to get tested — nor do they offer health insurance that would cover the cost of testing, if necessary. The lack of such a preventative care program may result in drivers unknowingly carrying the virus remaining on the road and interacting with riders — even as opportunities dry up. Drivers across the country have noted significant fluctuations in activity, though a drop-off seems likely in most major markets as more people are advised to stay home. A number of drivers in Boston, where there are at least 95 confirmed cases of coronavirus, have reported experiencing a significant decrease in rides in the last week. One full-time driver reports losing out on about $50 per day from their normal earnings, while another claims to be earning less than $10 per hour. Similarly, Seattle has reportedly seen a 50 percent drop-off in ride requests over the last week, leaving many on-demand drivers reeling as they look for work.

It's likely that as long as there are still people leaving their homes (or requesting deliveries to them) there will still be gig economy workers on the road. With no immediate alternatives available and no paid sick leave and only the vague promise of emergency compensation funds, drivers and other gig economy workers will have to continue seeking opportunities on these platforms — risking exposure and spread of coronavirus.