Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, housing, labor, and technology.
Uber and Lyft drivers risk Covid-19 infections to shuttle doctors and vulnerable people around. Can they get the same job protections as other frontline workers?
Yash Bazian went off his depression medication last year, because he felt his mental health was improving. But then came coronavirus. Sick people started climbing into the backseat of his car, and the nightmares started. Now he’s having trouble sleeping, and starting to gain weight.
“Driving is already a very stressful job,” he said. “Imagine you add the stress of getting the virus when someone sneezes or coughs.”
Bazian has been driving for Uber and Lyft in the Bay Area for three years. The work has been slower ever since the region’s shelter-in-place rules — meaning all nonessential services were to be avoided — took effect on March 17. But it hasn’t stopped. Under the now-statewide shelter orders, the private transportation industry is deemed essential. And with fears of crowding aboard buses and subways, ride-hail has become an ever-more vital supplement to the public transit that’s been chugging along down empty streets.
The ride-hail drivers still on the road have been left to contend not only with weekly incomes slashed in half, but with mounting fears that by welcoming strangers into their cars, they’re inviting the virus in, too.
These risks are shared by others who have joined doctors and nurses to become the de facto first responders to the coronavirus pandemic: grocery store and postal workers, delivery drivers, janitors and domestic workers, e-commerce shippers. Many of these workers are treated like independent contractors — they lack employer-provided health insurance, sick leave, or unemployment benefits. The risks of staying on the job are higher; so are the risks of stopping.
“The sickness is the least of my priorities. The drop in revenue is the highest priority,” said Edan Alva, a Lyft driver who’s based in Alameda. “I live pretty much from road to mouth.”
There’s a clear tension between ride-hailing and the CDC’s social distancing recommendations of keeping six feet away from others. To limit contact between passengers and drivers, Uber and Lyft have stopped all pooled rides in the U.S. and Canada markets where they’re offered. Before each new passenger gets into his car, Alva attacks each surface with disinfectant. He treats the backseat with rubbing alcohol and wipes, cleaning the lock, the door handle, the inside of the passenger door and the seatbelt buckles. He sprays the whole thing down with Lysol — especially after driving a passenger that is “coughing or displaying any signs of sickness” — and then Febreze, to cover the citrus scent. The whole routine takes 15 minutes. While Uber and Lyft have both said they’re working on providing cleaning supplies to drivers for free, Alva said he had to cover the $25 to $30 in costs himself.
Bazian, too, is upping his cleaning regimen, and wearing gloves and a mask on the road. He’s spending an additional $10 and $15 a day on anti-virus supplies, he says. Most of his morning rides have been for older people getting groceries. They’re wary of him and the germs of his previous passengers, and he’s just as wary of them.
“I hear some people sometimes sneeze in my car and say, ‘It’s just allergies,’” Bazian said. “I don’t know if it’s just allergies or not.”
He also drives for Uber Assist, a service meant to help elderly individuals get to care appointments with a more experienced driver. “In the last couple of weeks since March started, I drove four to six people to the hospital and from the hospital,” he said.
Alva has driven several passengers who appear to have an illness, he says, though he’s never sure what kind. He hasn’t taken any trips to or from a hospital, but he did drop an elderly woman off at the doctor’s to get a pneumonia shot. Mostafa Maklad, a driver for Uber and Lyft who lives in Daly City, says he’s picked up doctors and nurses on the way to work shifts.
As regular movement around the city stalls, the highest-risk trips — such as shuttling health care workers or patients to and from hospitals — may become more prevalent, as Lyft and Uber try to bolster drivers’ earnings by diverting them to do other public health tasks. Lyft offers drivers the chance to join the LyftUp Driver Task Force, to do paid rides that “help neighbors get to grocery stores, workers to hospitals, and caretakers to their jobs,” and is working with government agencies to do test kit drop-offs. The company will also continue to partner with Medicaid agencies to serve as non-emergency medical transportation to doctor’s appointments. Uber Health, which gets patients to doctor’s appointments, is continuing to operate, too.
“It’s important to call out that Uber Health is serving the non-emergency medical transportation space and that ridesharing is not equipped or aiming to serve as an alternative to specialized or emergency medical transportation,” said Xavier Van Chau, head of business product communications for Uber. “Examples of when Uber Health is used include travel to a dialysis appointment or a physiotherapy visit.”
These trips are booked through a dashboard by health-care providers, who are tasked with assessing what kind of transportation is most appropriate. “[T]hat would exclude transporting patients who may be contagious,” Van Chau said.
Despite such safeguards, there’s widespread fear that sick patients will turn to the platform anyway. Already, people afraid of incurring the high cost of an ambulance call ride-hail to pick them up in case of emergency. When the mother of a young boy from Westport, Connecticut, learned he had tested positive for Covid-19, the school called him an Uber home.
To protect riders, Uber and Lyft have both said that they’ll suspend drivers who have contracted Covid-19. Uber started a 14-day sick fund to pay drivers if they test positive for the disease or if their doctor suggests they self-quarantine “due to their risk of spreading Covid-19;” Lyft’s policy, too, covers drivers with the disease and those who have been “put under individual quarantine” by a public health agency.
Alva says neither policy helps him much — because of his high deductible, it would cost too much to get that doctor’s note.
Moira Muntz, the spokesperson for New York City’s Independent Drivers Guild, had lobbied Uber and Lyft to strengthen their sick fund coverage. “We are glad that Uber and Lyft agreed to provide sick pay to any driver with a doctor’s note to self-isolate, but they urgently need to raise awareness of this policy and make the process easier or we will have sick and at-risk drivers continuing to work,” she said. She worries that only drivers who are at risk of spreading the disease — not at high risk of contracting a serious case of it — will be eligible.
Drivers are at the front lines of the coronavirus crisis in other ways, too. On the road, they also share in people’s most intimate moments — they know where passengers travel to and from, and bear witness to the preoccupations that dominate their small talk and private phone calls. As the pandemic grips U.S. cities, they are shuttling the sick and the healthy, the fearful and foolhardy. They’re hearing first-hand how people are dealing with the uncertainty, even as they, too, grow more worried.
“Anybody who’s not feeling this is either sorely misguided or inattentive,” said Steve Gregg, who’s been driving for Uber and Lyft in the Bay Area for three years and completed 16,000 rides. He’s also a member of Gig Workers Rising, an organization that advocates for independent contractors.
Gregg, 51, is in more than one high-risk category for coronavirus: Along with high blood pressure, he says, he’s diabetic and borderline obese. His lungs have “been through a lot.” (“Even if I were to get it and survive it, the scar tissue in my lungs would probably be so bad that they’d be irrevocably damaged,” he said.) When he thought the virus only spread through touching infected surfaces, he felt he’d be OK and kept driving. But when he learned that it was also airborne, he got off the street immediately. “It’s like Russian roulette,” he said. “It’s a game I don’t play.” He started self-quarantining last week, which means he can’t see his children, either. Even after this ends, he’ll struggle to visit them, he says: They live 50 miles away, and he can’t afford his rental-car payment anymore.
“What is it worth to put my life on the line to make not even minimum wage? I can’t do that,” he said. “It comes back to my children again. A few hundred bucks a month compared to not having a father.”
Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi is lobbying the federal government to include drivers and delivery workers in any federal stimulus plan. New York City is rehiring some out-of-work Uber and Lyft drivers to do food delivery for at-risk seniors, on a first-come, first-serve basis, for $15 an hour (lower than the city’s ride-hail minimum wage, but with a commitment to pay their expenses.)
Gregg is particularly frustrated that Uber and Lyft can be deemed an essential service in California and yet not be covered by basic labor rights. “How can this government — that has consistently sold out gig workers over and over — then turn around and expect us to be emergency service personnel, with no safety net, in the face of the worst pandemic in 100 years?” he said.
Last year, California passed Assembly Bill 5, which was intended to enshrine misclassified gig workers like ride-hail and delivery drivers with full employment rights. So far, however, driver advocates argue that the rule hasn’t been adequately enforced; Uber, Lyft and other gig delivery companies have refused to comply with its guidance, arguing that their drivers are not misclassified, and fighting AB5 in court.
In a press conference on March 24, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors introduced* a resolution to push the Office of Labor Standards Enforcement to step in to enforce AB5, and asked the city and state attorneys to file an injunction allowing workers to access employment benefits. They also called on the city’s Department of Public Health to issue minimum health and safety requirements, which include providing additional sanitary supplies and workers’ compensation benefits “should they come into contact with a customer who has been infected.”
“There’s always a segment of the population who is or will be in desperate need of work and can be taken advantage of, theoretically,” said Alva. “The question is: Do we as a society want the people who are desperate to be taken advantage of to the point where they can’t afford their own health care?”
CORRECTION: San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors introduced a resolution to push officials to enforce AB5. It has not yet passed.