On a Monday morning, two weeks ago, a San Francisco Uber driver woke up feeling sick. He had a persistent dry cough, scratchy chest, was short of breath and wheezed when he breathed deeply. He knew these were possible symptoms for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, so he re-traced his past few trips. A couple of alarming interactions came to mind, including one passenger who coughed up blood and another who admitted he’d been infected.
San Francisco hadn’t yet become a ghost town with most businesses shuttered and residents hunkering at home under a mandatory “shelter in place” order. People were still out and about. Beauty salons, movie theaters, bars and most corporate offices still teemed with people. The number of coronavirus cases in the city were still scant.
Nevertheless, Uber, Lyft, Instacart, DoorDash, Postmates and other companies hadfor avoiding the virus, which as of Tuesday evening had infected nearly 425,000 people and killed nearly 20,000 worldwide. At that time, the companies said they’d assist workers with two weeks of lost income if they were diagnosed with COVID-19. They also told their drivers and delivery people to “wipe down surfaces,” “practice good hygiene” and “stay home” if they felt sick.
Although that meant not earning any money and dipping into his savings, the 60-year-old San Francisco driver, who wishes to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution, heeded that warning.
“I did exactly what Uber said to do,” the driver said on a phone call that was frequently interrupted by coughing fits. “But Uber is not protecting us.”
Gig workers have been on the front lines during the coronavirus pandemic. They drove travelers coming from around the world before the extent of the crisis was understood. And now, they shop and deliver food to those who’ve been quarantined and oftentimes take sick people to hospitals. California, along with several other states, has recognized gig workers’ importance, deeming their labor “essential” — meaning they can continue to work even as the virus spreads.
Uber, Lyft, Instacart, DoorDash and Postmates wouldn’t say how many of their workers have been infected with COVID-19, when contacted by CNET. But two Uber drivers were exposed to a passenger exposed in London after taking an infected rider to the hospital. And in Queens, New York, Mayor Bill DeBlasio confirmed a male Uber driver in his 30s was hospitalized after testing positive for the virus.. Another driver was
CNET spoke to three Uber drivers, a Lyft driver and an Instacart shopper who have either tested positive for COVID-19 or are exhibiting symptoms of the pneumonia-like illness. All say they’ve struggled to get help from the companies.
While these stories don’t necessarily represent the plight of all gig workers, they offer a window into their vulnerable situation, further exacerbated by this pandemic. Because gig workers are, they lack the same benefits as employees. Drivers and delivery people for these services don’t have company health insurance, sick leave, family leave, disability or workers compensation. They don’t qualify for unemployment. And they haven’t been provided protective gear since the outbreak erupted.
On top of that, depending where people live, getting a COVID-19 test can be extremely difficult.
“A crisis like this exposes every weak spot in our safety net,” said Nancy Berlinger, a research scholar at the Hastings Center, a nonprofit bioethics think tank, who just authored a report on ethical guidelines in responding to COVID-19. “We are getting a crash course in the vulnerability of the low wage, poorly protected work force — the gig workforce.”
After getting sick, the San Francisco driver asked for Uber’s help. He was bedridden, received doctor’s orders to self-quarantine and had been tested for COVID-19. For eight days, however, Uber gave him the runaround.
He’d told the ride-hailing company that he came in contact with two passengers he believed might have been infected with the coronavirus. The first incident happened on the Saturday morning before he got sick as he was driving Uber Pool, the company’s carpool service that has since. He picked up a woman, then a couple of miles later picked up a man who said he just got back from Taiwan.
“I have COVID-19,” the man told them.
The driver dropped off the passengers, told the woman to call her doctor and proceeded to deep clean his car by wiping down all surfaces with disinfectant wipes.
The next day the driver got back out on the road. One of the first riders he picked up had punched in a hospital as the destination.
“We’re half way through the trip and he seems out of it,” the driver said. “He starts to cough and says, ‘We’re going to the hospital because I’m coughing up blood.'”
Coughing up blood is one of the rarer symptoms of COVID-19. The passenger told the driver he thought he had the virus.
“I don’t know for a fact if either of these people have COVID-19. I don’t know if I have it,” the driver said. But, “after that day, that Sunday, I didn’t drive anymore.”
On March 15, Uber expanded its coronavirus sick leave policy to say those workers “placed in a quarantine” by a public health authority or licensed doctor could also get the two-week assistance while their accounts were on hold. With the exception of Postmates, all of the other companies followed suit.