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In coronavirus’s wake, gig workers are demanding paid sick leave

When people who take gigs for companies such as Uber, Lyft, and Instacart can’t work, they don’t get paid. And working could be dangerous.

In coronavirus’s wake, gig workers are demanding paid sick leave
[Photo: Barna Bartis/Unsplash]
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As the coronavirus spreads, many people are having to consider remote ways of working. But for contingent workers—such as those who drive your Uber or deliver your groceries—the virus’s impact is particularly fraught with peril.

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These people can’t work at home, and not leaving the house means not getting paid. The platforms they contract with are not required to pay them when they are sick, offer them health insurance, or generally provide for them during a health crisis. And many of them are not. That puts gig workers in the scary position of having to risk their health—and potentially the health of others—in order to make money.

Now, several groups are calling on gig companies to change to provide paid time off for workers. Gig Workers Rising has launched a petition to pressure California lawmakers to make gig companies provide paid sick leave. Amazon workers in New York City have also organized to pressure the company to provide paid sick leave to contract workers. Meanwhile, Working Washington published an open letter last week asking gig companies for certain protections for workers under emergency circumstances including sick leave, continued pay if they can’t work because they contracted the virus while working, and unemployment benefits.

“There is some evidence this could increase the use of gig delivery services, resulting in ever more exposure of gig workers,” the organization wrote. “While this increased demand could increase the likelihood of ‘surge’ rates paid to gig workers who typically get paid so little, that financial prospect could also increase the likelihood that they work when they are sick.”

Under pressure

Perhaps feeling the pressure, Uber is now promising to provide its drivers with some paid time off. “Drivers and delivery people in these situations will receive compensation for a period of up to 14 days. This has already begun in some markets, and we are working to implement mechanisms to do this worldwide. We believe this is the right thing to do,” says Andrew Macdonald, Uber’s senior vice president of rides and platform.

The company’s initial response to the coronavirus was to alert its drivers and inform them on how to defend themselves against the virus. That included washing hands, using a tissue to cover their cough or sneeze, disinfecting vehicles regularly, and staying home if they feel sick. Beyond those recommendations, Uber told drivers to cancel trips that made them uncomfortable, while also reminding them not to discriminate based on race.

Last night, Instacart announced paid sick leave for part-time workers as as well as extended 14-day pay for part-time workers diagnosed with Covid-19. This new benefit applies to the company’s contract shopper and driver, in-store shoppers, shift leads, site managers, and care agents. Previously, the company allowed its part-time shoppers to buy health insurance through Stride Health. For customers, Instacart now provides a feature, called “leave at my door delivery,” wherein the customer and person delivering do not have to come into contact.

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The rest of the gig economy may soon fall in line. Lyft has said it will pay drivers for time off if they are diagnosed with the coronavirus. For the time being, DoorDash has only sent contractors for both its namesake service and Caviar the CDC’s recommendations, reminding them to disinfect their cars and asking them to stay home if they are sick. Amazon Flex, Amazon’s in-house delivery service, is requiring drivers to clean their vehicles with disinfectant wipes at the beginning and end of each shift, and to stay home if they’re not feeling well. It’s also mandating frequent hand-washing (or hand sanitization if soap and water aren’t readily available).

Fending for themselves

The Wall Street Journal has reported that several gig companies may be developing a fund that would cover the expense of workers who are forced to quarantine. However, it’s unclear under what circumstance they would qualify for such a benefit, or how much they could expect to be paid. Under Uber’s program, drivers much be diagnosed with the coronavirus to receive paid time off. Getting a diagnosis may prove difficult for drivers, since tests are still not widely available.

This leaves many gig workers with a fraught choice: Stay home and lose out on money, or earn money and risk your health as well as the health of those around you. As such, gig workers are largely left to fend for themselves.

There have been reports from Uber drivers that they will not take airport runs anymore.”

Kristin Kuhn, Washington State University
“I realized it’s not the best idea to be driving strangers in your car, letting them touch things,” a driver posted on the ride-sharing message board UberPeople.net on Tuesday. “Perhaps it’s better to deliver food so that you’re with people less. What do you think? I mean if you think about it, we really are screwed. Even if you think you are healthy enough to ward off the virus, you’re spreading the virus to others who will spread to others. So don’t be selfish and think it’s okay to go out and catch it.”

“Anecdotally, there have been reports from Uber drivers that they will not take airport runs anymore—it’s perceived as risky,” says Kristine Kuhn, an associate professor at Washington State University’s Department of Management, Information Systems, and Entrepreneurship. “But there’s also pretty good data that shows airport runs can be some of the more profitable.” This choice puts gig workers in the tough position of having to choose between financial security or their health.

In California in particular, the coronavirus comes at a meaningful time. AB5, a state law giving employee status to gig workers, recently went into effect. Uber has been working to redesign its app, so that it can more definitively claim that its workers are contractors, not staffers.  But not all companies are getting off that easy. In February, a judge in San Diego issued a court order saying that Instacart was likely misclassifying its shoppers as contractors. The company has already moved its in-store-only shoppers to a part-time employee model.

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Kuhn says that trying to predict the coronavirus’s fallout for gig workers is difficult. For example, most people who work on gig platforms are supplementing other jobs. “If driving for Uber on weekends is something used for extra money, but you don’t need to pay your bills, maybe you would just stop doing it,” she says. If fair-weather workers start to drop off the platform, more trips can go to those drivers who use these platforms as their sole source of income, bolstering their ability to earn.

There’s also reason to believe that the coronavirus may drive up gig work. If people are avoiding public transit, they may be more likely to hail a car. Quarantines may also increase interest among workers in online gig platforms offering tasks that can be done at home, such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk.

Some tech companies have agreed to pay hourly workers who have had been forced to stay home because of the virus, in some cases because of reduced need for support services as other employers work from home rather than at large campuses. And Bluecrew, a platform for connecting workers with short-term jobs such as factory work or construction projects, is the rare gig company that offers both sick leave and health insurance for those who work more than 30 hours per week on average.

Though Bluecrew does not have plans for extended sick leave, it says it is open to changing that policy. “Generally, when it comes to sick pay and leave, Bluecrew has always worked with employers on a case-by-case basis and will continue to do so,” a representative for the company says. Unlike most gig companies, Blue Crew classifies its workers as employees. The platform operates much like traditional staffing agencies do, giving workers flexibility and also some protections.

Kuhn notes that if nothing else the coronavirus does force everyone involved to think about how the law provides for low-wage workers: “It does send a signal to policymakers as well as business owners for low-wage workers about what behaviors we want to be incentivizing—not just in the short term, but in the long term.”

Correction: This article has been corrected to reflect that Kristine Kuhn is a professor at Washington State University. Previous she was identified as working at University of Washington. 

About the author

Ruth Reader is a writer for Fast Company. She covers the intersection of health and technology.

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