Gig employers Uber and Lyft appear to have caved to public pressure to pay workers with SARS-CoV-2 who don’t have the luxury of paid sick leave—thanks solely to their predatory employee classifications of drivers as independent contractors.
Uber issued a memo Friday stating that it will offer sick pay to workers who are diagnosed with the novel coronavirus or quarantined by a public health authority. The company said that its delivery workers “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.” Lyft, meanwhile, told Gizmodo in a statement on Monday that it “will provide funds to drivers should they be diagnosed with COVID-19, or put under individual quarantine by a public health agency.”
Whether or not gig work is a primary or secondary source of income, it can be vitally important for workers who cannot afford to take days, let alone weeks, away from their jobs. As recently as last week, most gig employers were told to either stay home if they felt sick or wash their hands and really mean it—neither of which adequately addresses the reality that a lot of people can’t afford to just, you know, not work. And because some workers may not be able to take time off to self-quarantine, they may be tempted to work, which could then put others at risk of getting or spreading the virus.
Basically, there would be only gig employers to blame if things got out of hand and they didn’t figure out a solution. Lawmakers, too, have taken notice of the economic crisis presented by coronavirus for gig workers. Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) last week urged gig economy titans Uber, Postmates, Lyft, Instacart, Grubhub, and DoorDash “attempt to address the potential financial hardship for your workers if they are sick or have to self-quarantine during this time. In order to limit the spread of COVID-19, it is critical that platform companies lead by example by committing that economic uncertainty will not be deterrents to their workers following public health guidance during the response.”
Citing sources familiar with the matter, the Wall Street Journal reported Sunday that the big five of gig work were involved in talks to establish a fund that could support workers sick with the novel coronavirus. A spokesperson for Instacart confirmed to Gizmodo that the company was in active talks with other gig employers but declined to comment on the record.
A spokesperson for DoorDash told Gizmodo in a statement that its “task force” was working on “a comprehensive strategy” for addressing the coronavirus outbreak, “including exploring options with our peer companies to compensate Dashers affected by the novel coronavirus.” The spokesperson said that it’s encouraging the use of a feature that allows users to request their food be left at their door, which would minimize human-to-human contact.
A spokesperson for Amazon Flex told Gizmodo it is “actively supporting employees and contractors on an individual, case-by-case basis. We will continue evaluating next steps should we see a much broader impact.”
Last week, an Uber driver from Queens tested positive for coronavirus after reporting flu-like symptoms at St. John’s Episcopal Hospital on Tuesday, the New York Times reported. According to the paper, more than 40 doctors and hospital workers are now self-quarantined, with the hospital monitoring those who may have been exposed. In a statement to Gizmodo, an Uber spokesperson said the company has “a dedicated team working closely with public health authorities and stand ready to help in any way.”
Citing a source familiar with the talks, the Journal reported that Postmates is looking into paying for health check-ups for its workers. Reached for comment, Postmates said only that it was preparing to announce Postmates-specific actions to address the virus. It’s also, like DoorDash, encouraging designated drop-offs that minimizes interactions between couriers and customers (but not necessarily restaurant and delivery workers).
Covering workers who expect they may have been infected for tests and check-ups could be a huge benefit to catching the virus earlier on—rather than when an individual is already showing symptoms, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says can appear as many as 14 days after exposure. But, again, this system would be reliant on some good faith sick pay for workers who have been diagnosed or quarantined.
But gig work employers have not historically shown themselves to operate in good faith—quite the opposite, which is why we’re in this mess to begin with. It does appear that these companies realize the potential liability they may have on their hands if they don’t address the issue quickly. Let’s just hope for everyone’s sake that’s sooner rather than later.