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Gig economy companies from Uber to Lyft take action as coronavirus cases grow; workers say it’s not enough


Facing a wave of pressure from workers and increased scrutiny from lawmakers on Capitol Hill, gig economy companies from Uber to Doordash have been rolling out a slate of new policies as coronavirus continues to spread across the U.S. 

Uber and Lyft are planning to compensate drivers affected by the coronavirus for up to 14 days. Postmates and Instacart have unveiled “no-contact” food delivery. DoorDash, meanwhile, is letting customers leave in-app instructions if they prefer orders left at the door. 

But some workers on these platforms are balking at these steps, saying they still don’t go far enough and details are scarce. Amazon Flex, which taps independent contractors to make deliveries, doesn’t have a policy to compensate drivers and is instead supporting on an “individual, case-by-case basis.” 

Edan Alva, a Lyft driver in San Francisco, says he’s heard about Lyft’s plans to compensate drivers through the media. “There’s been no notification to drivers yet,” he said.

Alva is also worried that the company will only provide compensation to drivers who have been diagnosed with COVID-19. 

“Many people may not necessarily go see a doctor,” he said. “They don’t have health insurance or they only have limited health insurance. Unless I’m extremely sick, I won’t go see a doctor because I have to consider the cost of it.”

Erica Mighetto, a 38-year old driver for Uber and Lyft with a heart condition called supraventricular tachycardia, posted on Twitter that she could not afford to work until the coronavirus is under control. People with supraventricular tachycardia suffer from an abnormally fast heartbeat.

Uber and Lyft declined to provide details on their compensation plans. On Friday night, an Uber driver from Queens, NY tested positive for coronavirus. The company said it’s working with New York health officials to gauge whether the man exposed passengers to the illness.

Instacart, meanwhile, has seen demand surge, particularly in California, Washington, Oregon and New York — states with the highest number of cases. 

But Menlo Park, CA-based shopper Vanessa Bain, also a vocal critic of Instacart, says a lack of support on the supply and contractor side could put consumers at risk. 

“Shoppers come into contact with hundreds of folks a day, touch common surfaces such as grocery carts, shelving, and pin pads…by necessity,” Bain said. “Our risks of exposure are probably far greater than average and Instacart provides us with no hand sanitizers and disinfecting wipes.” 

She also says customers are getting “agitated” when she cannot fill orders for sanitizers or face masks. 

InstaCart employees fulfill orders for delivery

Patrick T. Fallon | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Instacart says that its data and predictive technology automatically notifies customers of any low- or out-of-stock items as they’re shopping. 

CNBC ordered two cases of water and five bottles of hand sanitizer last week in San Francisco. There was no notice that either were in short supply and the order was confirmed. However, upon delivery, only the cases of water were delivered while the hand sanitizers were refunded. 

On Friday, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) sent letters to the CEOs of Uber, Postmates, Lyft, Instacart, Grubhub, and DoorDash urging them to forge a pooled health fund for workers to help cover testing or treatment.

“As the United States mobilizes to respond to the recent outbreak and spread of COVID-19…I write to urge you to publicly commit to prioritizing your workers’ economic security and the broader public health during this response,” Warner wrote. 

That same day, the organizing group Gig Workers Rising launched a petition calling on the heads of the biggest gig economy platforms to give workers paid sick leave amid the outbreak. That petition garnered more than 800 signatures over the weekend. And, a study published on Friday of 871 drivers in the U.S. showed that 53% were now “very concerned” about reduced earnings as a result of the coronavirus.

Tension between gig economy workers and the companies they power has already been on the rise as California implements a law, known as AB5, that could require contractors to be reclassified as employees.

Because they are currently classified as independent contractors, many gig workers do not have access to paid sick leave, employer-sponsored health insurance and other benefits. 

It could also galvanize support for more state and local regulations around these on-demand platforms. 

Democratic presidential hopefuls Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Joe Biden both took to Twitter to voice their support for AB5 over the weekend.

Local officials from California to New York have also rallied behind the cause.

California Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), the author of AB5, says the outbreak buttresses the need to enforce the bill and ensure more comprehensive workforce protections. New York City Council member Brad Lander, meanwhile, penned a letter calling on these platform companies to provide sick days to all workers, not penalize them for taking time off unpaid, and let workers collect unemployment if they can’t work due to the outbreak.

“It really shouldn’t take a pandemic for workers to get the right to stay home when they are sick without financial hardship,” Lander wrote on Twitter

As attention remains on the Seattle suburb of Kirkland as the epicenter of the outbreak here in the U.S., local officials there, including Council member Teresa Mosqueda, have also signaled support for providing sick days to gig workers, potentially through an insurance pool.

In Mosqueda’s home state, the organizing group Working Washington has called on leaders to not only preserve medical benefits, but also place a moratorium on evictions, curb utility shut-offs, and offer emergency income assistance to stem the fallout from the coronavirus.

“We are beginning to see dramatic reductions in demand at restaurants, coffee shops, and other businesses in the Seattle area,” the group wrote in an open letter to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan. “This has already led to large-scale cuts to hours for service industry workers, and it is likely not simply a short-term issue, or a localized one.”

CNBC’s Yasmin Khorram contributed to this report.


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