Coronavirus and Paid Sick Leave: A Quarantined Uber Driver’s Quest

Zachary Frenette likes working as an Uber driver in Phoenix. He is a top-rated driver who often chats with his customers on their trips.

During the outbreak of the coronavirus last month, business began to slow. Then, a possible exposure to the virus prompted Mr. Frenette, 29, to quarantine himself. Off the roads and worried about making his rent on time, he turned to Uber for help.

He had heard that the ride-hailing app was one of several companies that announced policies to offer paid leave or other compensation to workers infected by the coronavirus or ordered quarantined by their companies, the government or health care providers.

For several days, Mr. Frenette communicated with the company by telephone, email and the Uber app, but he kept getting the same feedback — always polite, probably scripted and sometimes maddeningly vague — that he did not meet the criteria.

“I was just kind of like, OK, obviously I’m getting jerked around,” he said. “I don’t like having to wake up in the morning and feeling like I have to be ready for battle with major corporations.”


He got a payment of $1,565 on Thursday — after he had gotten the news media involved.

Mr. Frenette is only one of many gig economy workers who are struggling to adapt while claims for unemployment insurance surge, health care workers are overwhelmed, testing for the virus is difficult to access and companies are scrambling to adapt.

“This is an unprecedented time, so it’s been a challenge for everyone, including us,” said Kayla Whaling, an Uber spokeswoman. “So we’ve been taking the feedback from drivers and learning from some of the mistakes that we’ve made along the way.”

She said the company was among the first to implement a paid leave policy related to the virus for contract workers. Uber dedicated a team of support staff to prioritize the processing of sick leave payments on March 15.

Mr. Frenette, an entrepreneur who relies on Uber as his primary source of income, typically works for the company at least 40 hours a week. Passengers regularly leave him compliments about his friendliness, his cleanliness and his white Chevrolet.

About two weeks ago, he picked up a man and a woman who said that they had just visited someone with the coronavirus. He also heard hints of possible illness from his two passengers — a cough and a sneeze.

That was enough to worry him. He said he visited his doctor the next day and got a letter recommending that he isolate himself.

Mr. Frenette, who has not been tested for the coronavirus, has H.I.V., which means his immune system is compromised. The doctor’s letter noted that he was “immune suppressed” and expressed concerns that his job involved close interactions with customers.

So Mr. Frenette has hunkered down since March 20 in isolation with his dog, Teddy. He alerted Uber, which suspended his account to keep him off the roads.

Mr. Frenette provided screenshots of his chats in the Uber app that showed days of messages between him and a series of agents.

They told him repeatedly that to qualify for assistance, he needed either a diagnosis of Covid-19, the illness caused by the virus, or an order from a licensed medical provider asking him to self-isolate “due to your risk of spreading Covid-19 to others.”

According to one message, Mr. Frenette did not provide documents that he was “suffering from Covid-like symptoms, currently diagnosed with Covid, or at risk of spreading Covid.”

“Are you kidding me?” he wrote in response.

Days into his quarantine, one of his many calls to the company led him to an agent who seemed willing to help. She told him to try sending a letter through a different portal on the website — one dedicated not to drivers, but to law enforcement and public health officials.

That seemed to get some gears turning, but the financial assistance still did not come.

When Mr. Frenette complained that he had no way to make money and was still not getting help, the company reactivated his account, essentially allowing him to drive.

“Reactivating someone’s account when a medical professional has stated that they might have been exposed to coronavirus and is under self-quarantine is a careless way to avoid taking responsibility for the financial assistance I’m supposed to receive,” Mr. Frenette wrote to Uber on March 28. “That doesn’t look so great.”

His account has since been suspended again. Ms. Whaling confirmed that his account had been briefly activated, adding that the mistake was quickly “rectified and resolved.”

Mr. Frenette said he started to think about how other drivers in similar situations might be faring under the new policy, and what he could do to help.

He contacted news reporters. Business Insider first reported on Mr. Frenette’s case, among others, in an article published on Wednesday.

On Thursday, Mr. Frenette got a phone call from a woman at Uber who told him that he was getting an assistance payment. Ms. Whaling said that Mr. Frenette’s payment was processed as part of the normal review process.

“We did become aware of this driver’s situation through the Business Insider reporter, but his claim was already under review and we were taking action on it,” Ms. Whaling said.

Uber did not immediately respond to a question about how much it has spent on coronavirus payment assistance so far.

Mr. Frenette’s account is scheduled to become active again on Monday, which will allow him to drive, but he has heard that demand for ride-hailing apps has dropped precipitously since his quarantine.

He is keenly aware that not all drivers would have the time and energy to pursue the help as doggedly as he did.

“Because I’m annoying and I create a big firestorm, I’m getting my money and all these other people aren’t,” he said. “Given the amount of absolute hell I went through, I’m sure everyone else went through it too.”

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