This is the gig economy in the time of coronavirus.
As cases of coronavirus start to rack up in the US, the people who give rides, deliver groceries or restaurant orders for gig economy companies could be on the frontlines of the outbreak as people avoid public transportation and rely on home deliveries instead of frequenting restaurants and stores.
Now, on-demand companies are beginning to issue some precautionary guidance.But because the companies largely treat their workers as independent contractors — a status that is currently beingchallenged in the state of California — they aren’t currently entitled to benefits such as health insurance, paid time off or sick leave.
Uber(UBER) and Lyft(LYFT) sent messages to workers in recent days with guidance. Both offered the predictable reminder that handwashing and cleanliness are important and noted drivers should disinfect their vehicles frequently. Lyft said it is also distributing sanitizer to drivers at places including its driver service locations and airport queues.
Both Uber and Lyft said they have established teams devoted to responding to the issue.
Uber told drivers that it is “working closely with public health authorities to pass along the most up-to-date guidance,” which included “if you feel sick, stay home,” according to the message within the Uber driver app, seen by CNN Business. But the fact remains that these workers do not have paid sick days, meaning they potentially must weigh their livelihood against risking their health and that of their passengers.
“True to their business model, so-called gig companies continue to put risk on the backs of those who produce value for the company,” said Veena Dubal, a labor law expert and associate professor at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. “In this instance, the allocation of risk threatens not only the lives and health of the gig workers, but also the consumers who use the services. “
In Mexico, two Uber drivers unknowingly transported a passenger who was infected and then went on to provide more rides. In response, the company temporarily suspended 240 passengers who may have been exposed as a result. The anecdote highlights how many lives a gig worker interacts with by doing their jobs. All drivers and riders have since been reactivated, the company said.
Food delivery services Postmates and DoorDash, and grocery delivery company Instacart, also recently issued guidance to their delivery workers. In a statement to CNN Business, Instacart nodded to the fact that customers have been using the platform to brace for coronavirus. “Over the last few days, we’ve seen a surge in customer demand for pantry items such as powdered milk and canned goods, as well as personal care products like hand sanitizer and vitamins.”
Driver forums have been active with conversations about what precautions some are taking, if any. In groups on Facebook, for example, some drivers have suggested not taking passengers coming from airports or hospitals. There are alsoseveral comments from drivers about not accepting passengers who appear to be from China, where coronavirus — also known as Covid-19 — was first detected, with other drivers pushing back on this idea, calling it racist. Others suggest not driving at all.
(As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes, “people of Asian descent, including Chinese Americans, are not more likely to get COVID-19 than any other American.”)
In a notice about coronavirus, Lyft reminds drivers that it does “not tolerate discrimination of any kind.” In an email to its drivers, Uber said they can “choose not to accept or cancel a trip” if they feel “uncomfortable picking up a passenger for safety reasons,” but said it is “absolutely against Uber’s Community Guidelines to discriminate against anyone based on their race or national origin.”