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Uber and Lyft drivers in NYC, concerned by coronavirus, say apps aren’t helping enough

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“The fear is real, the threat is there, and the company is not helping in terms of minimizing the fear” 

A rider hails a car via Lyft in Manhattan.
An iPhone with the Lyft ride-sharing app on it shows cars in the area on Park Avenue in New York City March 26, 2019.
AFP via Getty Images

Update March 17, 3:15 p.m.: Uber and Lyft have both suspended their carpooling services in the United States in response to concerns about the coronavirus.

Update March 16, 10:30 a.m.: Uber changed its sick-leave policy yesterday and will no longer require drivers to have a positive COVID-19 test in order to qualify for sick pay. Uber will calculate the sick pay based on the driver’s average daily pay for the previous six months, with drivers eligible to receive up to 14 days of pay.

Concerns over contracting or spreading the novel coronavirus have changed how New Yorkers get around—and, according to Uber and Lyft drivers, present serious challenges to their income and livelihood.

The ride-hailing industry, which employs roughly 80,000 drivers in New York City, is grappling with how to care for drivers and help those who are sick, as well as whether financial stimulus measures may be necessary in the event of a prolonged downturn that decreases ridership.

Uber and Lyft have reacted to public health concerns with plans to help drivers stay safe, such as offering supplies to disinfect cars as well as medical help and financial assistance to those who contract coronavirus. Those companies also have internal teams in contact with local and national health officials, waiting to update operations when needed.

But many drivers, who feel they’re on the front lines of the pandemic, say the plans don’t do enough. They already struggle to earn enough in the gig economy, and feel the threat of less business—and even the extra added expense of buying additional sanitizer and disinfectant—will quickly make it hard to pay bills, rent, and mortgages in the coming weeks.

Henry Chen, 27, an Uber driver from Flushing, told Curbed that fear among drivers around catching coronavirus is rampant, and that Uber does not have a clear procedure to help drivers if they become sick.

“It’s not just myself alone, every single driver out there has the fear of catching coronavirus, especially picking up passengers from an airport or hospital,” he says. “The fear is real, the threat is there, and the company is not helping in terms of minimizing the fear.”

In a March 9 email, the city’s Taxi & Limousine Commission (TLC) noted that “COVID-19 is not known to transmit through the air or casual contact, such as riding in the same elevator or car.” But that hasn’t reassured some drivers.

Tina Raveneau, 39, who drives for both Uber and Lyft and lives in Crown Heights, says that, as a single mom with a son, getting sick would impact her ability pay rent and feed her child. “App companies have to at least ensure that if I pick up a rider who is infected and need to go home and self-quarantine myself, that my bills will be paid,” she says.

Representatives of the Independent Drivers Guild (IDG), a union of Lyft, Uber, and Via drivers, says those services haven’t provided enough details around sick pay and telemedicine screenings to ensure that drivers get tested. Drivers do have access to a telemedicine service via the Black Car Fund, a state nonprofit, but the guild wants better and easier access, like an in-app option for accessing telemedicine services and sending in documentation for sick pay. It also wants to make sure those who test positive have guaranteed income if they can’t work.

“The best-intentioned traveler with COVID-19 must get home to self-quarantine,” Brendan Sexton, the executive director of the IDG, said in a statement. “But first, they need to get home, and Uber, Lyft, and Via drivers are the way they often do that. We know drivers will get sick. Uber, Lyft, and Via must work with us to ensure these drivers have the ability to stay home.”

Sick pay has become especially important to drivers, says Chen, because demand and business have decreased in the wake of widespread working from home, the closure of public spaces, and the cancellation of events. Roughly two weeks ago, Chen says, demand spiked as New Yorkers started avoiding the subway; but over the last two weeks, he’s seen demand and business decrease. Meanwhile, 70 to 80 percent of the drivers he knows are staying home out of a combination of fear of coronavirus and lack of work.

A sudden drop in business could be devastating to workers in the ride-hailing industry. According to a 2018 poll of drivers in New York, “an 85 percent majority struggle ‘to make their monthly payments like rent, utilities, car payments and other bills,’ and if unable to drive due to illness or car trouble, 70 percent would run out money within a month.” Harry Campbell, a ridesharing industry expert who stated The Rideshare Guy site, says that due to the financial situation of many contractors, he thinks it’s important Uber, Lyft, and other services provide all the cleaning supplies drivers.

“If drivers are responsible for sourcing and paying for these items, you can bet only some are going to do it since they don’t earn much and are responsible for all expenses,” he says.

An in-app message sent to Uber drivers informing them of the closures of Greenlight Hubs across the country.

Both Uber and Lyft have released updates in the last few days in light of the fast-moving situation in New York City and across the country. In a March 10 email, Uber told drivers that it would distribute disinfectant for vehicles, prioritizing cities with the greatest need. Another email sent on March 11 and signed by CEO Dara Khosrowshahi reiterated that drivers who were diagnosed would get financial assistance. Uber also confirmed Friday morning that it was closing driver hubs across the U.S. and Canada through April 6.

Uber has said it will provide financial assistance to drivers with proper documentation showing they have been “diagnosed with the coronavirus, or if they are placed in individual quarantine, asked to self-isolate, or removed from the app for up to 14 days at the direction of a public health authority. “

“Drivers and delivery people in these situations will receive financial assistance for a period of up to 14 days,” says Andrew Macdonald, senior vice president of rides and platform. “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.”

Lyft also promised to help drivers diagnosed with the illness. In a statement, the company said, “we will provide funds to drivers should they be diagnosed with COVID-19 or put under individual quarantine by a public health agency. This helps support drivers financially when they can’t drive, while also protecting our riders’ health.” The company also said in a March 7 email it would distribute more than 200,000 bottles of sanitizer and disinfectant nationwide at rider hubs across the country “in the coming days,” which as of Friday morning are still open.

But Chen says, with the national and local backlog in testing, drivers aren’t sure who to go to for such tests, and how to get that documentation.

“The other drivers I talk to don’t understand how to get tested and how to get sick pay,” Chen says. “The concern is they don’t know who to go to. Uber does not make it clear.”

Raveneau is also concerned that these services also haven’t stopped group or pool rides. Uber confirmed that it’s still offering this option; according to a spokesperson, “we are currently not limiting shared rides, but we are always evaluating our response and working with public health authorities to ensure we are responding appropriately based on the local situation.”

“How can you practice social distancing with multiple people in a car?” says Raveneau. “Pool rides have to go.”

Chen says New York’s TLC hasn’t offered needed help or assistance, either; its guidance to disinfect cars every 24 hours won’t help if drivers can’t afford supplies. What workers need, in addition to clear guidance around testing, is financial support; Chen believes the city should consider a bailout of financially struggling drivers. (Curbed has reached out to the TLC and will update the story when we hear more).

“The impact of this is very immediate, very devastating, and unrecoverable,” Chen says. “Drivers are their own businesses. They’ll fall behind on rent, on insurance. We need people to not just say things.”

“Now it’s a crisis,” says Raveneau. “The government is talking about giving everybody tax breaks, what about us? We get everyone to work, take them home to their families. What about us?”