Mario Tama, Getty Images

Uber and Lyft still aren't helping their most vulnerable drivers

By Sara Ashley O'Brien, CNN | Posted - Mar. 26, 2020 at 2:35 p.m.



CNN — It's been a full week since Nicole Knesek, a driver for Uber and Lyft in Carmichael, California, attempted to apply for paid coronanvirus leave from the ride-hailing companies.

While Knesek, 36, doesn't have coronavirus, she is immunosuppressed. She received a kidney transplant just over a year ago and is on medication that limits her body's ability to fight off infections and diseases. "My doctor advises to only go out when I need lab tests," she said, adding that she has a note from her doctor indicating she is in the category of people who should be isolated at home.

On March 7, Uber was the first of the on-demand gig companies to say it would compensate workers who are diagnosed with coronavirus or are placed in mandatory quarantine for up to 14 days. It shared more details on March 15 about the policy, with criteria that said drivers who were "personally asked to self-isolate by a public health authority or licensed medical provider" could apply for the financial assistance by providing a doctor's note.

On March 18, Uber added more specific language on its page about coronavirus financial support that rules out Knesek's eligibility. The criteria now states that drivers and delivery people who "are personally asked by a public health authority or licensed medical provider to self-isolate due to your risk of spreading COVID-19" can qualify. It does not say anything about those who are staying home with underlying conditions because they are more vulnerable to contracting the virus. As public health authorities have advised, these people are at risk for serious complications if they contract the virus.

As cases of coronavirus rack up across the US, the people who give rides, deliver groceries or restaurant orders for gig economy companies are on the frontlines of the outbreak. Gig workers have long had a contentious relationship with the companies they work for, and that tension is increasingly palpable in the midst of this unprecedented public health crisis. Many can't afford to stay home and not work but are getting little support from the companies they work for. Because the companies largely treat their workers as independent contractors — a status that is currently being challenged in the state of California — they don't receive benefits such as health insurance, paid time off or sick leave.

In the wake of the outbreak, many of the gig economy companies agreed to offer a form of paid sick leave for the first time for drivers who are diagnosed with coronavirus or placed under mandatory quarantine. The financial assistance from Uber, for example, is based on a driver's average daily earnings over the past six months, so the payout can range from $400 to $1,700.

But several drivers told CNN Business they believed they would qualify for much-needed financial assistance from Uber if they had underlying health conditions based on the initial language the company detailed. Some, like Knesak, attempted to apply for assistance before the company further updated its language to specify people would only qualify if they were at risk of spreading coronavirus. Others do not have access to health insurance or a primary care physician to provide a doctor's note even if the company would consider it.

"The growing fear and disruption caused by the coronavirus is being felt by everyone around the world. We know this is especially true for people who drive and deliver with Uber," an Uber spokesperson said in a statement. "We have a dedicated team working around the clock to support drivers and delivery people. We are providing up to 14 days financial assistance to drivers diagnosed with COVID-19, or individually asked to be quarantined by a public health authority due to a risk of spreading COVID-19 as announced on 3/15."

In a statement to CNN Business, Lyft said: "This is an unprecedented situation and we are doing everything we can to meet the challenge. We have already diverted team members away from other areas to handle these inquiries full-time, and are actively adding more resources, to help address these inquiries as quickly as possible."

Lyft's language states that it will only support "affected drivers who are identified to us by public health officials or who contact our support team to self-report and provide documentation that they have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or put under individual quarantine by a public health agency." DoorDash and Instacart have similarly said they will only compensate workers who have tested positive for coronavirus or are placed under mandatory quarantine.

Meanwhile, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi appealed to President Donald Trump in a letter sent earlier this week to provide economic support for Uber drivers and other independent contract workers. Khosrowshahi said "my greatest responsibility in the face of unprecedented economic challenge is to the millions of people who drive and deliver on Uber's platform." He was careful to characterize it not as a "bailout for Uber" but "rather for support for independent contractors."

Gig workers would be eligible to receive federal aid under the $2 trillion emergency package approved by the US Senate Thursday. It extends unemployment insurance to gig workers, including four months of $600 per week. The bill is pending a vote in the House.

Also this week, a group of San Francisco Supervisors introduced a resolution calling on government officials to enforce the new California AB-5 law so workers could access protections as employees such as unemployment insurance and paid sick leave.

In the meantime, though, some drivers need to work but also know doing so could compromise their health.

Steve Gregg, an Uber driver in the Bay Area who organizes for Gig Workers Rising, said he similarly attempted to apply for financial aid last week using a doctor's note, before Uber added more specificity to its policy. Gregg, 51, said he has several underlying conditions that make him stay home amid the pandemic. He's borderline diabetic, has compromised lungs, and high blood pressure.

He received a rejection notice from Uber that said he was not "eligible for financial assistance because your documentation does not indicate that you have been exposed to COVID19, have been tested for COVID19, or have been diagnosed with COVID19."

"I don't know what I'm going to do," said Gregg, who noted he does not have health insurance. He had a weekly Avis car rental payment of $250 per week, something he gave up this week.

Erica Mighetto, an Uber and Lyft driver who is currently in the Berkeley area, said she similarly has a car loan to pay for, but has a heart condition and is fearful about continuing to work. "My car payment is a month behind, I need to make another payment on the 28th."

Mighetto, 38, who organizes with another driver advocacy group called Rideshare Drivers United, said she did not attempt to apply for financial aid through the companies because she does not have a primary care physician, or health insurance, and would not be able to provide a doctor's note. Even if she could, as Gregg and Knesek have learned, an underlying condition wouldn't be enough to qualify her.

"As gig economy workers we are put in a really tough spot — you'd think it would be a really easy decision," she told CNN Business. "If I don't work and we get past all of this, I'm not just starting from square one, I'm starting without a car."

The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2018 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.

Related Stories

Sara Ashley O'Brien

    KSL Weather Forecast