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Thursday, February 22, 2024

Coronavirus Exposes Workers to the Risks of the Gig Economy

For the past nine years, Mandolin Noir has taken care of other people’s pets around Seattle, often working through companies like Rover and Wag. The work is steady; she visits the dogs when their owners are at work, and checks in on the cats when owners travel out of town. But in the past week, she’s faced a cascade of cancelations. Her clients who work for Amazon and Zillow have been asked by their employers to stay home because of Covid-19, and vacations have been canceled. Now Noir is trying to find a full-time job—no easy task when half of Seattle is shut down and, as the local health department said on Tuesday, the disease is “spreading more rapidly” in the county.

“Suddenly all of my work has disappeared,” she says. “I have enough money to pay bills through next month and that’s it.”

As coronavirus infections multiply across the country, and particularly in Seattle, “gig economy” workers are again learning that they are on their own. Ahmed Mumin is the executive director of the Seattle Rideshare Drivers Association, which represents 700 local drivers. He says rides are down about 50 percent compared to a normal week, as major local employers like Amazon and Microsoft urge their workers to stay home. “The drivers are very anxious about that,” he says. There’s worry about making rent, paying phone bills, and filling prescriptions. “Really don’t know what I’m gonna do to make money as this is my full-time gig,” one local driver wrote on Reddit.

Beyond the lost income, Mumin says drivers carry the additional worry that comes with a virus that has infected at least 190 local people and killed 22. “For a full-time driver, it would be easy to pick up 15 to 20 people during daily shift,” he says. “You can see why drivers are very worried that the next person they give a ride to has the disease.”

For the app-based “gig economy” companies like Uber, Lyft, Rover, and Instacart—which hire independent contractors instead of employees with benefits—coronavirus may be their biggest test yet.

In theory, gig work is tailor-made for virus panics, or any broad economic swing. Agile independent workers can move from one working relationship to another, with only a phone, an internet connection, a car, and a valid driver’s license as tools of the trade.

That is happening in coronavirus-affected places—to a degree. Grocery delivery drivers report booming business as people heed advice to stay indoors. A Facebook worker reported the company’s VPN had been banned from DoorDash because so many workers were placing orders from home. (DoorDash declined to comment.) One Instacart “shopper” in Seattle who had hustled straight through the weekend delivering groceries and hand sanitizer triumphantly posted her earnings on Reddit: $1,800 in a week. “We've been recommending that [ride-hail] drivers sign up for Instacart and DoorDash since those are two of the more popular delivery services,” says Harry Campbell, the founder of the popular Rideshare Guy driver blog.


The effects are also geographically disparate. In cities where fewer businesses have sent workers home, some ride-hail drivers have reported more work, not less, as commuters seek to avoid public transit.

But the crisis also points to the precariousness of “gig work” performed by a small army of independent contractors, who don’t receive sick pay, workers’ compensation, or health benefits. Some gig workers say the system creates a perverse incentive for cash-strapped contractors to stay behind the wheel, despite the risks to themselves and others they come in contact with. Over the weekend, New York officials announced that a Queens-based Uber driver tested positive for the virus.

Through email and in-app notifications, gig economy companies have distributed basic safety tips: wash your hands; throw away tissues; disinfect surfaces often touched by passengers. Instacart and Postmates have introduced “contactless” delivery options, which allow delivery workers and customers to avoid face-to-face interaction (though research suggests the virus can also be transmitted on surfaces like food cartons or bags). Uber and Lyft both say they will automatically deactivate and compensate drivers who are infected by the virus, or told by public health officials to self-quarantine. Both companies declined to say how much money they were setting aside for the effort. A spokesperson for Uber said the company would work with local governments to support drivers if the virus forced it to stop services in specific markets.

On Sunday, The Wall Street Journal reported that Uber, Lyft, Instacart, Postmates, and DoorDash were in talks for an industry-wide compensation plan for gig workers. Grubhub confirmed to WIRED it was also participating in the coalition, but declined to offer details.

Companies may be reluctant to go too far in offering workers protections, given ongoing legal battles in which they insist the workers are not employees, and the risk that additional benefits become entrenched after the crisis passes. There are no legal limitations to what the companies might offer independent contractors, says Orly Lobel, a professor who studies employment law and intellectual property at the University of San Diego. Last fall, some gig economy companies offered to give a health care stipend to workers who were agitating for more benefits in California. Still, “it might be, despite the fact that there is no rational legal limit to this, that companies are attempting to look as disconnected [as possible] from their independent contractors by not offering any benefits that are associated with the employment relationship,” she says.

Some gig workers say the companies’ efforts aren’t enough. “These companies were built on taking no responsibility or accountability for anything,” says Ezra Dubroff, who has driven in Los Angeles for ride-hail and food-delivery apps since 2013. “When you build an entire industry and economy based on offloading all the efficiencies to someone else—to minimum-wage workers—it doesn’t make the problems disappear.”

For some, like Noir, the Seattle dogsitter, that means little relief is in sight. After the recent cancelations, she says, she has only one client lined up for the rest of the month, with few new prospects. For others, the hustle continues. On Reddit, other Instacart shoppers fawned over the big Seattle earner’s achievement, and wondered if she planned to take a break. “Probably Thursday lol,” she wrote.

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