‘These People Are Evil’: Drivers Speak Out Against Uber’s New Coronavirus Sick Leave Fund
The program excludes those who don’t have access to medical care or who must isolate themselves for their own protection
One morning in March, Uber driver E.W. picked up a passenger in San Francisco’s Cow Hollow neighborhood. The rider appeared ill and explained that he was going to the hospital.
“He said, ‘I think I’ve got Covid-19,’” recalled E.W., who asked that OneZero not use his full name. Suddenly, the man began coughing up blood.
After completing the trip, “I completely disinfected the car and drove around with my windows open,” E.W. said. “I don’t know for a fact that he had Covid-19. It’s not like people get in with their medical records.”
Countless Uber drivers are now being pushed to the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, transporting humans, food, supplies, and maybe soon Covid-19 testing kits as shelter-in-place rules cause demand for delivery services to spike. Yet despite their exposure to infection, gig workers lack paid sick leave, health benefits, or unemployment insurance because of their status as independent contractors.
Earlier this month, Uber, Lyft, and Amazon drivers protested the exclusion of gig workers from Silicon Valley’s monumental heave to protect itself from the coronavirus. As technology employees go remote, contractors are burdened with extra demands and no additional support.
Uber, Lyft, and Amazon eventually agreed to compensate gig workers through ad hoc funds, but OneZero spoke to Uber drivers who say this is hardly a safety net.
“I think I’m going to fall through the cracks,” said Kimberly James, a 46-year-old driver for Uber Eats in Atlanta, Georgia. After a series of devastating hardships, including losing her house in a fire, James has come to rely on food delivery platforms like Uber Eats and DoorDash to survive. In 2012, James was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder, and her weekly income of $400 means she cannot afford to get sick. Health officials have warned that the coronavirus is especially dangerous for immunocompromised people, so today James has no choice but to isolate indoors.
“[Uber thinks] that drivers are college students, but what they don’t understand is that most are elderly, poor, and people like me.”
Uber’s Covid-19 sick leave program allows drivers to apply for up to 14 days of compensation through a new portal on its Driver app. One-time payouts are based on a person’s average daily earnings for the past six months. Someone making $28.57 per day is eligible for a payment of $400, the equivalent of 14 days of average pay, while someone earning $121.42 per day can receive $1,700, Uber says on its website. To qualify, drivers must have completed one trip in the 30 days before March 6, 2020, when the global program was first announced.
Only four types of people are covered by the program, according to Uber’s guidelines: those diagnosed with Covid-19, someone placed in individual quarantine by a public health authority, anyone “asked by a public health authority or licensed medical provider to self-isolate,” and drivers whose accounts have been “restricted by Uber as a result of information provided by a public health authority” that they have been exposed to Covid-19.
While these criteria seem broad, OneZero spoke to several Uber drivers who said they exclude many workers without access to medical care.
“[Uber thinks] that drivers are college students, but what they don’t understand is that most are elderly, poor, and people like me,” James said. “It’s the only job we can do.”
Last week, James submitted an application for financial assistance through Uber’s Covid-19 portal. After explaining why she had self-quarantined, her request for compensation was acknowledged by a customer service operator, who wrote, “We understand that health is an important subject, and we are sorry to hear about your experience,” while listing recommendations such as, “If you feel sick, stay at home.”
As James puts it, the Uber operator told her “to either basically get the virus or find a way to get a doctor’s note, and I can’t afford to go to a doctor.” Before Congress passed legislation making coronavirus testing free, some patients treated for the coronavirus saw hospital bills of more than $30,000. For many Americans, the cost of treatment is simply unaffordable.
At one point in the conversation, which OneZero reviewed, Uber directed James to a portal where law enforcement and public health officials can submit information requests — effectively a dead end. She has since stopped trying to convince Uber to provide financial assistance while she cannot work.
When asked why it was sending drivers to a law enforcement portal, a spokesperson for Uber told OneZero that it is “changing that process to better the increased volume and ensure it’s easier for drivers and delivery people to access.”
The company has not revealed how many drivers have applied for or received financial compensation.
“I need the company that I helped make a lot of money to be there for me,” James wrote in the conversation thread.
Even with a doctor’s note, drivers say Uber is denying them sick pay. Steve Gregg, a 51-year-old father and Uber driver in Antioch, California, developed a dry, hacking cough this month. Out of an abundance of caution, he decided to self-quarantine and forego a week’s worth of pay.
Like James, Gregg hoped Uber would acknowledge his efforts to “flatten the curve” by staying home — the very thing Uber has been telling its drivers to do.
He obtained a note from his doctor stating that “he is in a high-risk category for severe disease should he contract Covid-19 through exposure of driving people around and therefore needs to avoid unnecessary exposure.”
Uber temporarily suspended Gregg’s account when he applied for assistance. The company took similar action in February and deactivated the accounts of 240 Uber customers who rode with two drivers suspected of being in contact with the virus.
After five days, Uber denied Gregg’s request for aid, because he did not possess documentation saying he’d been exposed to, tested for, or diagnosed with Covid-19. He has not tried to challenge the decision.
Prior to getting sick, Gregg drove roughly 50 hours per week, earning barely enough to cover gas and other daily expenses. “I told them it was deadly for me with a doctor’s recommendation, and they welcomed me to the graveyard,” Gregg said. “These people are evil. They’re starting a class war.”
Amid a pandemic, Uber continues to resist pressure to classify its workers as employees. On Monday, Uber chief executive Dara Khosrowshahi asked President Trump in a letter to include drivers in the federal stimulus bill, but as independent contractors.
“My goal in writing to you is not to ask for a bailout for Uber, but rather for support for the independent workers on our platform and, once we move past the immediate crisis, the opportunity to legally provide them with a real safety net going forward,” Khosrowshahi wrote.
California’s landmark labor law, AB 5, makes it more difficult for companies to classify workers as independent contractors, and it’s unclear if the pandemic will influence ongoing legal action against gig economy companies. Instacart, for instance, may be required to reclassify its workers as employees according to the law. Uber, Lyft, and other platforms invested $110 million in a ballot measure to overturn AB 5 that Californians will vote on in November.
On Tuesday, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors introduced a resolution urging the Office of Labor Standards Enforcement to ensure that companies like Uber and Lyft comply with AB 5.
After E.W.’s passenger coughed up blood in the car, E.W. started to feel ill. He was tested at a drive-thru center in Santa Clara, where doctors prescribed a rescue inhaler and cough medicine before sending him home to self-quarantine. He also received a note advising he not return to work.
E.W. applied for sick leave and was compensated by Uber, but he said the process was overly complicated and “very opaque.”
He submitted his request through a customer service line, not Uber’s coronavirus portal, after refusing to consent to terms he viewed as unethical. To use the portal, drivers must check a box acknowledging that the collection and use of their health data does not reflect or form an employment relationship with Uber, according to a screenshot reviewed by OneZero.
“I had to acknowledge that I would not go after Uber over AB 5, which has zero to do with this crisis,” E.W. explained. “I can’t understand why Uber is using that against drivers who’ve been exposed to a virus.”
Uber temporarily suspended his account before dispensing $2,108 into his Driver app. The company did not provide a breakdown of how it had arrived at this amount.
“I was just persistent,” E.W. said. “I had my doctor’s letter, and I kept sending it to any link I could find.”
E.W. doesn’t know what the future holds and says he may seek unemployment and disability support. But even in California and New York, where Uber drivers are eligible for jobless benefits thanks to laws like AB 5 and state-level rulings that these programs should consider ride-sharing drivers employees, it’s unclear how much E.W. stands to gain. Since Uber refuses to report its drivers’ income — as is required of employers — workers must jump through additional hoops to qualify for these benefits.
A federal stimulus package and statewide reforms to protect gig workers may provide immediate relief, but the long-term consequences of Uber’s business model are being laid bare by the coronavirus pandemic. Without a safety net, gig workers can’t afford to stay home, and because of this perverse incentive, they endanger their own health and that of others.
“Every one of these companies is saying the same thing, which is, ‘Get the virus, and then you can have some help,” James said. “I’m falling through the cracks everywhere.”