Amazon, Lyft Putting Pressure on Drivers Amid Coronavirus Fears

“Keep your car clean”

A photo of a gig worker delivering Amazon packages. She has a bunch of packages in her hands and is getting out of the car.
Amazon Flex driver Arielle McCain, 24, delivers a package in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Photo: Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe/Getty Images

AAmazon is encouraging employees at its Seattle headquarters to work from home this month after a worker was diagnosed with coronavirus. “We’re supporting the affected employee,” an Amazon spokesperson told CNN, as technology’s biggest companies take increasing measures to insulate staff from COVID-19.

At the same time, Amazon Flex drivers, gig workers who complete last-mile Amazon deliveries, were told to stay home if they feel sick—without pay.

“Wash your hands frequently,” they were advised in a memo sent by Amazon on Friday and reviewed by OneZero, a request that may be hard for Flex drivers to fulfill when they have so little time to meet delivery quotas. (In the past, some have reported urinating in water bottles just to make deliveries on schedule.) Workers who have been “within 6ft of a person with a confirmed case [of COVID-19]” — the distance that coronavirus can travel through the air — should email a support line, the memo adds.

Confirmed coronavirus cases have surpassed 100,000 around the world, and at least 60 have been reported in California. Gig workers at Amazon, Uber, Lyft, Instacart, and other technology platforms say they’re being excluded from Silicon Valley’s efforts to cocoon itself from the disease. While companies were urging employees in their offices to work remotely and use paid sick leave if they feel ill — and Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Twitter have announced they will continue paying hourly contract workers regular wages to accommodate working from home — memos sent to gig workers did not offer similar support.

Because they are classified as independent contractors, gig workers are not covered by the same laws that require some companies to offer their employees health insurance. “It would cost me about $100 to see a doctor with my current health insurance,” said Alameda-based Lyft driver Edan Alva. Offering sick leave may be used as evidence that gig economy companies are treating contractors as employees, so they may be hesitant to compensate workers who take time off to self-quarantine.

Meanwhile, gig economy jobs — which often involve interacting with large numbers of people — cannot be done remotely and are typically paid by the task, which means that vital preventative actions like handwashing and isolation can result in negative ratings for a late delivery or even missed pay. For many, following instructions to stop working if feeling ill will mean an immediate loss of income, though Uber has said it will compensate drivers diagnosed with coronavirus.

Amazon is “basically threatening that I’ll be out of work if I have any symptoms of being sick, coronavirus or not, but no protections and no offers for help in the event it happens,” said Jeff Perry, a Sacramento resident who drives for Amazon Flex and Uber.

In response to a request for comment, a spokesperson for Amazon told OneZero that the company is continuing to monitor the situation.

“Our top priority is protecting people’s health, and we are actively supporting employees on an individual, case-by-case basis,” the spokesperson said. “We will continue evaluating next steps should we see a much broader impact.”

Lyft posted a memo to its app for drivers that urges them to “disinfect your car frequently” with wipes and sprays and “avoid close contact with others who are sick.” (“Keep your car clean,” one of the memo’s headers reads.) Some Uber and Lyft drivers are now avoiding airports, and there are reports of drivers refusing Asian passengers due to racist fears around coronavirus. (“We don’t tolerate discrimination of any kind,” Lyft’s memo says.)

Uber similarly warned drivers in an email and an in-app post to “stay home and away from others” upon showing symptoms such as respiratory issues or fever. “As has always been the case, if you feel uncomfortable picking up a passenger for safety reasons, you can choose not to accept or cancel the trip,” the memo adds, reminding drivers that discrimination is against its community guidelines. In February, Uber briefly suspended the accounts of 240 Uber customers who rode with two drivers suspected of being in contact with the coronavirus, though neither driver developed any symptoms.

“We have a dedicated global team of Uber operations, security and safety executives, guided by the advice of a consulting public health expert, working to respond as needed in each market where we operate around the world,” an Uber spokesperson told OneZero. Lyft did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the instructions it sent drivers.

On-demand food delivery services are surging as more people seclude themselves from public spaces like grocery stores, but if drivers aren’t able to take steps to protect their own health or quarantine when appropriate, ordering in won’t necessarily avoid exposure.

“We’re actively working with local and national authorities to monitor the situation as it unfolds,” an Instacart spokesperson told OneZero. “We’re adhering to recommendations from public health officials to ensure we’re operating safely with minimal disruption to our service while also taking the appropriate precautionary measures to keep teams, shoppers, and customers safe.”

The company, whose sales spiked by a magnitude of 20 last week, launched a new feature allowing customers to have deliveries left at their doorstep rather than physically handed to them. “Now you can get your food delivered without any human contact,” CNN Business wrote. Postmates rolled out a similar option.

Still, an Instacart order touches countless hands before arriving at your home, not to mention perishable items that can go bad from sitting on a doorstep.

“It not only feels dehumanizing, it’s also a liability for us [because food could go missing or become spoiled if left outside],” said Bay Area Instacart shopper Vanessa Bain. “It seems like more of a feel-good measure than anything substantive.”

On Friday, Virginia Sen. Mark Warren sent letters to the CEOs of Uber, Postmates, Lyft, Instacart, Grubhub, and DoorDash, asking them not to penalize workers for taking precautions around coronavirus and criticized the companies for not addressing the “broader challenges” that gig workers face.

It’s unclear how these issues would be reconciled; Warner suggested companies create a fund that gig workers could “tap into” to get tested or self-quarantine or continue to provide workers with “regular average pay” regardless of whether they’re able to meet typical hours.

An Uber spokesperson said the company is “exploring compensation for drivers who have been quarantined or diagnosed with coronavirus, whether independently, through a fund, or in partnership with peer companies,” and will be responding to Warner’s letter.

“I strongly urge that you attempt to address the potential financial hardship for your workers if they are sick or have to self-quarantine during this time,” Warner said in a statement. “In order to limit the spread of COVID-19, it is critical that platform companies lead by example by committing that economic uncertainty will not be deterrents to their workers following public health guidance during the response.”

Update: This story has been updated to include a comment from Amazon, additional comments from Uber, and information about how Uber is compensating drivers who are diagnosed with coronavirus.

Update: Amazon announced on March 11 that its independent contractors and seasonal employees can apply for grants equal to about two weeks of pay if they are diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed into quarantine by the government or Amazon.

Staff writer at OneZero covering social platforms, internet communities, and the spread of misinformation online. Previously: VICE

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