Ride-hail drivers say they’re at high risk of being exposed to the novel coronavirus.


James Martin/CNET

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As the novel coronavirus spreads around the world, Uber and Lyft drivers in California are asking both companies to do more to protect them. A coalition of drivers released a list of demands Thursday asking the ride-hailing services to take immediate steps to help ensure their safety.

The demands include providing free COVID-19 screenings to all drivers, along with 14 days paid leave for all affected drivers. The drivers, who are organized with advocacy group Mobile Workers Alliance, are also saying Uber and Lyft should drop a November ballot measure that aims to keep drivers classified as independent contractors. 

The companies have each put $30 million behind the measure. Drivers say those funds should instead be used to provide them relief.

“To say we’re at higher risk to contract the coronavirus is an understatement,” said full-time Lyft driver James Widst. “Uber and Lyft have left us without any support.”

At least three Uber drivers have come in contact with passengers believed to have been infected with the coronavirus, and at least one other driver has tested positive. That news has left Uber and Lyft drivers feeling insecure about how to protect themselves from the coronavirus and COVID-19, the disease the virus causes. COVID-19 has reportedly infected more than 235,000 people and killed nearly 10,000 worldwide.

Earlier this week, Uber and Lyft announced “paid leave” policies for drivers infected with the coronavirus. Under the policies, if a driver gets diagnosed with COVID-19 or is put in quarantine by a recognized public health authority, the companies will provide financial assistance to them for up to 14 days. 

To prevent the spread of the disease, both Uber and Lyft also temporarily suspended their shared-rides feature in the US and Canada this week.

“The mounting fear and uncertainty caused by the coronavirus is being felt by everyone around the world. We know it’s especially concerning for people who drive and deliver with Uber,” an Uber spokesman said in an email. “In these difficult times, their well-being is at the top of our minds, and we have a dedicated team working around the clock to support them the very best we can.”

But drivers with Mobile Workers Alliance say they need more to stay safe.

Over the past week, thousands of drivers have signed a petition urging Uber and Lyft to comply with Assembly Bill 5 — a California law that went into effect on Jan. 1 and could require the companies to classify their drivers as employees. With employee status, the drivers could be eligible for paid sick and family leave. This is something drivers say has become all the more important during the coronavirus pandemic.

Rather than reclassify drivers as employees, however, the companies instead sponsored the ballot initiative to take the issue to voters in November. Along with Uber and Lyft, food delivery company DoorDash also chipped in $30 million to support the initiative, known as the Protect App-Based Drivers and Services Act. Instacart and Postmates have each added $10 million, bringing the total raised to $110 million.

“App-based delivery and rideshare are being deemed essential services by mayors and governors around the country during this time of public emergency, helping neighbors and the most vulnerable among us get food, groceries, medicine and other necessities,” Stacey Wells, campaign spokeswoman for the Protect App-Based Drivers & Services Act, said in a statement. “The ongoing effort to force rideshare and delivery drivers to become employees, which drivers do not want by a 4:1 margin, will not lead to new benefits.”

Drivers with Mobile Workers Alliance agree that their jobs are invaluable during the coronavirus outbreak. Jerome Gage, a full-time Lyft driver, said Thursday that ride-hail drivers are giving rides to sick people, especially those who are too vulnerable to take public transport and can’t afford ambulances. This kind of work puts drivers in harm’s way, he said.

“Because Uber and Lyft refuse to comply with state law and properly classify us as employees, we’re left without guaranteed paid sick time, unemployment insurance or employer-provided health care,” Gage said. “If drivers like me begin to show symptoms, we’re forced to decide between self-quarantining and making enough money to keep food on the table for our families. It’s unacceptable.”

As of now drivers say they’re doing what they can to keep their cars disease-free, including deep cleans between rides and providing hand sanitizer to passengers. Those drivers who may be vulnerable to COVID-19, like seniors and people with suppressed immune systems, worry they can’t afford to self-isolate as is being advised by health authorities.

“In the time of public health crisis, [Uber and Lyft] abandon us,” said Linda Valdieia, a 67-year-old Uber driver. “Even in the best of circumstances this is an outrage. But today, in the time of coronavirus, this is a death sentence.”

Lyft declined to comment. 

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