Zachary Frenette, 29, was diagnosed with HIV 10 years ago. He takes medicine every day and has gotten used to being immunocompromised from the disease. But since the novel coronavirus has taken over life across the US, he’s had to be extra careful. And because he’s a full-time Uber driver, that’s made things difficult.
“The COVID-19 virus attacks your immune system and mine is already under attack, that’s the terrifying part of that,” Frenette, who lives in Phoenix, said in an interview on March 31. “I’m at increased risk for death or getting ill.”
Frenette tried for almost two weeks to get paid sick leave from Uber after his doctor mandated him to self-quarantine in order to avoid exposure to the coronavirus while driving. But he was consistently denied that financial assistance. Uber said the compensation was only open to drivers diagnosed with or exposed to COVID-19. After he reached out to several media outlets detailing his story, Uber finally deposited $1,565 into his account on April 2.
But now things are changing for Uber drivers like Frenette.
Switching course, the ride-hailing company announced Friday that drivers with preexisting conditions will now be eligible for two weeks of paid sick leave. The criteria includes a doctor’s letter saying the preexisting condition puts the driver at higher risk of serious illness due to COVID-19.
“We moved quickly, which meant there were problems we didn’t anticipate and things we just got wrong,” an Uber spokeswoman told CNET. “Now we are trying to adjust with changing circumstances and respond to the very legitimate issues drivers and delivery people raised.”
Along with adding drivers with preexisting conditions to its paid leave policy, Uber said it’s also going back and looking at drivers who submitted claims over the past month and were rejected. If those rejected claims include drivers with preexisting conditions, Uber will retroactively provide them financial assistance.
Uber is the first major gig economy company to offer paid leave to workers who are vulnerable to COVID-19. Other gig economy companies, like Lyft, Instacart, DoorDash and Postmates, say they offer sick leave to workers who’ve been diagnosed with and exposed to the disease, but have yet to address people with preexisting conditions.
COVID-19 is known to be especially dangerous for certain groups of people, such as those over the age of 60 and people with diabetes, heart conditions, respiratory problems and immune-suppressing illness, like HIV, cancer and Crohn’s disease.
Over the past several weeks, gig workers have rallied aroundand safety supplies from the companies. Many have demanding more protections. Because gig workers are classified as independent contractors, they lack benefits, such as mandated sick leave, that employees get.
During the coronavirus pandemic, gig workers say such benefits are all the more important because they’re often on the front lines, driving people around and delivering food and supplies.
More than 1,400 Uber drivers have now been infected with COVID-19 or exposed to the disease, Uber confirmed to CNET. At the end of March, Anil Subba, an Uber driver who lived in Queens, New York, became the first known gig worker to die from COVID-19 after he’d driven a sick passenger from the airport.
Uber has led the charge in the US when it comes to offering more protections to gig workers during the coronavirus outbreak. It was the first company to announce two weeks paid leave for drivers, and one of the first toto send to workers.
But a lot of these changes have come after pressure from drivers and gig worker advocacy groups.
The Independent Drivers Guild, which represents 200,000 drivers in the New York area, sent Uber a letter two weeks ago demanding the company include drivers with preexisting conditions in its paid leave policy. The intent is to “ensure that at-risk drivers would not put their lives at risk to drive,” the letter reads.
While Uber didn’t respond to the Guild’s letter, it appears to have paid attention to what the group and many other drivers have been saying.
Uber’s new sick leave policy comes with some major changes, however. The most notable is a cap on how much money each driver can receive. That “maximum payment” will differ by city and be based on the typical earnings of drivers and delivery people in that city. Previously, the policy was based on individual driver’s earnings.
“We know that establishing a maximum payment per person means some of the most active drivers and delivery people will receive less than what they typically earned before COVID-19 was widespread,” Uber wrote in a blog post. “But by expanding eligibility, we hope this assistance can provide a modest form of relief for more drivers and their families.”
All drivers who meet the sick leave criteria and have done at least one trip for Uber in the past month will get $50. Those drivers who’ve worked more will be eligible for additional money. For example, the maximum payment in Los Angeles is $459 and in Columbus, Ohio, is $244.
These new capped payments are far lower than what drivers were getting under Uber’s previous paid leave policy. For comparison, CNET spoke to one full-time San Francisco Uber driver last month who received $2,108 and another driver from Castro Valley, California, who got $1,600.
“Capping pandemic payments hurts full-time drivers the most. These are the workers who rely on driving to support their families,” said Moira Muntz, spokeswoman for the Independent Drivers Guild. “Why would they slash assistance for their most active drivers and those who are most significantly harmed by being unable to work during this pandemic?”
As for Frenette, the Uber driver in Phoenix, even though he could go back to driving after his two-week sick leave ends, he’ll still be vulnerable to COVID-19 as someone who’s HIV positive. His doctor told him he should hold off on driving for now and Frenette said he’s following her advice.
“I am concerned about my health and I am concerned about my financial future,” Frenette said. But, he added, he’s used to that after having lived so long with HIV. “I’ve kind of had a ticking time bomb strapped to my hip since I was pretty young.”