The COVID-19 juggernaut is in motion and it seems to be setting up camp in every country. The first confirmed case of the SARS-CoV2 induced disease was reported in the U.S. on January 20th, 2020; since then, the virus has spread to all 50 states. Now, the U.S. has the highest number of active cases, with the number rising daily.
The pandemic has already had a massive impact on the U.S. economy, resulting in the curtailing of several sectors. One of the most affected sectors is the transportation industry. From grounding passenger flights and lowering railway commutes to disruptions in road freight, the United States’ transport sector has been hard-hit.
A massive challenge facing the U.S. government is trying to stop the spread of the virus by convincing people to stay home. Sure, some have the luxury of working from home. But for other Americans, it’s not as easy as sitting behind a laptop the whole day and typing.
For those who drive for ride-sharing companies, in particular, the onset of COVID-19 presents a unique challenge. The very nature of their work demands that they interact with people. For these drivers, their ability to work and self-isolate are antagonistic. On the one hand, they understand the importance of staying home. But taking that option means they simply don’t work.
The federal government and the World Health Organization recommend maintaining a distance of six feet as part of the social distancing protocol. That’s not the easiest thing in a car. The furthest apart a driver and passenger could be in a standard automobile is around one to three feet. Cars are meant to be comfy, but they’re also compact.
Aside from income loss, driving remains a danger in itself. A 2017 Ohio State Highway Patrol report mentions 379 fatal crashes that took place as a result of driving while impaired. While services like Uber and Lyft have long-since been a way to stop drinking and driving accidents, the drivers we depend on to bring us back home are now facing other hazards. One driver maintained that they’ve lost 70% of their income due to the outbreak, while others are unable to pay for their auto insurance. Some even fear they might lose their homes.
Uber and Lyft drivers find themselves in a pickle since the government deems the private transportation industry as essential. What makes the situation worse is the fact that more people now prefer using these services to avoid crowded subways and buses. For drivers, it’s impossible to say no to ferrying passengers; these passengers are the lifeline of their business.
Lost incomes and higher exposure risks to the disease are tough enough for the drivers, but they also feel abandoned by their employers. It’s upon the drivers to disinfect the interior of their cars with wipes that they buy out-of-pocket. This indifference from the parent companies concerning the state and well-being of their drivers is hard for the drivers to take.
The argument from Uber and Lyft is that their drivers are independent contractors. As such, they are not employees and are therefore not eligible for health coverage and must cover their running costs. The drivers, therefore, have to fend for their own safety.
For some of the drivers, getting sick from COVID-19 is the least of their priorities. For a lot of them, supporting their families comes first. The fear of a drop in revenue is far greater than the fear of COVID-19. Living road-to-mouth doesn’t give them much of an option.
It seems that Uber and Lyft aren’t entirely blind to the precarious situation facing their drivers. The two companies have stopped all pooled rides in the U.S. in an attempt to implement social distancing. This measure might help, but it isn’t such a huge comfort to the drivers. Even transporting a single passenger still carries significant risks.
Experts have urged Uber and Lyft to address the looming financial hardship by committing that their workers will adhere to public health guidance. Each company replied to the call in its own way, with the responses continuing to evolve. On Sunday, March 8th, 2020, Uber announced that all its U.S. drivers who obtain a doctor’s note would have access to paid time off. Additionally, the company said it would supply its workers with the necessary cleaning supplies, although this measure has yet to be implemented.
A lot of the drivers say they’re unsure how to protect themselves and their customers adequately. Most of them are uncertain if they’ll get the promised compensation. For the drivers, it’s a game of watch and wait.
Given the ever-evolving knowledge of COVID-19, company policies remain dynamic. For most drivers who use multiple platforms (that is, drivers who work for both Uber and Lyft), the tough task is keeping track of the rules and guidance from their employers. The position that each company takes on the disease may also vary, meaning drivers have to juggle between working and getting a grasp of company stance.
If the past two weeks are anything to go by, it largely seems that drivers are on their own. Safety and compensation guidelines are trickling in but not fast enough. The effort to control the spread of the disease still lies in the hands of the drivers.
Currently, there hasn’t been a full shutdown of Uber services in any city, which means that the drivers can continue to ferry passengers to and from various locations. That might be a glimmer of good news for the drivers who rely on the platform to earn a living, but the elephant in the room still lingers. Uber and Lyft drivers are supposed to choose between continuing to risk their lives and losing out on an income. Sadly, it doesn’t seem like they have much of a choice.