The coronavirus pandemic has crystallized this important fact: Gig economy companies are a public health risk.
By their very design, regulation-ignoring companies that treat their workers as independent contractors rather than employees have created a class of people who are uninsured or underinsured and are incentivized to work long hours, even if it puts them or customers at risk. Even now, as gig economy companies are rolling out the bare minimum in terms of sick leave, we are seeing how vulnerable gig workers really are and how these services have created an underclass of people who serve the rich.
While most of Silicon Valley’s white-collar workers are working from home and the masses are being asked to self-isolate, Uber and Lyft drivers, Grubhub and Seamless delivery drivers, and Instacart shoppers continue to work. After weeks of silence and rolling out policies designed to convince customers to continue using their platforms (“contactless deliveries!”), several companies including Uber, have just rolled out two-weeks of paid sick leave, but even these policies feel dystopian, their subtext being: Keep working until you get the deadly pandemic with an unknown death rate. Then you can self-isolate (without health insurance) and hope you don’t die.
It’s easy to focus on the gig economy’s lackluster response during the pandemic, but this problem has been years in the making.
Uber’s gig economy business model is one that prioritizes private profits above public health. Each of Uber’s ride-hail options feature subsidies to incentivize higher use: some offer low prices to increase passenger demand, while others use higher or lower pay to motivate more drivers. The outcome here is the same for every other gig company seeking monopoly profits whether or not there is a pandemic: a two-tiered system of customers who can stay inside, and workers who are forced to consistently risk their health and well-being.
Gig companies are fundamentally unprofitable, their business model subsidized by venture capital that is focused on loss-leading, destroying competition, and monopolizing the industry. Uber and Lyft, in particular, have conditioned people to use their services as a replacement for ambulances. This phenomenon is not just informal: Lyft has worked with cities to study specifically using Lyfts as emergency vehicles.
Now, during a pandemic, there is little reason to expect that people will stop using these services, and surely coronavirus patients will at least consider taking an Uber or Lyft to the hospital should their symptoms become severe.
Uber and Lyft are perfectly primed to be a vector for outbreaks as drivers are incentivized by sub-minimum-wages insufficient to last any period of self-quarantine, let alone to seek treatment, and as passengers are incentivized by cheap trips and fears of exposure in public transit. This is incompatible with what should be our prime objective: “flattening the curve” to minimize community transmission through social distance.
We could have a different discussion if Uber were taking steps beyond advising drivers to essentially stay safe out there. In China, DiDi—the ride-hailing company that beat back Uber’s attempt to enter the country—not only suspended service across the country but created special fleets to both mitigate transmission while still meeting community transit needs. One fleet had protectively uniformed drivers in regularly disinfected cars to transport medical workers in Wuhan—for free. Another fleet was a volunteer "community service fleet" that allowed local authorities to try and meet demand despite the suspension of private and public transit.
In the United States, Uber has not even been able to guarantee reliable access to clean bathrooms for its drivers, let alone provide protective gear, regular disinfectant services. It does not seem like Uber is imminently going to start providing special training for drivers on how to specifically transport those who might be sick; its latest suggestion to drivers was an email containing general advice such as “CLEAN AND DISINFECT YOUR VEHICLE—Pay special attention to surfaces that you and passengers frequently come in contact with,” without giving any guidance about how to do that, or how often to do it.
As Christian Perea, a driver for Uber and Lyft who recently wrote an article asking drivers to stop working, told Motherboard, "it seems kind of obvious that transporting millions of people via super non-regulated Uber/Lyfts that don't have sick pay or any ability to self-isolate to proactively prevent spread is an obvious way this will spread."