Ali considered spending the last of his money on vegetables. But he went with the rice instead. The rice, he reasoned, could hold him over for a bit longer. When that's gone, he doesn't know where his next meal will come from, let alone his next paycheck.
"I have three days' worth of food left," Ali told VICE last Friday.
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Ali, who requested a pseudonym out of fear of reprisal, works as a ride-sharing driver for Uber, Lyft, and a luxury New York City car service company. He is also one of the thousands of professional drivers who is suddenly bearing the brunt of an industrywide crisis. As more and more potential customers stay home in hopes of avoiding the coronavirus, drivers have seen their already sparse incomes all but disappear.
Without much in the way of company benefits or a government safety net, many of the gig workers' financial situations have turned dire in a matter of weeks.
And like Ali, many find themselves without enough money to even eat.
Already, nearly half of drivers in the tri-state area have requested help getting food, according to a survey conducted in March by the Independent Drivers Guild, which represents nearly 200,000 app-based drivers in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Even that likely understates the seriousness of the crisis facing drivers. Moira Muntz, a spokesperson for the guild, noted that the survey was conducted March 16-22. New York’s stay-at-home order didn't go into effect until the evening of March 22.
"Many of these drivers live not just paycheck to paycheck, but literally day to day," Muntz said. "Now what choices are they going to have to make to put food on the table?"
New York City-based Uber and Lyft drivers who spoke to VICE expressed desperation with their quickly deteriorating situation, saying they have little faith in the system to help them. Gig workers like Ali have traditionally not had access to unemployment benefits, since they are categorized as independent contractors. Through its $2 trillion aid package, the government had planned to temporarily change that, but reports have emerged that states are not ready to set up the new and necessary systems as millions of claims come in. So drivers spend much of their days filling out government paperwork that goes nowhere and calling unemployment phone lines only to get a busy signal.
"It's all a nightmare—the system is failing in every aspect of our lives," said Karim, another driver for Uber and Lyft who requested a pseudonym. "I stopped all automatic payments for my credit cards, and the banks are still bothering me."
Both Uber and Lyft have updated their sick-leave policies in response to the coronavirus outbreak. Uber drivers in New York City already accrued paid sick leave before coronavirus, but the company has also instituted a specific coronavirus policy, which provides time off to people who have tested positive for COVID-19 or told to self-quarantine. Lyft has offered financial assistance for those with the virus as well, although media outlets have reported that drivers have faced difficulty obtaining payouts.
"We are working hard to support those who drive with Lyft, and applaud the federal government for passing a people-centered stimulus package bill that puts money in the pockets of everyday Americans, including drivers," a Lyft spokesperson wrote in a statement.
The companies' public shifts haven’t done much for Karim, who remains healthy but worried about becoming ill. His wife is seven months pregnant with their first child, and he is afraid about both her health and how he will feed his soon-to-be child.
"These companies just don't give a shit. They either don't get it, or they're run by the worst people ever,” Karim added. "At this point, I'm just trying to survive. That's it. That's the priority: I need to eat something."
Rafiu, another driver for Uber and Lyft who asked that only his first name be used, said that he tested positive for COVID-19 in March, and has since been at home recovering. Like Ali and Karim, he has applied for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, but he expects a long waiting time for approval. He said he calls the New York Department of Labor hundreds of times a day trying to connect with a human being who could help, only to repeatedly hear a busy tone on the other end of the line.
"I'm still alive for now," he said. "But I'm calling a dead number. If that's not a sign of our times, I don't know what is."
Muntz said that she was somewhat relieved by the recent news that New York City public schools are beginning to offer free meals to parents and families, and not only students. But she also said that it still would likely not be enough to solve the problem.
Ali fears he might contract coronavirus on the job and bring it home to his crowded household in the Bronx, where he lives with his mother, father, mother-in-law, father-in-law, grandmother, and wife. But he needs to go out anyway in order to pay for his next meal.
Today he plans to put on a mask and gloves, shove a trash bag over his body, and wear a winter coat so as not to contract the virus. If he’s lucky, he can expect between $40 to $50 in the course of six or seven hours, he said.
"I'm now having to choose between potentially killing my family because of starvation, or, because I somehow got the virus, making barely enough money to buy more food."
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