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Driving in storm of coronavirus, US gig workers face risks

Ellen Wulfhorst

Thomson Reuters Foundation

New York, United States  /  Thu, March 5, 2020  /  05:00 pm
Driving in storm of coronavirus, US gig workers face risks

A man wears a mask as he walks near the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in the financial district in New York City, US, on Monday. (Reuters/Brendan McDermid)

Uber driver Saibou Sidibe will roll down a window, offer a tissue and reach for hand sanitizer if a passenger sneezes or coughs, but those are his only concessions to coronavirus.

"We know the fear exists, but there's no panic, and we're still working," the New York driver told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "We cannot stay home and we have to take care of the family ... we need to make money."

Independent messengers, food deliverers and drivers like Sidibe are forced by the nature of their jobs to interact with people from across the globe, and the coronavirus threat could deal them - and the gig economy as a whole - a devastating blow.

Covid-19, which has been found in some 80 nations, spreads primarily through tiny droplets coughed or sneezed from an infected person and inhaled by another, and vigilant hygiene can prevent transmission, health experts say.

"Aside from workers in the healthcare industry, of course, one might argue that many gig workers will find themselves on the frontlines of this virus," said Erin Hatton, a labor expert at The State University of New York at Buffalo.

Staying home is hardly an option for gig workers who would lose income and lack paid sick leave, said Arran Stewart, co-founder of job.com, an online recruitment platform.

"Gig workers are notorious for working while they're unwell," said Stewart.

"These companies have an obligation to communicate effectively to their workforce what they need to do to protect themselves and to protect the people and customers that they interact with."

Ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft, food deliverers DoorDash and Caviar and others have provided advice from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, such as telling drivers to wash their hands and keep their vehicles clean.

"We are always working to help ensure the safety of our employees and everyone on the Uber platform, and we continue to be concerned by the ongoing spread of coronavirus," said Uber, with nearly 5 million drivers in dozens of countries.

The coronavirus threat makes the gig business vulnerable overall, Stewart said.

"The danger is if one case happens that is at all related back to gig workers," he said.

"People will stop taking Ubers and Lyfts unless they know there's some policy in place and make sure they're not about to be jumping in a cab and a ride where they might face getting ill."

The situation underscores the need to classify gig workers as employees eligible for sick pay, labor advocates say.

More than one in 10 US workers relies on the gig economy for primary income, according to the Gig Economy Data Hub, a US project that provides information about gig work.

California enacted the first US law this year making it tougher for companies to classify workers as contractors, but it faces legal and political challenges.

The US labor agency said in 2019 that Uber drivers were independent contractors who set their hours, own their cars and can work for competitors.

France's top court on Wednesday granted an Uber driver's request to reclassify him as an employee of the company.

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