As the coronavirus pandemic destabilizes an already fragile gig economy in the U.S., rideshare drivers say the "misclassification" of workers as contractors instead of employees is helping to contribute to a "public health disaster."
"When there is a pandemic illness that nobody should be exposed to that's where you see the cracks," Nicole Moore, a Lyft driver labor organizer in Los Angeles said of the rideshare industry.
"Misclassification is a public health disaster and it's time for everybody to hold the companies accountable so that we don't have these issues," she added.
Rideshare drivers, like many other freelancers, are classified as contractors, so they are generally ineligible for unemployment and health benefits from companies. Amid the coronavirus outbreak, they face exposure to sick riders, risk getting riders sick, but say they can only take sick days if they test positive for the virus.
And even though they are viewed as "essential" employees during the crisis in the San Francisco Bay Area, which is under a shelter-in-place order, providing a means to access medical care, they don't have the benefits of employees.
Moore told ABC News that she said she stopped working two weeks ago amid the COVID-19 outbreak because she has a family member who "would be very highly at risk" to the disease, and she does not want to risk exposing them. She said, however, that many of her colleagues do not have the ability to stop work.
"I don't know what this industry is going to look like in a week when all of a sudden there have been 10 coronavirus-exposed drivers who have driven people," she added. "And there has been no way for the infrastructure that has been set up to try and help avoid that tragic situation."
Amid the global health crisis, rideshare industry giant Uber said it is offering 14 days of paid sick leave for drivers who have been diagnosed with COVID-19, have been quarantined or asked to self-isolate by a public health authority, or have had their account restricted by the company after possibly being exposed to someone diagnosed with the novel coronavirus.
"The mounting fear and uncertainty caused by the coronavirus is being felt by everyone around the world," an Uber spokesperson told ABC News in a statement. "We know it’s especially concerning for people who drive and deliver with Uber. In these difficult times, their well-being is at the top of our minds, and we have a dedicated team working around the clock to support them the very best we can."
Lyft announced similar measures, saying they "will provide funds to drivers should they be diagnosed with COVID-19 or put under individual quarantine by a public health agency," in an announcement on their website.
"This is an unprecedented situation for all industries and communities, and our focus is on helping keep our riders, drivers, and team members safe," a Lyft spokesperson told ABC News in a statement. "We are working hard to support those who drive with Lyft and are advocating for people-centered stimulus solutions that put money in the pockets of everyday Americans, including drivers."
Both companies also said they are suspending "pool" services to protect passengers during the pandemic.
Drivers say this isn't enough
Moore, who is a volunteer organizer with the rideshare labor group Drivers United, told ABC News that she does not think nearly enough is being done by the companies to keep drivers or passengers safe.
"I know nobody so far who is able to access the 14 days of sick leave by the companies," Moore said.
"The 14 days of paid sick leave is only if you're told by a public health official to quarantine because of exposure or diagnosis," she said. "That means if you feel sick right now, it is almost impossible to get a test if you have mild symptoms, so nobody is going to quarantine you."
"You do hear in the news about a driver here or a driver there who has gotten coronavirus, those are likely to be people who have had access to that," she said. "That's not what we’re seeing in the general population right now of people who may have a cough or be carriers. People who have a cough or may be carriers, don't have access to the test."
Testing got off to a very slow start in the U.S. compared to other countries, and despite capacity increasing in recent days, many people have reported not being able to get tests.
Moreover, Moore said that while the companies said they would "provide disinfectant and hand sanitizer for drivers and they could pick them up from the hubs," that "three days later, they closed the hubs."
"We have people running around in cars without basic disinfectant," she added. "The companies have been taking no responsibility for the safety of passengers."
Moore said that even before the coronavirus outbreak, many people used rideshare services as medical transport, noting it is very common, if "somebody feels sick, they call and they go to the hospital in an Uber or a Lyft."
In times of pandemic, however, "you don't want those people in the same car," Moore said.
If drivers choose not to work because they are sick or worried about being an asymptomatic carrier, Moore said they have very limited access to unemployment benefits or paid sick leave, and it mostly varies based on local government initiatives.
Filing for unemployment or even California's mandated three days of paid sick leave is an uphill battle for most drivers, Moore said, due to their classification as independent contractors.
"They need immediate access to unemployment, they do not have it," Moore said. "In order to bring that benefit down would be a fight, a legal fight."
Moore said she has spent most of her time recently with Drivers United just trying to help people feed themselves.
"We’re showing people where to apply for basically food stamps, and where there are food kitchens because people don't have access to food right now," she said. "We’re talking about hundreds of thousands of drivers in California."
'Forced to work to keep the roof over my head'
Edan Alva, a full-time Lyft driver who said he makes most of his income from rideshare driving despite being classified as an independent contractor, told ABC News that despite the pandemic that has brought his city of San Francisco to a near-lockdown, "I am forced to work to keep the roof over my head."
"I may or may not die because of it," Alva said of working during the pandemic, but added that "not working is not an option."
"Once I stop working I am at risk of losing my apartment of not being able to pay rent," he said.
Alva said that he came down with the flu in January, and during that time he had not yet earned enough to pay his rent.
"We don't have any protections, no disability insurance, no sick days, no health care," he said. "Even when I ended up at my home being sick, I couldn't afford going to the doctor."
Alva said he pays out of pocket for "the cheapest" health insurance he could find, but doctor's visits are still "extremely expensive" for him, so he avoids it if he can.
"Most drivers simply cannot afford the choice of losing the roof over your head or going to see a doctor," he said. "You simply won't go to see a doctor."
Alva said he is also worried about his passengers, so he disinfects his car "at least three times a day, and in between rides when any passenger displays any signs of sickness."
Even this, however, he said, "I end up doing at my own expense."
MORE: Major airlines could be bankrupt by the end of the year without action, industry group warns
As the Bay Area has enforced a mandatory shelter-in-place that has brought the city to a halt, Alva said it is doubly-insulting that despite getting no benefits, he is still dubbed an essential service to the city.
"The ironic thing is that we rideshare drivers are considered by local and state government as essential workers during this time of crisis, yet we are not provided with the health insurance that would enable us coping with this, and prevent us from being at a much higher risk," he said. "We don't get the sick days."
Mostafa Maklad, also from the San Francisco area, said he currently drives for "Uber, Uber Eats, Grubhub, Caviar, Postmates, Lyft and Amazon Flex," to make ends meet.
Despite working for half a dozen of the major players in the industry, he says he doesn't have health insurance but is still working amid the pandemic and the Bay Area's shelter-in-place order.
"Everyone who does this kind of work, they don't have the option," of not working right now, he said. "They go put their life on the stake in order to get by."