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Workers' Compensation

Gig Drivers in the Era of COVID: How Safe Does it Feel Behind the Wheel?

By Roger Rabb, J.D.

A new qualitative study examines the safety hurdles faced by digital platform drivers navigating the COVID landscape

A common complaint by worker advocates against the rise of the “gig economy” is that gig workers are often provided little or no health and safety protection. In a recent study, “Perceived COVID-19 health and job risks faced by digital platform drivers and measures in place to protect them: A qualitative study,” by Ellen MacEachen, PhD, et al., published online by the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, the authors look at how the health problems created by COVID-19 impacted a segment of those gig workers, specifically drivers for platforms that delivered food, packages, or people. See https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ajim.23409.

In order to study the occupational risks provided by COVID-19 in that particular study, the authors, hoping to identify “risk perceptions and decision-making rationales related to perceived COVID-19 risk management,” conducted interviews with 30 drivers and three managers from nine digital platforms, including Uber, Lyft, InstaCart, and UberEats. The interviews were conducted in Ontario, Canada, between September 2020 and February 2021, during that country’s second COVID wave. After conducting these interviews, the authors identified five risk categories and discussed how each risk category impacted these drivers.

Continuous Contact, Unknown Health Status, Extended Duration

The first identified risk category was perhaps the most obvious: while the general public was being constantly encouraged to isolate from contact with other people outside of the immediate family or social bubble, each of these drivers to some extent or another were required to continually interact with members of the public, any of whom might be carrying the coronavirus. Moreover, as people with COVID symptoms were generally required to isolate at home, food and package drivers making deliveries to people’s homes had the added stress of not knowing whether their delivery recipients were in that category. Conversely, while ride-hailing drivers were driving customers who were moving about in public, drivers knew that these customers could still be carrying the coronavirus and the contact between the drivers and customers was in an enclosed space and generally lasted for a longer period of time.

Health Screening, Contactless Delivery - Shortcomings

The second identified risk category was actually a series of observations about some risk mitigation measures that were implemented by the digital platforms and their shortcomings. For example, some ride-hailing platforms required customers to answer health screening questions, such as attesting to the absence of COVID symptoms, but these attestations could be out-of-date by the time the customer actually rode in the driver’s vehicle. In another effort to decrease risk, several food delivery platforms tried to reduce contact between drivers and customers by offering contactless delivery, where the driver leaves the delivery at the door. However, food delivery platforms generally left the option for contactless delivery up to the customer, rather than the driver, and some deliveries, such as those containing alcohol, required contact in order for the driver to obtain a record of the identification of the recipient and a signature. In addition, because app-based platforms create constant pressure on drivers to get and maintain a good customer rating, some drivers admitted to staying with customers, even unmasked ones, while they checked their order, to avoid a bad review for leaving hastily. Even if a delivery was contactless, food delivery drivers reported having to enter crowded restaurants to pick up the deliveries, as well as crowded apartment building elevators to reach their delivery destinations.

Maskless Customers, Platform Peer-rating Pressures

The third category of risk was maskless customers. Although customers during the relevant period of the study were required by the ride-hailing platforms and by Ontario public health regulations to wear masks while in the vehicles, not all customers did so voluntarily. While some drivers felt secure enough to remind their customers to mask up and refuse to drive for those who would not, other drivers simply tolerated the risk of unmasked riders in order to avoid a conflict with the customer, avoid a potential lost tip, and increase the chance of maintaining a good user rating on that digital platform’s app.

Platform Time-related Pressures Encouraged Safety Shortcuts

The fourth risk category, which generally affected food and shopping delivery drivers, was platform-generated time pressures that encouraged drivers to forsake safety measures in order to make deliveries within the time frames provided by the digital platform’s algorithm. Interviewed drivers described such situations as crowded restaurant scenes, with no social distancing, where food must be picked up quickly in order to stay on schedule from an area packed with restaurant patrons and even other drivers waiting to pick up, and navigating grocery stores as fast as possible in order to find the items being delivered, which often resulted in sacrificing social distancing practices. Drivers also described algorithm delivery periods that did not appear to take traffic into account, thereby increasing delivery time pressure, while also noting that no additional time was added to the algorithms during times of COVID restrictions in order to facilitate safe practices.

Inadequate Government or Platform COVID Benefit Pay

The final risk category identified in this study was the risk to the drivers of declaring their own COVID-19 symptoms. For most of the platforms, once COVID symptoms were reported by a driver, that driver was deactivated from the platform until proof of a negative test was provided, and testing could be time consuming and was not easy to obtain at the time period relevant to this study. While their status as independent contractors ultimately left the decisions about how much risk to tolerate to the drivers, the digital platforms did provide some financial relief to drivers who were diagnosed with COVID-19 or were otherwise individually asked to self-isolate by a public health authority. Uber, for example, provided 14 days of financial assistance to drivers in such circumstances. However, these benefits were meager enough that drivers generally chose to keep working, not wanting to be locked out of the platform for two weeks until they completed isolation and could show a negative COVID test, and some drivers were unsure how to even apply for any platform benefits that might have been available. While the Canadian government provided up to $500 per week to workers who stopped working due to COVID, many drivers thought that these government benefits were unavailable to self-employed contractors when work was still available. Under these circumstances, drivers described making their own decisions to hide any symptoms they may have been experiencing that might have been COVID related.

Suggestions for Improving Safety and Reducing COVID Risks for Gig Drivers

The authors of this study provided some suggestions to improve safety and reduce COVID risks for these gig drivers. For example, they suggested that the digital platforms themselves could loosen the time pressure for deliveries, thereby allowing delivery drivers to slow down and, when necessary, observe safer practices such as social distancing in crowded public spaces, and could mandate contactless deliveries. They also suggested waiving cancellation penalties, thereby making it easier and less punitive for ride-hailing drivers to deny service to maskless customers, and updating health screening procedures for ride-hailing customers to ensure that screening data is from the day of the ride. The also noted that better company-provided sick pay, with procedures that do not create an inverse incentive to stay silent, could also increase the chances that drivers will self-report their own COVID illnesses. They suggested that the government could improve gig driver safety in these circumstances as well, for example, by providing for paid sick leave that would kick-in automatically, thereby creating a real-time continuous stream of income for the ill worker, and call for the reclassification of gig drivers as full employees, rather than as contractors, in order to trigger all legal rights and protections associated with that status.

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