9 min read

    9 min read

    In the gig economy, there are many contact points between customers and drivers, hosts, couriers, etc. If one person in this chain gets sick with COVID, it can affect everyone down the line. At what point in the spread of a virus do companies have a responsibility to their customers (to say nothing of those providing the services)?

    Senior RSG contributor Paula Gibbins highlights one courier’s story about how she was affected by COVID, her interactions with customers in the gig economy, and potential ideas for how gig companies (including Uber and Lyft) could implement basic contact tracing.


    Mid-March, stores and businesses were just starting to implement safety precautions for their employees and customers. I spoke with a driver who believes she contracted COVID-19 during that sweet spot and how it impacted her.

    Suzanne from Arizona shared her story with me and how she believes that contact tracing could help people, from customers to gig service providers.

    Quick summary:

    • Contact tracing can be time-consuming, but is worth it to help control the spread of the coronavirus
    • Gig companies could use their own data to contact shoppers, drivers and couriers about their potential contact with someone who has COVID
    • Learn to pivot if you cannot work due to COVID or quarantine: How to Make Money Fast: 100+ Legit Ideas You Can Start Now.

    At the start of the COVID-19 breakout in the U.S., Suzanne decided to switch from driving people to doing delivery with Instacart to help limit her exposure and the exposure she had to others. She also has a gig as an Airbnb host. Between the two, she’s pretty sure that’s when/how she got sick.

    The first was potentially through Instacart, since she was shopping during the busiest, early-pandemic days when no one was social distancing, no shopper protocols from the store were in place, and no one was wearing masks. The stores were packed, and who knows what people had then?

    The second opportunity were a few guests Suzanne had at her Airbnb – one kept sneezing while she finished up cleaning their rooms, and although he blamed it on allergies, it was another one of those ‘who knows’ early stages of the pandemic.

    If everyone stops to really think about how many people they come into casual contact with throughout their day, there are so many possible points of contracting COVID-19, that it truly boggles the mind.

    This is where contact tracing comes in as a possibility to help people realize if they should be self-isolating or quarantining themselves.

    What is Contact Tracing?

    Contact tracing is used by health departments to prevent the spread of infectious diseases by identifying sick people and who they came into contact with. With COVID, it also means asking infected people and those they came into contact with to quarantine at home.

    According to the Centers for Disease Control:

    “Contact tracing for COVID-19 typically involves

    • Interviewing people with COVID-19 to identify everyone with whom they had close contact during the time they may have been infectious,
    • Notifying contacts of their potential exposure,
    • Referring contacts for testing,
    • Monitoring contacts for signs and symptoms of COVID-19, and
    • Connecting contacts with services they might need during the self-quarantine period.”

    Clearly, contact tracing isn’t easy. If someone comes down with COVID, they (or a contact tracer) need to notify everyone they came in contact with during the infection period.

    If they went to grocery stores, restaurants, etc. it’s then on those companies (or the contact tracers) to notify employees and get the word out to guests and customers.

    In the case of Instacart shoppers, ideally the stores would let Instacart know the dates of possible contact and have Instacart use their data to contact potentially affected shoppers.

    What Could Gig Companies Do to Contact Trace Workers and Customers?

    Currently, Uber and Lyft do have measures in place to keep drivers and passengers safe. For example, masks are required now for both app services. Uber requires a masked “selfie” of their drivers in order to ensure they are following protocol.

    Update July 2020: Uber does have a program to trace drivers and riders presumed to have come into contact with someone infected with COVID, according to NBC. This service is available to public health officials and is free of charge. Unfortunately, NBC reports most state and local health departments are not using the data from Uber to track the virus spread.

    Drivers are also allowed to cancel rides if passengers refuse to wear a mask without repercussions. In some cities, Lyft is providing hand sanitizer to their active drivers. However, some drivers feel like both companies could be doing more.

    As far as Airbnb and Instacart, two gig companies where Suzanne may have contracted COVID, their policies are more lax. Airbnb basically leaves it up to the host and/or the guest to notify one another if they are sick.

    Instacart’s guidelines ask shoppers to do ‘in-app wellness checks’ to identify COVID symptoms, but offers no way for shoppers to be notified if there was anyone sick at the grocery store who the shopper may have come in contact with.

    Suzanne also wants to see contact tracing put into place by companies like Uber, Lyft and Instacart: “I think contact tracing is extremely important and would be fairly easy to do, as all rides and deliveries are documented inside the company, plus the driver has that information, as does the tracking software we use for mileage/expenses.”

    It sounds like a simple and straightforward solution, but it also has some asking valid questions about privacy. Suzanne doesn’t think that during times like this people should be given an option on whether or not they can be traced. They should all be participating for the greater good of everyone.

    That has merit, but there are some who can’t help but see a parallel between this and George Orwell’s 1984 where you’re constantly being watched and anywhere you go and anything you say can be tracked and used against you.

    I hopped on Reddit to see what others think of contact tracing. Here is a sample of what I found:

    “The fact that it appears anonymous on the surface…is just wrong on so many levels. First of all, there is that pesky piece of paper called the US Constitution….that protects our privacy, for better or worse…Yes, I know our phones are already tattling on us all the time…but this gives another window into our movements.”

    “Forget all the political BS, everyone of us is already being tracked everywhere…What I got out of this is, it will generate a lot of false positives… If you live in an apartment complex and your neighbor is sick and you have, say, an adjoining wall, you will be reported as having been in contact with a contagious person for more than the 15 minute time period.”

    False Negatives for COVID-19?

    The downside here is that, technically, Suzanne was never given a positive result on a COVID-19 test.

    “The nurse called and she said, ‘Your results were negative’, as if I was supposed to be celebrating,” said Suzanne. “I was very confused. It was like cognitive dissonance…but I have it. You’re telling me that I don’t have it, but I do have it. I have all of the symptoms. What else could it possibly be? The timing coincides. I don’t know what else this could be.”

    Symptoms she had included: lungs hurt, pain breathing, tightness in chest, gastrointestinal distress, morning low back (kidney) pain ‘for no reason’, fever and sweats.

    In her heart, Suzanne knew she had COVID-19, but the test results were not confirming it.

    Unfortunately, this happens occasionally. NPR noted that early, “quick” tests done on COVID patients in April (around the time Suzanne got sick) had a false-negative rate of nearly 15%.

    According to NPR, “So that means if you had 100 patients that were positive, 15% of those patients would be falsely called negative. They’d be told that they’re negative for COVID when they’re really positive,” Procop told NPR in an interview. “That’s not too good.”

    Procop says a test should be at least 95% reliable.”

    This put her in a tough position for multiple reasons. Rideshare and gig companies have advertised that they will pay out 14 days of sick leave to any who are asked to quarantine or who have tested positive for COVID-19.

    Suzanne said, “I tried to do the sick pay thing with Instacart, Lyft and GrubHub and they all rejected me because they have the loophole of having negative results, so that’s easy, but also they are saying the quarantine has to be on order from the health department. That’s how they are getting out of paying people.”

    The testing facility she went to told her to self-quarantine since the results would take about a week to get back, but it wasn’t the proper “health authorities” that Instacart, Lyft and GrubHub were looking for. So, she was stuck at home sick without any help or support from the companies she did work for, despite them saying they help those that are asked to self-quarantine.

    “I was just locked up in my home taking care of myself, resting, trying to figure out how to deal with all these papers, all these programs with unemployment, PPP and back pay and sick pay and all this stuff.”

    “It was hard for me to be the patient and the person getting the food and preparing the food for the patient. Figuring out how to be an Instacart customer, how to be a DoorDash customer. How do I get food?”

    “So, all of a sudden I was a recipient of all the services I’d been providing but never used myself. Each time it was like a miracle when a meal or a bag of groceries would appear at my door.”

    Advice to Gig Workers Who Are Diagnosed with COVID

    Suzanne estimates that she had a milder reaction to COVID-19 and can’t imagine the people who end up hospitalized because of it.

    However, with most countries (including the US) far from herd immunity or a vaccine, chances are you may come in contact with COVID.

    Suzanne’s advice to anyone who encounters COVID-19 is to learn to “pivot”. Your life needs to be able to move on a dime and you need to have a backup for your backup because you never know what sector or job could be affected by COVID-19.

    At a loss for other income-generating opportunities? Check out How to Make Money Fast: 100+ Legit Ideas You Can Start Now.

    Suzanne has found other side gigs she’s able to do at the moment while she’s looking for a new place to live and still fully recovering from the after effects of being ill for so long.

    Readers, what do you think? Would you be willing to be traced and contacted if you were found to be near a person who was infected with COVID-19? Or do you think it’s an invasion of privacy that should not be breached even during a pandemic?

    Want More Tips? Deliver With DoorDash

    ddlgoDashers receive tips on 97% of their deliveries. DoorDash has a tip button and encourages customers to setup "automatic" tips. Become a dasher here.

    -Paula @ RSG

    Paula Gibbins

    Paula Gibbins

    Paula Gibbins, a graduate of Augustana University, Sioux Falls, is a part-time rideshare driver and a full-time proofreader. She is based in Minneapolis/St. Paul. In her free time, Paula enjoys reading, playing board games and participating in trivia nights.