It was only a matter of time before we began to hear stories from drivers afflicted with COVID-19. Below, senior RSG contributor Sergio Avedian shares the story of EW*, a driver in California who was recently quarantined and is suspected of having the coronavirus (as of now, it’s been a week and there’s still no confirmation of whether or not he has COVID-19). Did Uber make good on its promise to financially compensate drivers? The answer may surprise you.
COVID-19, also called the coronavirus, came upon us fast. In January and February, we were dealing with just the news of the pandemic. But as March rolled around, people started getting sick all over the nation.
By the first week of March, Uber was asking drivers to frequently wash their hands, use sanitizer, and to disinfect their cars after each ride.
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*EW asked to remain anonymous and chose this abbreviation based on one of his favorite hobbies. RSG respects his privacy and his chosen abbreviation. The story below was independently confirmed by our writer.
Drivers received this announcement in their app followed by another detailing how they would get compensated if they were to be quarantined by a health professional or tested positive for COVID-19.
As vague as this announcement was, it was followed by another a few days later detailing the financial assistance Uber will be offering to infected drivers.
Is this enough? I don’t think so, but read this driver’s story below and let us know what you think!
Driving During a Coronavirus Pandemic
EW, our driver, was out driving for Uber in the first week of March, picking up Uber Pool passengers in order to get Quest bonuses.
For the most part, the passengers were friendly and happy to take some hand sanitizer he offered in his car. One day, EW was driving one passenger around when Pool picked up another passenger (Passenger X). As many drivers do, EW chatted with his passengers, sharing stories and news, when Passenger X dropped a bombshell: he had traveled to Taiwan recently, had been infected by the coronavirus, and said it was the sickest he’d ever been.
Conversation mostly stopped after that, but after Passenger X was dropped off, the first passenger and EW worriedly talked about if he could have still transmitted the virus. EW said Passenger X wasn’t sick – he wasn’t coughing, sneezing, or otherwise acting strangely. He took hand sanitizer and had a good conversation with EW.
EW made sure to wipe down the seat, wash his hands, and sanitize everything, but he was understandably worried.
Later that week, EW ended up taking another man (Passenger Y) to the hospital. The man told EW: “I’m going to the Chinese Hospital because I’m coughing up blood, maybe I have the coronavirus.”
EW shared both stories with me to show he really didn’t know where or even if he picked up the coronavirus. Was it from Passenger X, who’d had the virus and maybe still carried it? Was it from Passenger Y, who seemed fine to EW but told him he was going to a hospital because he thought he had the coronavirus?
Being an Uber driver during a pandemic is full of uncertainty – you expect passengers to do the right thing and not jeopardize other people (including drivers and fellow passengers), but you can never be certain if the person in your back seat isn’t carrying something.
Overall, EW did everything he could short of not driving in order to avoid getting the virus. He wiped down the car, disinfected everything, didn’t take any obviously sick people, and encouraged everyone to use the sanitizer and wash their hands. He also was careful to use sanitizer and wash his hands as well.
Our Driver Gets Sick
The second week of March came with some tough decisions, and a miserable cough. What is an Uber driver supposed to do? We see CDC guidance, which is, if one is exposed to COVID-19 and is experiencing the symptoms, they should self isolate. Uber also provides that same advice.
This was EW’s plan: he decided to stay home. He started feeling worse and his persistent cough made him miserable, so bad that sometimes it left him breathless. The next day, EW called his doctor’s office.
Through the driver app, EW reported about the possible COVID-19 exposure to Uber. Uber Customer Support response was feckless, and the response was just like many other canned responses he had received for any other problem in the past.
Interestingly enough, his account was not suspended – had he wanted to, he still could have driven for Uber! But EW took responsible action by exercising social distancing and took himself off the road. However, he took his story to social media via Twitter, which is where I found him.
Since his symptoms were getting worse, his doctor’s office messaged him to go to a drive-through clinic, but when he got there he found out that this clinic has just been closed.
Subsequently, he was told to go to the front walk-in clinic. At the clinic, he parked in what looks like a war zone. Nurses and Physicians Assistants were walking around in PPE masks, face shields, gloves, and paper overalls.
He was told to keep his windows up while a nurse called him on the phone, and asked a lot of questions about travel, what he did for a living and why he thought he was exposed. EW is in the high-risk category; he is over 60 and has a pre-existing heart condition.
Later, another nurse escorted EW into a special entrance to the building, where he was taken into a respiratory isolation exam room. Then the doctor came in and administered the test with two long swabs.
One is used to wipe the back of the throat, eliciting a gag reflex, and the second is used to go through the nose to the back of the nasal cavity, which causes a lot of discomfort. He received a written report for self-quarantine from the doctor and went back home (see image below).
What Happens When a Driver is Suspected of Having the Coronavirus
Recently, we published an article on how Uber and Lyft are helping drivers during the coronavirus. In essence, Uber has a coronavirus financial assistance policy, which states:
“If you drive or deliver with Uber and get diagnosed with COVID-19, or are placed in quarantine by a recognized public health authority due to your risk of spreading COVID-19, Uber will provide financial assistance for up to 14 days while your Uber account is on hold.
In order to ensure we can provide support to those who need it most, we’ll provide financial assistance to you if any of the following happen:
- You are diagnosed with COVID-19
- You are placed in an individual quarantine by a public health authority
- You are personally asked by a public health authority or licensed medical provider to self-isolate due to your risk of spreading COVID-19
- Your account is restricted by Uber as a result of information provided by a public health authority that you have been diagnosed or have been exposed to someone diagnosed with COVID-19.
Additionally, you must have taken at least one trip on the Uber platform in the 30 days before March 6, 2020, when our global financial assistance plan was announced.”
You can read more about Uber’s policy, including estimated payouts, here.
Getting Financial Aid From Uber
When EW went back home, through the driver app, he filled out what was requested by Uber and his driver account was immediately suspended.
Again, another interesting thing happened: EW’s rider account was not suspended. I wonder if the accounts of the riders who were in his car during the potential exposure to COVID-19 are still active. But why suspend an Uber driver suspected of coronavirus and not also the passenger app?
The first step is easy, fill out the online forms Uber has provided including what criteria a driver is using to ask for sick pay.
Get a letter from a doctor for 14-days of isolation (see screenshot above), and that the driver has possibly been exposed to COVID-19 sickened riders.
In the second step, Uber requires the upload of the doctor’s letter and accepting terms that allows Uber to get all of the drivers personal medical records. In addition, the terms may include giving up any rights under AB5; the second paragraph of the consent letter clearly distances Uber from being an Employer.
AB refused to accept these terms, and found another way to submit the doctor’s letter.
EW called the Uber Safety Response Team (SRT), and reported the two potential Covid 19 exposures, and then the SRT member accepted the doctor’s letter as a response in the help system. Then the waiting game began, since Uber requires 2-5 business day response time.
Uber calculates the potential financial aid according to the driver’s average earnings going back six months (see below). EW was a 60-70 hour a week full-time driver, so his earnings would be higher than the maximum amount below!
After a few days, Uber deposited funds in EW’s driver account, but Instant Cash Out was not available due to the temporary suspension of his account. After a few more phone calls by EW, Uber finally admitted that there was a bug in their system.
To Uber’s credit, it was quickly fixed and EW was able to transfer the funds to his bank account.
Our Driver Gets Paid! But Is It Enough?
EW ended up getting paid just over $2,100, but if he is diagnosed with COVID-19 and is admitted for treatment to a hospital, his bills could be tens of thousands of dollars.
Note: as of now, EW still does not know if he has COVID-19. However, according to Uber, if you are placed under quarantine by a doctor, you are eligible for financial assistance.
His personal insurance and the federal government may be involved, but I hope a lot of drivers will get the help they need from Uber.
According to our annual Uber driver survey, 13.7% of drivers don’t have any health insurance at all. What will happen to any of these drivers should they come down with COVID-19? They are probably the least likely to have thousands of dollars laying around the pay for hospital bills. And what about all the drivers who need to drive to pay bills?
I hope that EW tests negative, but it highlights the fact that as much as drivers would try to disinfect their cars, they are Petri dishes on wheels with 10-15 rides a day. Should Uber be allowed to continue operating? Why elevate the risk of spreading the contagion? There are close to 2 million drivers and over 100 million passengers in the US, I wonder how many will get sick?
Now that the gig economy is showing signs of strain amidst a global pandemic, will things change? Will drivers ever be classified as employees? Having freedom and flexibility to drive whenever you want is great, but maybe it’s less great when you’ve traded flexibility for no health safety net.
Have you been diagnosed with COVID-19? Are you asking Uber for financial aid? How has your experience been? Without stating the obvious, how badly has this pandemic hurt your earnings? After this is over, will you continue driving for Uber?
-Sergio @ RSG
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