Since March of this year, COVID-19 has emptied streets across America. But among those who remain are gig workers who spend their working hours transporting people, packages, groceries and meals to customers isolating in the safety of their homes. In the process, these workers put their family’s and their own health at risk, while facing lower wages and greater instability than ever before. And those who can no longer work have to navigate an overwhelmed unemployment system, often waiting months to receive their first payments.
We spoke to gig workers throughout the West Coast who are grappling with the realities of life in a pandemic. Most asked that we not use their last names for fear of retaliation by their employers.
Working in a pandemic
Joshua is an Uber driver in Los Angeles County who has been working for the company since December 2016. When he started driving for Uber, it was “very much part-time,” as he still held a full-time job at a local university. But when Joshua quit his job in November 2017, working for Uber became “more of a full-time thing.”
Since late last year, Uber has been Joshua’s primary source of income. So when the pandemic began earlier this year, he wanted to work “as much as possible.” However, he soon realized that even though many drivers were staying home, there were far fewer rides to go around.
“I would be lucky if I pulled $10 per day, even if I stayed on the app full time.”
Eventually, Joshua realized that he would earn more from collecting Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA), a kind of unemployment benefit made available to independent contractors under the CARES act, than if he kept working. So on May 18th, he stopped logging into Uber.
“It didn’t make sense to keep putting my car at risk, and my health at risk, if I’m not really making any money.”
Monique has worked for Instacart, DoorDash and Shipt in the San Luis Obispo area since 2019. Today, she is still working, but with each passing day she fears more for her and her customers’ health.
“I deliver to a lot of elderly people in my area. I fear that other drivers aren’t taking adequate precautions to protect them.”
Before the pandemic, Monique worked seven days a week and only took weekends off sporadically. But now she only works Tuesday through Thursday in order to avoid busy weekends and protect the health of her customers.
Monique has also seen a noticeable decrease in her income since the pandemic started. An increase in the number of drivers on the road has decreased payments for each drive: Monique now gets paid only 50% as much per job as she did a few months ago.
“Before, there were around 70 drivers on Instacart in the San Luis Obispo area. Now there are over 300.”
“We’re putting ourselves at greater risk, but only getting paid half as much.”
Navigating the unemployment system
While some drivers keep working, others struggle to navigate a complex and overwhelmed unemployment system. Chase, a former Lyft driver in Modesto, has spent twenty hours per week for the past six weeks trying to contact the Employment Development Department (EDD) of California.
“I make between 750 and 1200 calls per day, five days a week, using three different phones. Of the over 10,000 calls that I’ve made, I’ve only gotten through to a person twice. But even then, they couldn’t help me.”
Chase, like many gig workers, has an unconventional work history that has slowed his application for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefits. In December 2018, he was laid off from his job as a sales manager and then collected unemployment benefits for about six months. In July 2019, he started working for Lyft and, in January 2020, he found full-time employment.
“I got a job at Al’s Furniture in January of this year. But once COVID hit, my job was one of the first to go.”
Chase’s last day of work was on March 15th, and he filed for unemployment insurance on March 22nd. “The CARES act hadn’t been instituted yet, and they didn’t have a PUA option at that point, so I applied for regular unemployment insurance (UI).”
Chase was initially approved for benefits of $450 per week, but after numerous phone calls, he found out that this was a temporary approval, pending confirmation that he paid payroll taxes in 2019. But Chase hadn’t contributed payroll taxes, because he was unemployed for the first half of 2019, and a gig worker for the latter half. So Chase was not eligible for standard UI benefits.
Applications for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program opened on April 28th, and Chase applied as soon as they opened. But today, his application is still marked as pending, and he hasn’t been able to find out why.
“I’m just going to have to keep calling until this gets resolved. I haven’t been able to pay rent for two months.”
Sarah, a Lyft driver in Portland, Oregon, stopped working in mid-March due to the pandemic, and spent most of April trying to navigate the unemployment insurance application system. But she soon learned that she did not qualify for UI benefits, so she applied for PUA on May 2nd.
“At this point, I had already been without an income for two months.”
Unlike Chase, Sarah received a payment from the PUA program. But after one week, her payments stopped. “After over a month spent applying for benefits, I received a communication from the EDD. The letter told me to call them about my claim, but the callback number was listed as 000-000-0000.”
Sarah is still trying to contact representatives from the EDD to find out how to reactivate her benefits. “I’m two months behind on rent and utilities–that’s almost $6,000.”
Joshua of Los Angeles County has also spent weeks dealing with the unemployment system. Joshua initially decided to apply for state unemployment in late March, but it took three weeks to receive a mailed response stating that he did not qualify for benefits. Since his denial, he has used guidance from Rider Share Drivers United, an advocacy group for rideshare drivers, to appeal the decision.
Rider Share Drivers United was founded in 2016 and seeks to help protect the interests of ride-share drivers. The language on their website specifies that drivers should cite AB5 in their Unemployment Insurance appeal, and gives them step-by-step instructions and a script to follow. They are instructed to show that they have been earning money consistently in the past year and a half using their 1099 tax form as documentation.
Joshua has still not heard back from the state of California regarding his appeal.
Making ends meet
In his last week doing gig work, Collin, an Uber and Lyft driver in Portland, Oregon, made only $190. Meanwhile, his PUA application is still pending, and he doesn’t know how much longer he will have to wait. When asked how the state unemployment agency has handled the crisis, Collin had this to say: “if you’re telling people not to work and apply for unemployment, but then benefits take two months to arrive, you’re failing.”
Collin says that he needs to start receiving his payments soon, or else he won’t be able to pay rent. But he also emphasizes that he and other gig workers are not simply hoping for “free money.” “I’m not trying to game the system. I like working, and I like having a paycheck. But during the crisis, if I could get some extra money, that would go a long way for me.”
Victor, a resident of Los Angeles County, has worked for Uber since 2017. On April 25th, the day he finally decided to stop working, he spent 6.5 hours alternating between driving people and delivering food on UberEats, only to be paid $40. Before the pandemic, Victor said he would probably earn $150 in the same amount of time without having to switch between apps.
After moving out of an apartment he could no longer afford and into a temporary AirBnB with a group of roommates, Victor is currently two months behind on his car payment. “After 90 days, they submit it for repossession. I think I’m going to lose my phone, and I’m absolutely going to lose my car.”
He applied for benefits on April 26th and has yet to hear back.
After carefully considering PUA and the regular UI insurance system, he chose to apply for UI, listing himself as a full-time employee of Uber, rather than an independent contractor. “I have considered myself an employee ever since AB-5 was signed into law, even if Uber has yet to comply.”
AB-5 is legislation that requires app-based gig companies like Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and others, to classify drivers as full-time employees rather than independent contractors. But these companies have yet to comply with the legislation because it would result in higher costs.
“I can’t fault the state too much,” Victor said. “Their system was never designed for this. Uber and Lyft don’t pay into state unemployment, so now California is footing the bill.”
As for Victor, he is still unsure how he will make ends meet while his unemployment application is pending.
“I’m on the verge of homelessness. I would be worried about retaliation for telling my story, but there’s nothing more Uber could do to me.”
Contact Mona Anvari at monaavr ‘at’ stanford.edu.
Contact Luke Miller at lukedm ‘at’ stanford.edu.