With fears of COVID-19 spreading across the U.S., many are bracing for the impact of a large-scale outbreak, stocking up on food and cleaning items and preparing to hunker down inside their homes and avoid public spaces. But not everyone has the freedom to do so, like the army of gig workers we’ve increasingly come to rely on.
These days we think nothing of getting into a stranger’s car or hiring someone to pick up a chicken at the grocery store. The gig economy has become enmeshed in our daily lives, said NYU business professor Arun Sundararajan.
“Something that people are realizing as they consider the prospect of a more widespread outbreak is the extent to which they rely on immediacy today,” he said. “If you don’t have something, you press a button.”
Hiring a car or getting dinner delivered could help people avoid public spaces like buses or restaurants, but behind that push of a button are gig workers like Los Angeles ride-hail driver, John Knauf.
“It’s weird seeing more people with masks get in my car,” Knauf said. “It feels dystopian.”
Workers like Knauf could be particularly exposed in an outbreak, and because they’re considered independent contractors, often don’t have a safety net to fall back on.
Over the weekend, Uber sent an advisory to drivers to wash their hands and stay home if they feel sick. But Uber drivers, and most gig workers, don’t get any paid sick days.
“The incentive is definitely to drive not to stay home,” said Knauf, who admitted he’s been driving with what he thinks could be an eye infection. He’s not sure because he doesn’t want to go to the doctor as he doesn’t have any health insurance, which is pretty common among gig workers.
“The current fear over the coronavirus has brought to the fore this lack of a safety net,” said William Dow, a professor of health policy and management at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health. He’s found workers without paid leave or access to health care are more likely to go to work when sick, increasing the spread of disease.
California’s AB 5, which went into effect at the beginning of the year, could force gig companies to provide certain benefits to workers as it aims to reclassify gig workers as employees. But several of the gig companies have been fighting the law in court and have funded a petition to overturn it at the ballot box.
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