Gig workers warn of ‘catastrophic situation’ due to falling wages, lack of safety net

Groups representing ride-hail and cab drivers, adjunct teachers and bike delivery say that by working they risk being exposed and transmitting coronavirus, but have no other option because they can’t access unemployment benefits.

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A black car covered in water droplets has a Lyft sign displayed on its windshield.

Uber and Lyft logos on a car Wednesday in Pilsen.

Brian Ernst/Sun-Times

Warning of a potentially “catastrophic situation” amid the coronavirus pandemic, groups representing gig workers called on government officials to do more to help these workers, who they say are particularly vulnerable.

The groups made their plea for gig workers to be allowed to get unemployment in a virtual press conference Thursday, held via a video-conferencing app.

“As our entire society and economy is shutting down ... we have to do what we can to make sure we’re taking care of people,” Susan Hurley, an organizer with Chicago Jobs With Justice, said.

Some of the state’s largest labor unions also made a separate call Thursday for more worker aid as efforts to contain the pandemic batter the economy.

Gig workers, usually categorized as independent contracts, are unable to claim unemployment because the companies they work for to don’t pay unemployment insurance for their contractors. Gig workers are rarely offered any kind of health insurance through their companies and must obtain coverage on their own.

As a result, the activists said, they are particularly vulnerable and many have no choice about continuing to work out in the community while everyone else is social distancing and working from home.

“Not only are we unregulated, we are unprotected,” ride-hail driver Eli Martin said.

Eli Martin, a rideshare driver and organizer with Chicago Rideshare Advocates, speaks during a virtual press conference Thursday about the need for the state to expand unemployment protections to gig workers.

Eli Martin, a ride-hail driver and organizer with Chicago Rideshare Advocates, speaks during a virtual press conference Thursday about the need for the state to expand unemployment protections to gig workers.

Sun-Times

Martin, an organizer with Chicago Rideshare Advocates, said he and some other drivers don’t feel they can work right now due to health issues — cystic fibrosis and diabetes in Martin’s case — that put them at greater risk if they catch the coronavirus.

That’s a real fear for gig workers, they say.

Nnadmdi Uwazie, with the union Cab Drivers United, said his taxicab essentially serves as an ambulance for some people, and drivers are expected to help passengers out of the car when they get to a hospital. Not only does that put him at risk of getting coronavirus, it also risks that he will also spread it, he said.

Offers to help from the companies themselves have also fallen flat, the workers say. According to Martin, the ride-hail companies he works for initially told drivers they could pick up cleaning and disinfecting supplies at the companies’ offices, only to close the officers days later. Uber has offered to pay workers who are quarantined, but only if the worker is able to prove that they have tested positive for COVID-19.

However, testing for the virus has been delayed due to requirements that a person must be experiencing symptoms and have come in contact with another person who tested positive, among other requirements, to be tested themselves. Just a day before, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said obtaining tests has been “the biggest challenge” officials have faced during the coronavirus outbreak.

Gig workers have been making the case for years that they need better protections, and during their conference Thursday, several made the case that the government needs to force employers like Uber and Lyft to recognize them as employees of the companies and not contractors.

But in the short-term, the fastest way to help these workers would be fore the state to expand unemployment benefits to gig workers during the crisis, they said.

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