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Essential: Gig Workers and COVID-19 [ENCORE]

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Essential: Gig Workers and COVID-19

Gig Workers, driver’s for app companies such as Lyft and Uber, are struggling during COVID-19. They’re considered essential workers, so they can still work but many of them aren’t making enough to cover rent at Many have chosen to stay home, facing economic insecurity. Those who work, however, are continuing to drive without much protection in the way of personal protective equipment, and very little help from the app companies themselves. We take a look at the future of the gig economy and how to protect “essential workers.”


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  • Angela Vogel: Organizer with the Philadelphia Driver’s Union
  • George Gonzales: Delivery driver with Instacart and Uber
  • Chris Benner: Institute for Social Transformation, and Professor of Sociology at University of California, Santa Cruz


To learn more about the awesome art work on our web site featuring essential workers, check out Indiana-based artist Jorge Garza and his work at

Making Contact Staff

  • Host: Salima Hamirani
  • Executive Director: Lisa Rudman
  • Staff Producers: Anita Johnson, Monica Lopez, Salima Hamirani
  • Web Manager: Kathryn Styer


  • Blue Dot Sessions : Zander – Tapoco Critter
  • Blue Dot Sessions: Zander – Bedroll
  • Blue Dot Sessions: Zander – Clouds at the Gap
  • Blue Dot Sessions: Orange Cat – Lupi



I’m Salima Hamirani and this is making contact.

George Gonzales – I honestly don’t want to be working right now because I have a 14 year old who has a compromised immune system.

Salima Hamirani Not everyone’s been able to stay home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many people considered “essential” are still going to work even if they don’t want to.

George Gonzales – there’s nothing that I would love more than to be able  to stay home and take care of my daughters. But that’s not an option.

Salima Hamirani  We take a look at a subset of these workers – drivers for app companies – or what’s known as ‘gig workers.” And how they’re doing, economically and physically.

Chris Benner – one of the things that is really obvious in both studies that we’ve done is that these are people who are really living on the edge sort of paycheck to paycheck.

Salima Hamirani  We also talk about driver organizing, as gig workers try to access sick pay, unemployment and personal protective equipment.

Angela Vogel – I really believe that some of the things that we’ve learned are going to impact worker movements as a whole across the US.


Salima Hamirani  – So, today we’re talking about the effect of COVID-19 on a particular type of essential worker – what we call gig workers.

Chris Benner   These are people who work for platform based companies like Uber and Lyft or Door Dash or Instacart and do ride hailing services or food and grocery delivery work.

Salima Hamirani  – That’s Chris Benner. 

Chris Benner I’m a faculty member in the Department of Environmental Stu dies and Sociology at UC Santa Cruz. And I also directed a research center called the Institute for Social Transformation. 

Salima Hamirani  –  And Chris just published a study – 

Chris Benner – When the Corona virus crisis hit, we had to put a halt on the survey. We were running at at that time and really put out a more immediate survey that’s trying to understand how the Corona virus crisis is impacting this workforce, which is particularly vulnerable because of their employment status  

Salima Hamirani  – we wanted to understand whether or not drivers were able to access protective equipment and unemployment and other kinds of benefits because we wanted to know if they were safe. And that’s important because as a quote “essential worker” we’re dependent on their help during quarantine.  

JORGE Gonzales  – So I do believe that we are in every way, shape or form essential. I have spoken to many people who use Instacart who ask me to leave the groceries outside. Who tell me that their four year old has severe asthma. Who told me that their young child just went through a surgery. There are people that absolutely cannot go get their groceries.

Salima Hamirani – And that’s George Gonzales

JORGE Gonzales  At the moment, I’m an Instacart shopper. So that makes me a good worker. And I was formerly doing Uber. I still do a little bit of Uber eats on the side.

Salima Hamirani  – we met with George – virtually of course – to talk about his experiences as a delivery driver. And, together Chris’s study and George’s personal story tell us that the situation for gig workers during COVID 19 is ….well, dangerous, for a lot of reasons. Let’s start with the study.

PART 1 –

TRACK – from interview _ Chris tell me about how you gathered information, was it through known drivers groups? Or online?

CHRIS ACT – We put out a survey and were reaching out through networks of community organizations and labor organizations, as well as closed online Facebook groups and other networks of drivers and delivery people. We actually tried at one point to do and sort of open social media based recruiting strategy and that survey got hijacked. So we had to sort of work through known networks of drivers. 

TRACK – wait, chris, what do you mean it got hijacked?

CHRIS ACT – So it was just clear that we had a bunch of bad surveys. They were all identical and put in place. So that was the first time.

CHRIS ACT – The second time we actually discovered because someone let us know and some of the survey responses looked somewhat suspicious that someone was paying people to fill out the survey and giving them email addresses to fill them out and actually giving very high ratings to the platform company. So we don’t know who was behind that, but it was clearly sort of some suspicious responses. 

TRACK – from interview – that’s interesting. Um, ok, Can you tell me about the demographics you’ve discovered. Who’s working for these apps?

CHRIS ACT – It’s a predominantly male workforce. In our survey, it’s about 83 percent were men. A high level of immigrants.

CHRIS ACT –  In this survey, about 50 percent are immigrants. We weren’t asking about documentation status, but we can expect that a significant portion of those are undocumented immigrants. Almost 70 percent were people of color. And just over 30 percent are people with a college degree. It means that 69 percent have no college degree.

TRACK – the demographic data tells us that a lot of app drivers need these jobs and aren’t able to just stay home and NOT work, even in the middle of a pandemic. In fact, tracking studies have shown that the wealthy have been able to limit their movement  during the coronavirus quarantine far more than the poor. Here’s George again:

JORGE ACT – Savings are pretty much impossible. Doing Uber and Lyft just because car repairs are always going to be a thing. It’s part of what we signed up for, I suppose, as an independent contractor. As far as rent, we’re still paying rent here. I paid fourteen hundred a month in Sacramento. 

JORGE ACT – I honestly don’t want to be working right now because I have a 14 year old who has a compromised immune system. Everybody has different data regarding covered. But one thing that seems to be all around the board real is that people who are diabetic are at a higher risk of real danger if they contract covered. So there’s nothing that I would love more than to be able to stay home and take care of my daughters. Focus on helping them with their homework so that I could quarantine, especially for my 14 year old safety. But that’s not an option. 

TRACK – And in fact, he now has to work more than ever before, because on average, gig worker salaries are tanking.

CHRIS ACT – Most people had we’re losing significant income from before that crisis back in February. And we had some measures that more than half of respondents had actually lost between 75 percent and 100 percent of their weekly earnings on the platform companies since February. And the other things that’s happened is that with the rapid increase in unemployment, there’s a large number of people who’ve moved in to trying to do that kind of work, because at least there’s some work there.

CHRIS – And so you have essentially a flooded labor market, which means that it’s very hard to get enough hours. One of the things that is really obvious in both studies that we’ve done is that these are people who are really living on the edge sort of paycheck to paycheck. We have a question in the survey that asked people, you know, whether they have enough resources to handle an emergency expense of only $400 and only 30 percent, roughly of people would be able to pay off immediately a 400 dollar emergency expense. So clearly just one paycheck away from not being able to pay basic bills, utilities and rent, et cetera 

TRACK – george, for example has seen a huge drop in earnings. 

JORGE ACT – It’s very exhausting. We’re kind of at the mercy of the people that we’re kind of working for a lot of times we work long hours and we’re not getting tip very well. And that ends up putting us in circumstances where we’re making well below minimum wage. 

JORGE ACT – I have no money. it’s been a very difficult circumstance. 

JORGE ACT – I have three daughters. I have a 14 year old. I have a six year old. And I have a four year old. Kids are very expensive and it’s it’s even harder right now because I have to work more hours to make less and my kids are not able to go to school right now. So just finding the time to help them with their homework, having to pay for more food, all of this is going down at a time where I’m making less than I’ve ever made

JORGE ACT – Going to foodbanks is something that I never really foresaw in my future. And, you know, there’s no shame in it, but it’s definitely something that my family has counted on. There’s a lot of things around another not getting paid. 

TRACK – but it’s not just the fact that gig workers aren’t earning enough that’s making their lives difficult at the moment – they also don’t have benefits. Benefits which, on paper, exist, but in actuality are extremely difficult to access. 

CHRIS ACT – [00:04:07] A large portion of people have no health insurance either. About 17 percent in the most recent survey. And another 32 percent are only getting health insurance through some kind of subsidized system through Medi-Cal or Covered California or some other state or federal insurance program. So even before the coronavirus hit there, they’re clearly vulnerable. And in general, unemployed are independent contractors are not eligible for unemployment insurance. Now, with the passage of the Federal Cares Act, independent contractors became eligible for unemployment insurance. But in our survey, we still found quite a number of people who were having who had stopped working. And we’re having a hard time getting unemployment insurance.

CHRIS ACT – [00:12:15] And you know, what we’ve seen is that nationally over the last five weeks, more than 26 million people have filed for unemployment insurance.

CHRIS ACT – [00:12:27] It’s a completely unprecedented scale, a jump in that. And many of the online application systems have been completely overwhelmed. And if they’re working and have some income while then they’re not eligible for unemployment insurance, they’re really in this tricky in-between space that makes them very vulnerable in the current context. 

JORGE- [00:00:14] Filing for unemployment seems like a heavy tackle. It’s taking a lot of people a long time to get their income.

JORGE – [00:00:20] You know, the numbers are not guaranteed. And furthermore, there’s a long wait to get it. 

JORGE – Uber is just one of those difficult things that make it very hard when applying for any kind of any kind of help because we are independent contractors. So maybe that’s lack of knowledge and I have to take accountability for that. But I also don’t feel as though these platforms make it easier on us. I don’t feel like they do a good job trying to navigate us toward these health care options.

JORGE – [00:03:47] I don’t have health insurance, which is another fear. 

TRACK – For george, it’s too much of a gamble to try and wait for unemployment or other benefits to kick in. he’d rather work now while he still can, even if it’s extremely dangerous. 

JORGE – [00:01:11] I don’t want to get backed up. I don’t want to start looking for some kind of temporary forgiveness. And then as soon as everything goes back to normal, I have to meet that kind of back payment and continue to make my my regular payments. And as it is, it’s very scary because once everybody is released back out into the public, who’s to say whether or not people are gonna want to take Uber? So. 

TRACK – one of the questions we had going into our interviews was how much responsibility the app companies are taking for their workers. That was also a big question for chris in his study

CHRIS –  [00:08:04] And part of what we asking about in this survey is what kind of protections were they getting from the platform companies they’re working for to make sure they’re being safe and healthy and that they’re making sure the customers are being safe and healthy.

CHRIS – And I have to say, that was one of the most disturbing parts of that is, you know, consistently people are reporting getting very little support from the platform companies themselves.

CHRIS – [00:08:33] They were taking some more precautions on their own initiatives around wearing gloves or using hand sanitizer, wearing masks. 

TRACK – from interview – george have you contacted the app companies for help? With things like masks or gloves?

JORGE –  [00:03:52] Yes. Yes, I have reached out to lift, I have reached out to Uber and I have reached out to Instacart in all three circumstances. It’s become pretty much impossible. Instacart last week finally allowed me to request an order. And that was. Last Tuesday and as of today, I so don’t have it. So last Friday in Oakland, they were distributing hand sanitizer and masks. I’m in Sacramento right now because there’s no work for me in the Bay Area. And I couldn’t drive an hour and 30 minutes just to go get a hand sanitizer. So I had to pass up on that. So it’s extremely hard doing this on our own without any kind of backup from Uber, Lyft or Instacart. 

JORGE – last week when they offered face masks in Oakland. I called and I said on the phone for about two hours. I talked to three different people. And finally they said there’s nothing we can do regarding getting you a mask. In Sacramento, 

TRACK – George made light of a lot of his situation, maybe because he had to. He joked about not having any money. But this is where I heard him get angry. 

JORGE _ They’re not doing a single thing. Every single thing that happens is me. Every time that I spray my car with Lysol that came out of my budget. Uber did not tell me to do that. They suggested and recommended that I cover my costs. But every time that we’re looking out for our community, that is something that we’re doing out of the kinds of our hearts. That is just not something that Uber’s is doing for them.

TRACK – Personal protective equipment, such as masks, gloves and disinfectant for millions of drivers would cost a lot of money. but a company like uber, for example is valued at at least 60 billion dollars. We reached out to about ten app companies seeking their comments, but we did not hear back from them in time for this show. We did go on their websites to check on their new coronavirus updates and many companies are slowly starting to distribute protective equipment though – from the drivers we talked to, it seemed like they’d been waiting for a long time and some drivers had already gotten ill from transporting sick passengers. 


So we asked Chris what motivated people in his study to keep driving but we also wanted to know what motiviated them to stop driving, given the economic repercussions they face  . 

CHRIS – [00:06:44] You know, it’s clear that those drivers who stopped working were doing it for essentially two different reasons. One is because there were so few jobs available that it didn’t make it, you know, possible economically to do it. And second is because, of course, they afraid of getting exposed to the virus. And I should mention that in a ride hailing drivers in particular are particularly vulnerable because they’re giving rides to a lot of people who are traveling. So coming in from different parts of the country and international flights and potential exposure to a wide variety of people. And then they’re in a enclosed space.

CHRIS – [00:07:37] We don’t have really any data in the country that I know of that gives a breakdown of infection by occupation. We have some data from health workers, but other than that, really not much. But I think we can assume that a lot of people doing this kind of ride hailing work certainly are disproportionately exposed and potentially higher rates of of infection. 

CHRIS – what happened quite early on with the pandemic is that platform companies did announce a Cauvin 19 related paid sick leave for their drivers. But the restrictions around that made it very hard for many drivers to qualify for that. They had to be certified as cover 19 positive either themselves or they could do it in some cases for taking care of family members. But we know with the limits in testing that there are many, many people who have had COVA 19 or have it now included with very serious symptoms who are not able to get the tests to verify that. And in that case, they would not be eligible for the paid sick leave under most of the policies of these these platform companies.

TRACK – his answer – about the rate of covid infections among drivers – stood out because I’d talked to george earlier, and here’s what he said when I asked him if he was worried about getting sick. 

JORGE – I believe that I probably had covered. I was really sick in March, so I had a passenger in the car who told me that her coworker had just caught Corona virus and that they had to send him home. So about three days later, I started getting a really bad cough and it turned into a pretty violent fevers. I checked my temperature. It was one hundred three point seven, but it is by far the most sick I’ve ever been. Which led me to sleep in my car for two weeks in San Francisco. And I eventually went to the E.R.. They they did not want to test me for Kogut because they said it’s been two and a half weeks. There is no point of giving you a test. Now, I reached out to Uber. I reached out to lift to see if they were willing to help me get a test. They did not help me at all 

JORGE – I do about six runs every day, seven days a week. It is very scary and I am super afraid of what’s going to happen if myself or my daughter were to suffer serious health issues because of Cofield and the fact that very little seems to be getting done in regards to the platforms that make so much money from us. 


TRACK – You were just listening to Chris Benner, from the Department of Environmental Studies and Sociology at UC Santa Cruz. And the Institute for Social Transformation. You were also listening to George Gonzales, a driver for Instacart and Uber. We’re talking about gig work, and essential workers during COVID -19 on today’s Making Contact. Make sure you keep up to date on our shows and get behind the scenes information on our website And now back to our show. 


PART 2 – 

TRACK – welcome back. If you’re just joining us, we’re taking a look at gig workers and how they’re doing during the COVID-19 pandemic. And from our guests in the first half, we mostly heard that they’re not doing well. They feel like they’re working without much support under very dangerous circumstances. And, they’re vulnerable because they’re not considered employees, they’re considered contract workers. Which kind of means they’re on their own. Now. one of the interesting developments the past few years in many states is the passage of laws designed to protect gig workers. Laws like AB5 in California and restrictions on who’s considered a contract worker in places like New jersey. These laws have passed because of organizing. Organizing by drivers and other gig workers themselves. We spoke with one such organizer – 

[00:00:01] My name is Angela Vogel. I am a driver and organizer with Philadelphia Drivers Union and we are an all volunteer, all driver led union, specifically drivers that drive for Uber and Lyft.

TRACK –  and to end the show we wanted to highlight this sort of new and visionary work and also talk about what still needs to change. 

TRACK from interview – [00:00:18] Ok Angela, First off, let’s talk about the gig economy pre-code 19 and how that’s affected the situation many drivers are in now.

[00:00:27] Right. So it’s interesting that there’s so much more attention now because the uprise of gig work actually happened during our last major economic downturn post 2008. Even under the Obama administration, there was not enforcement of employee classification and there was a lot of encouragement for people to go out and find work despite the lack of good paying jobs. And many, many people turned to app based work. What’s happened with this pandemic is that it has essentially pulled the veil off of problems that were already existing. Right. So it took a little sprained finger and turned it into a broken arm. Some states have done better than others in enforcing employment law. So you take New Jersey, for example, filed a lawsuit against Uber last year saying that Uber owed the employment taxes. So New Jersey, as an example, was many steps ahead of creating the safety net that these drivers deserve. Just their employment tax bill would be six hundred and fifty million dollars. Had these things been addressed earlier in years proceeding when drivers were saying that these kind of safety nets in these kind of employer employee relationships existed, drivers would not still be waiting six weeks after losing their jobs for any kind of economic relief.

TRACK from interview – [00:01:56] So you talked about I think you called it employee designation. Let’s talk about that. What does that mean? What’s a contract worker?

 [00:02:05] Right. So in the United States, many of our rights are connected to whether or not we are classified as an employee. So, for example, are right to have the company that pays us pay into our unemployment insurance to pay stipends for health care, et cetera, no matter where you are. The determination between those two classifications depends on some kind of a test of how much control the employer has over your work. What happens with app based work is that we don’t have a manager standing there checking whether or not we came to work on time or not. And so many workers believe that just because they don’t have to punch a clock and have a physical manager there, that that makes them an independent contractor. Apps have clouded the amount of control that many of these companies have over their workers. So in essence, the app itself creates control. So as soon as I log on, the app is telling me whether I did my job right based on the customer rating or whether or not I showed up on time. And it’s penalizing us or rewarding us for doing what the app wants us to do. So the argument has always been that Uber and Lyft drivers are actually employees and that those companies exert a lot of control over our work. 

TRACK from interview – [00:03:31] Right. And that makes me wonder how much does an average driver actually make in a year? Is that data out there?

[00:03:44] So like we are constantly telling our regulatory agencies and legislators here in Pennsylvania, legislators often use the lack of access to data as a reason why they cannot go to Uber and Lyft and hold them accountable. We’re constantly trying to remind them the data is here. I can open up my app right now and tell you exactly how much I need over what hours and we can figure. Average expense for the average mile in the average vehicle. The IRS does it every year. So the data is out there. There is no state or federal agency aggregating that data in a purposeful manner. So actually in most states, the legislation that legalized Uber and Lyft, what we would call unregulated services in most states, actually has provisions that specifically protect transportation network companies Uber and Lyft from having to share that data. Here in Pennsylvania, they don’t even have to respond to write to nor requests for data.

TRACK from interview – [00:04:44] Well – Why?

 [00:04:45] Because Uber and Lyft wrote the legislation, right?

 TRACK from interview – [00:04:49] Because I mean, my question is, are people even making minimum wage? It’s unclear.

[00:04:54] And in many, many places, they are not.

TRACK from interview – [00:05:47] Is there anything being done to force the companies to release any basic employment data on how much their workers are making and how many workers they have?

[00:06:11] There are things being done. What’s being done, though, is being led by driver organizing and activist organizing in our communities. We are putting out all kinds of surveys to try to collect driver information. You know, we build our lists. Where it’s not happening is at the government level, right. This pandemic unemployment assistance is the very first time that any states have made any effort to collect income data on Uber and Lyft drivers. And it’s work that should have been happening for years.

TRACK from interview – [00:06:50] Right. And that’s so interesting to me because you mentioned A.B. five and these laws in New Jersey, Massachusetts, and it’s become very clear that just because a law exists, it doesn’t mean it’s being used.

[00:07:03] That’s exactly right. And the enforcement has always been the question. And I think that eighty five really proved that. But you will hear from drivers in any state that they have filed complaints with their departments of Labor, that they have filed complaints with their attorney generals, that they have filed a complaint anywhere, that someone can file a complaint to have employment classification in force and that there’s a total lack of action. 

TRACK from interview – [00:10:47] Are there laws being developed that would protect drivers and give workers?

[00:10:50] There is definitely a national coalition of driver led organizations that are talking about what nationally legislation. [00:10:58] I think at this time, given who our federal administration is, you know, there’s a pretty strong feeling that without, you know, overturning a little bit of the legislature and probably a new president, that it will would be very difficult to move. That’s why the current effort is much more on state by state so that hopefully we can win some enforcement in one of these states to sort of set an example as to what can be done federally when the political landscape is a little more conducive to that.  

TRACK from interview – [00:07:29] ok So let’s talk a little bit about organizing more specifically. And you know, I was thinking about how it’s sometimes difficult to organize new industries or traditionally ignored industries, for example, like domestic workers. What’s been challenging about organizing gig workers?

[00:07:44] The biggest thing that I’m always trying to impart on trade union organizers is that in many trades, the work that they do that the workers do, they’re very proud of it and they build their identity around it. [00:07:57] Right. So if I’m talking to a steel worker or a nurse or a teacher, being a nurse, a teacher steelworker is part of their identity. The biggest challenge that we have with Uber and Lyft drivers other than the high turnover is the lack of association with that identity. Right. We do have quite a number of members where being a driver is really part of their identity. But because of this app based gig type work, a lot of them are members really have something else that they build their identity around. Right. They’re a student. They’re an artist. They’re a parent. So it forces us to rather than just look at this sort of conventional trade union organizing model. We are really forced into a whole worker organizing model, meaning that I cannot just talk to them about what their experiences is driving. I also have to know why do they drive? What is it in their life that they need this flexibility in hours that driving was the thing that made sense? What is it that they are working towards that they’re willing to go ahead and risk their life to make ten dollars on a trip if they’re lucky? And I think that these are if we go deeper in U.S. labor union history and look at, like you mentioned, domestic workers and farm workers, that we see that organizing around the whole worker and their whole life and everything that brings them to that point, that their work was historically what made the U.S. labor movement strong. And we need to revive that. 

TRACK from interview – [00:09:32] ok and since I asked you what’s been difficult about organizing, I’m wondering what’s been successful about organizing.

[00:09:37]  Recently we did get Uber here in Philly to concede to pay the vehicle insurance for our core and oldest members, which are that uber black drivers. They are required to purchase their insurance through Uber on their vehicle insurance and their commercial policies are about one hundred and twenty five dollars a week or so. And Uber has been paying that for, I think six weeks now and has promised us another two weeks nationally. 

But What’s been most positive and exciting about it to me has been getting to discover new ways of doing things.And I think that like when I’m talking about organizing the whole worker, it’s very exciting to me that drivers have really, even though they haven’t been getting the amount of notice that they deserve. They have really been leading the way in developing new ways of organizing because the old ways don’t work for us. I really believe that some of the things that we’ve learned are going to impact worker movements as a whole across the US. 

TRACK – you were just listening to Angela Vogel, organizer with the Philadelphia Driver’s Union. And george gonzales a gig worker with instacart and uber. And that does it for this edition of making Contact. 

And we want to hear from you! What do you think about gig work and coronavirus? Join the conversation on Facebook;  — Our Twitter handle is Making underscore Contact and on Instagram we’re  makingcontactradioproject. 

The Making Contact Team includes:

Monica Lopez, Anita Johnson, Ayesha Choudary and Lisa Rudman, Kathryn Styer. I’m Salima Hamirani .  Thanks for listening to Making Contact!

Author: Radio Project

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