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Elizabeth Warren calls on Uber Eats, Instacart, others to classify workers as employees

Elizabeth Warren.
Elizabeth Warren.Steven Senne/Associated Press

Senator Elizabeth Warren is calling on food delivery apps like Uber Eats, which have seen a surge in business because of coronavirus, to reclassify their workforce as employees and boost their pay as workers find themselves vulnerable to the outbreak but often lacking basic protections like paid sick leave.

Warren made the demands in a series of letters to the CEOs of DoorDash, Instacart, Grubhub, and UberEats on Wednesday. Many workers at those companies are classified as independent contractors, making them ineligible for benefits like health insurance, paid sick leave, and other protections. Meanwhile, demand for their labor has skyrocketed as Americans have been asked to stay home, driving many to opt for delivery as a way to avoid exposure to the virus.

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“The coronavirus pandemic has illustrated how much your company is completely reliant on these workers to provide essential services to the public," Warren wrote. “In this public health emergency, it is more important than ever to fairly compensate these workers and provide the health and safety protections they deserve. I urge you to rise to the imperative of this public health crisis by providing paid leave, fair compensation, and adequate health and safety protections for all your workers.”

In addition to classifying workers as employees, Warren is calling on the CEOs to provide them with protective equipment like masks and gloves, paid leave that will allow workers to stay home if they or a loved one are sick, and increased wages that reflect the extra risk they are taking on by continuing to work. She said while some of the companies are beginning to roll out policies that include some sick leave and protective equipment, access has not been universal.

DoorDash and Grubhub each said they had recently instituted programs to compensate workers affected by COVID-19 with two weeks of pay. A spokesperson for DoorDash said that its drivers mostly work to supplement income from other sources and average just a few hours of work each week.

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“Dashers come to our platform for different reasons — for the vast majority, it’s a source of supplemental income, and Dashers deliver on our platform for an average of 3 hours per week. We look forward to working with Senator Warren and other elected officials to continue to protect all workers in a way that meets their needs and serves their interests,” the company said.

In a statement, Instacart said it had implemented COVID-19-related bonuses as well as sick pay for those diagnosed with COVID-19 or placed in mandatory quarantine by local health authorities.

“Our team has an unwavering commitment to the health and safety of shoppers and will continue to support them as this situation evolves. We welcome the conversation with Senator Warren and look forward to working with her and others to further serve this important community,” the company said.

Uber said it intended to respond to Warren’s letter directly. In a statement, it did not address the call for reclassification and instead called on lawmakers to provide more protections for independent contractors.

“Today our laws present a forced choice between flexibility and protection. We believe our laws should protect all workers, not just one type of work—and rather than restricting independent work, we should strengthen the protections and benefits afforded to it," the company said.

Warren’s letters are just the latest in a series of calls for more protections as workers — often low wage employees at large companies — risk exposure to the coronavirus as they keep grocery stores, delivery services, and other critical industries running during the pandemic. An Uber driver in New York City last week died of the disease, and workers at major grocery chains in New England have also become infected. Thousands of Instacart workers staged a walkout on Monday in protest of the company’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, organizers said this week. And workers at a General Electric plant in Lynn are calling for more protections after members of an employee’s household tested positive for the virus.

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Warren’s call for reclassification is the Cambridge Democrat’s latest move in response to the growing pandemic. She has also called on the Trump administration to better explain how it is distributing critical medical supplies to states after Massachusetts lost out on several major orders to the federal government, and called on the the Department of Health and Human services to release demographic data on who is tested and treated for the virus.

Read the letters to UberEats, DoorDash, Grubhub, and Instacart.



Christina Prignano can be reached at christina.prignano@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @cprignano.