Coronavirus pandemic shines a light on gig workers’ scant protections

Instacart shopper Loralyn Geggatt made a delivery to the home of a customer in Falmouth. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Derek Henderson spends 11 hours a day, five or six days a week, picking up groceries and takeout orders and delivering them to people hunkered down at home as they try to avoid being infected by the highly contagious coronavirus.

Henderson, 46, doesn’t have that luxury. He needs to make a living. And like other gig workers still on the job, he works for platforms — Instacart, DoorDash, and Grubhub — that don’t provide basic employee benefits. Protective equipment was scarce early on, though gig companies have started providing workers with hand sanitizer, gloves, and face masks. But the workers still face great risk.

For Henderson, of North Reading, gig work is a family affair. He shops with his 19-year-old daughter, a University of Massachusetts Boston student, and his wife, who recently lost her job as a dental assistant, to fill orders faster, even though he knows this puts them all at higher risk of contracting the virus, which has killed more than 21,000 people across the country.

"My main concern is feeding my family," Henderson said. "Not many people want to go out right now, obviously, so I"m willing to take that chance in order to profit from it."

Like others in the gig economy, Henderson is considered an essential worker, but because he is an independent contractor, he is far more vulnerable than the health care providers, bus drivers, and grocery store workers beside him on the front lines. He took off about 10 days, all unpaid, when he came down with a high fever over a month ago, which he suspects may have been COVID-19. (Most gig companies are offering paid sick leave for workers who are under quarantine or test positive.) And he’s not getting hazard pay — unless you count the generous tips he’s been receiving lately.

As New Bedford DoorDash driver John Gregorio put it, “You’re a subcontractor, you’re nothing.”

As the pandemic cuts a swath through the economy, separating the essential workers from the nonessential, it has revealed just how much our economy has come to rely on gig workers — and just how vulnerable these workers are.

Instacart shopper Loralyn Geggatt made a delivery to the home of a customer in Falmouth. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Blacks and Latinos make up nearly 42 percent of gig workers, despite constituting less than 29 percent of the workforce, according to the National Employment Law Project. And among independent contractors overall, a third are 55 or older, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2017. Eight out of 10 deaths from COVID-19 are among people age 65 or older.

The federal government has stepped in to offer these workers unemployment insurance for the first time, giving them the extra $600 a week that other workers are getting, on top of benefits that they can get through the state system for the first time. They are also entitled to two weeks of paid sick time.

But these temporary protections come with complications.

Massachusetts doesn’t expect to start processing unemployment claims for the self-employed until the end of April. And the eligibility requirements don’t specifically mention several key groups, including older workers who choose not to work because they are in a higher risk category or drivers who don’t go out because there are so few passengers. The Department of Labor guidance does note that drivers may qualify who have been “advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine” or must suspend operations “because orders restricting movement makes continued operations unsustainable.”

And the sick leave provision isn’t really paid sick leave at all. Those who take advantage of it don’t get money right away, but instead must calculate their average daily income and then claim the amount they take as a tax credit.

Passing these temporary measures "in the midst of battle" shows just how flimsy the system is, said David Weil, a former administrator in the US Department of Labor who has studied independent contractors and is now a dean at Brandeis University.

"It has shown in bright light that our social safety nets in the workplace have huge holes in them," he said.

Yet some worker advocates say measures granted during the pandemic could pave the way for future benefits. Drivers in the midst of lawsuits against Uber and Lyft over their status as independent contractors have asked courts in Massachusetts and California to issue injunctions ordering the companies to grant them state-mandated paid sick leave now. If the injunctions are granted, it would be a major step forward in the fight to have gig workers classified as employees, said Shannon Liss-Riordan, the Boston lawyer representing the drivers.

"This crisis is showing how essential these workers are," she said. "The need for these employee protections are more stark than ever before."

Before it started providing sanitizing products at the end of March, Uber sent several suggestions to drivers about how to stay safe, including “consider rolling down the windows to improve ventilation."

Uber notes that it has provided more than $3 million to drivers and delivery workers who have been diagnosed or quarantined.

Ride-hail drivers in particular have taken a major hit during the pandemic. At the beginning, many had close contact with potentially infected passengers, turning the back seats of their cars into breeding grounds for the possible spread of COVID-19. At least one local driver reported transporting executives who had attended the Biogen conference, which has been linked to around 100 positive cases, as well as college students returning from Italy, which has been hit hard by the virus. The driver developed a few symptoms but was unable to get tested, and continued driving.

Several Uber drivers have died, including a 31-year-old Boston-area man who worked in human resources and drove occasionally for the ride-hail company.

As the situation grew more dire and business dropped sharply, many drivers stopped working. Business was down 80 percent or more for a majority of drivers surveyed by the ride-hail information site Ridester. Julie Pratt, a 54-year-old former Lyft driver, is now shopping for Instacart, despite having a fractured ankle. “I ride around the stores in a scooter,” she said. “I have bills to pay. I have rent. I need food.”

Those who are still transporting passengers are “scared and desperate,” said Henry DeGroot, executive director of the Boston Independent Drivers Guild, an association of Uber and Lyft drivers that organized a recent protest. They are being counted on to transport other essential workers who don’t want to risk taking much-reduced public transportation. But they are on their own when it comes to safety, he said.

“If we were employees and they were the employer, they would have a responsibility,” he said.

US Senator Elizabeth Warren joined the ride-hail protest in Boston via Zoom, outlining her support for giving drivers employee protections. Earlier this month, Warren wrote a letter to food delivery companies with similar demands.

Aquent, a Boston staffing agency, has started giving its 10,000 contractors a week of paid sick leave, and John Chuang, its chief executive, urged Uber and the other major gig companies to do the same instead of getting a “free pass [from the government] to continue profiting off the mistreatment of their workers."

This comes at a time when several companies are seeing demand rise so much that they have embarked on major hiring sprees. Instacart, for instance, plans to hire 300,000 new shoppers.

And as the ranks of the unemployed swell — 16.8 million in the first few weeks alone — the competition for these jobs could become fierce. Workers hustling to line up more gigs could cut corners and risk contracting COVID-19 just by filling up their tank with gas, said Weil, the Brandeis dean.

"The stakes have gone up," he said. "Every time we walk out in the world, we're exposed to more things. And the nature of these jobs, that's magnified."

The stakes also include restaurant delivery drivers’ inability to access restrooms now that eateries are takeout only.

A Waltham social worker who drives for Uber Eats said some restaurants no longer let drivers inside, while others have blocked off their bathrooms with furniture. Same with gas stations.

“They have tables and chairs physically barricading the bathrooms,” said the driver, who asked not to be identified. “A lot of drivers won’t admit this because it’s very degrading, but we are having to use the streets in many cases.”

The driver, who has a chronic lung disease, putting her in a high-risk category if she contracts the virus, said she was so desperate to use the bathroom recently that she pulled over in an alley behind a movie theater in Cambridge. She happened to have baby wipes and toilet paper in her car, but not being able to properly wash her hands made her even more anxious than she was before.

“Every delivery we’re risking our lives," she said.

Food is generally dropped off on doorsteps now, but getting it there means handling packaging and sometimes interacting with restaurant employees.

Loralyn Geggatt likes to think about the people she’s helping when she goes out on her Instacart runs to Shaw’s or CVS in Falmouth. Geggatt, 45, who lives with her grandmother and two sons, works “just enough to keep food coming in the house.”

“I never thought that I would be considered an essential, important person,” she said. “If I do five deliveries a day, that’s five people who didn’t have to go to the store . . . It’s five people who could have gotten sick.”

Globe correspondent Anissa Gardizy contributed to this report.

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