On a Monday morning two weeks ago, a San Francisco Uber driver woke up feeling sick. He had a persistent dry cough and a scratchy chest, was short of breath and wheezed when he breathed deeply. He knew these were possible symptoms for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, so he retraced his past few trips. A couple of alarming interactions came to mind, including one passenger who coughed up blood and another who admitted he'd been infected.
San Francisco hadn't yet become a ghost town with most businesses shuttered and residents hunkering at home under a mandatory "shelter in place" order. People were still out and about. Beauty salons, movie theaters, bars and most corporate offices still teemed with people. The number of coronavirus cases in the city were still scant.
Nevertheless, Uber, Lyft, Instacart, DoorDash, Postmates and other companies had issued advice to their gig workers on avoiding the virus, which as of Tuesday evening had infected nearly 425,000 people and killed nearly 20,000 worldwide. At that time, the companies said they'd assist workers with two weeks of lost income if they were diagnosed with COVID-19. They also told their drivers and delivery people to "wipe down surfaces," "practice good hygiene" and "stay home" if they felt sick.
Although that meant not earning any money and dipping into his savings, the 60-year-old San Francisco driver, who wishes to remain anonymous out of fear of retribution, heeded that warning.
"I did exactly what Uber said to do," the driver said on a phone call that was frequently interrupted by coughing fits. "But Uber is not protecting us."
Gig workers have been on the front lines during the coronavirus pandemic. They drove travelers coming from around the world before the extent of the crisis was understood. And now, they shop and deliver food to those who've been quarantined and often take sick people to hospitals. California, along with several other states, has recognized gig workers' importance, deeming their labor "essential" -- meaning they can continue to work even as the virus spreads.
Uber, Lyft, Instacart, DoorDash and Postmates wouldn't say how many of their workers have been infected with COVID-19, when contacted by CNET. But two Uber drivers were exposed to a passenger thought to have COVID-19 in Mexico City. Another driver was exposed in London after taking an infected rider to the hospital. And in Queens, New York, Mayor Bill DeBlasio confirmed a male Uber driver in his 30s was hospitalized after testing positive for the virus. On Tuesday, another Queens Uber driver, Anil Subba, became the first known gig worker to die from COVID-19.
CNET spoke to three Uber drivers, a Lyft driver and an Instacart shopper who have either tested positive for COVID-19 or are exhibiting symptoms of the pneumonia-like illness. All say they've struggled to get help from the companies.
While these stories don't necessarily represent the plight of all gig workers, they offer a window into their vulnerable situation, further exacerbated by this pandemic. Because gig workers are classified as independent contractors, they lack the same benefits as employees. Drivers and delivery people for these services don't have company health insurance, sick leave, family leave, disability or workers compensation. They don't qualify for unemployment. And they haven't been provided protective gear since the outbreak erupted.
On top of that, depending where people live, getting a COVID-19 test can be extremely difficult.
"A crisis like this exposes every weak spot in our safety net," said Nancy Berlinger, a research scholar at the Hastings Center, a nonprofit bioethics think tank, who was the lead author on ethical guidelines in responding to COVID-19. "We are getting a crash course in the vulnerability of the low wage, poorly protected work force -- the gig workforce."
After getting sick, the San Francisco driver asked for Uber's help. He was bedridden, received doctor's orders to self-quarantine and had been tested for COVID-19. For eight days, however, Uber gave him the runaround.
He'd told the ride-hailing company that he came in contact with two passengers he believed might have been infected with the coronavirus. The first incident happened on the Saturday morning before he got sick as he was driving Uber Pool, the company's carpool service that has since been shuttered because of the coronavirus. He picked up a woman, then a couple of miles later picked up a man who said he just got back from Taiwan.
"I have COVID-19," the man told them.
The driver dropped off the passengers, told the woman to call her doctor and proceeded to deep clean his car by wiping down all surfaces with disinfectant wipes.
The next day the driver got back out on the road. One of the first riders he picked up had punched in a hospital as the destination.
"We're halfway through the trip and he seems out of it," the driver said. "He starts to cough and says, 'We're going to the hospital because I'm coughing up blood.'"
Coughing up blood is one of the rarer symptoms of COVID-19. The passenger told the driver he thought he had the virus.
"I don't know for a fact if either of these people have COVID-19. I don't know if I have it," the driver said. But, "after that day, that Sunday, I didn't drive anymore."
On March 15, Uber expanded its coronavirus sick leave policy to say those workers "placed in a quarantine" by a public health authority or licensed doctor could also get the two-week assistance while their accounts were on hold. All of the other companies followed suit.
"We have a team dedicated around the clock to help provide support to drivers," an Uber spokeswoman said in an email. On its driver support page, Uber says, "We will work speedily to review and confirm all submitted documentation so that anyone who is eligible receives their assistance as soon as possible."
While most gig workers now only need a doctor's letter to receive the sick pay, CNET spoke to one driver who was still required to provide a positive COVID-19 test to get help. And in other situations, like with the San Francisco driver, it's taken several days to get financial compensation.
The San Francisco Uber driver contacted his doctor and his local Santa Clara County health department shortly after he started developing symptoms. Both recommended he get tested at a drive-through clinic, which was set up in a nearby parking lot.
As he navigated his car through orange parking cones and was told to keep his windows rolled up, he started to panic.
"Everybody was wearing a mask," he said. "It looked like a war zone."
After more than an hour, he was escorted into an exam room. A doctor wearing a mask and gown gave him a chest examination and then stuck one swab into the back of his throat and another up his nose. The driver was told his test results would be available on an online portal once they were finalized. As of this writing, they haven't been posted.
At the same time the driver was trying to get medical assistance, he was battling Uber over financial assistance.
Uber says it's helping drivers based on how much they've earned over the past six months. For example, in San Francisco, if a driver made an average of $28 per day, they'd get $400 to cover two weeks of earnings. If they made an average of $121 per day, they'd get $1,700.
The San Francisco Uber driver logged onto the company's COVID-19 portal, called Law Enforcement and Public Health Response or LERT, and found the only way he could upload his doctor's letter was by agreeing to what he called "onerous conditions," which included letting Uber collect personal data and acknowledging the transaction wouldn't change his status as an independent contractor.
Uncomfortable with the request, the driver instead took to Twitter. He documented his experience in a thread of 24 tweets directed at Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi and Chief Legal Officer Tony West. He also sent the letter through Uber's normal driver support system.
Eight days after the whole affair started, $2,108 appeared in his account.
A part-time Lyft driver based in Atlanta had a similar experience. The 37-year-old, who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, developed some of the known symptoms of COVID-19 last Saturday night. Fatigue, fever, headache and diarrhea. He got a doctor's letter requiring him to self-quarantine and sent it to Lyft.
"When will someone contact me?" he asked the support team, according to screenshots seen by CNET. "Should I keep driving until someone responds?"
The reply surprised him.
"Right now, we don't have a time frame," Lyft's team wrote back. "If you decide to drive, you can."
The driver sent Lyft another support request on Sunday morning with a screenshot of this interaction. By Monday afternoon, Lyft put the drivers account on hold and deposited the sick pay into his account.
A Lyft spokeswoman said the company has been clear in telling workers not to drive if they are sick. She declined to comment on this specific incident but said the company tweeted about the situation on Monday, saying it "reached out to the driver to apologize for the miscommunication."
Gig workers aren't free from headaches, even when they do get through to the companies. After having trouble breathing, Jon Hoheisel, a 26-year-old full-time Uber driver based in Castro Valley, California, was ordered by his doctor to take a test and self-quarantine at home.
"I was telling myself the entire time, 'You're OK. It's probably the flu,'" Hoheisel said. "But then I got the test results."
He too had trouble getting a response from Uber. It was only after tweeting to Andrew Macdonald, Uber's senior vice president of rides, that something happened. Macdonald direct-messaged Hoheisel, apologized and said he'd prioritize Hoheisel's case. On March 18, three days later, $600 was deposited into Hoheisel's account.
Still, something didn't seem right. Hoheisel went over his last six months of work and calculated that he should've been paid $1,600. Frustrated, Hoheisel got back on Twitter. A day later, the company deposited another $1,000 into his account. The following day, he learned he tested positive for COVID-19.
Uber declined to comment on Macdonald's interaction with Hoheisel.
"The whole process was kind of shady… It took a lot of pulling teeth," Hoheisel said. "I'm just relieved that I got my money."
But some gig workers haven't been so lucky.
With sirens blaring, an ambulance sped into a Portland, Oregon, suburb this past Saturday night after getting a 911 call of someone having a life-threatening asthma attack. The paramedics arrived at the house of an Instacart shopper and immediately administered an epinephrine shot. The shopper, who told CNET about this incident, is gender-nonconforming and wishes to remain anonymous out of fear of stigma.
This episode was the latest in a sequence of events that had begun a week earlier.
Up until March 14, the 38-year-old Portland Instacart shopper had been busy "taking batches" -- Instacart parlance for making deliveries -- bringing customers groceries and supplies as the coronavirus spread. On Sunday, March 15, the shopper developed a high fever, cough and severe shortness of breath.
"I was overworked and overstressed, so I thought it was that," the shopper said.
The shopper called the doctor, who said the symptoms sounded like COVID-19. But the doctor warned not to go to the hospital and get tested unless the symptoms were deadly. Instead, the doctor wrote a letter requiring a 14-day self-quarantine.
Testing for COVID-19 varies tremendously across the US. In some counties, it's nearly impossible to get the nasopharyngeal swab. Oftentimes, even when testing is available, it's only given to the direly ill.
As the Instacart shopper was whisked to the local hospital on Saturday, doctors administered tests for the flu and pneumonia, which came up negative. But the shopper still wasn't given a COVID-19 test.
The whole situation has been a massive financial burden for the Instacart shopper and their family.
It took the shopper messaging the company, sending the doctor's letter and then calling just to get a response, which came two days later. Instacart's support team said the letter wasn't enough to get financial assistance, according to screenshots seen by CNET. Instead, the doctor would have to fill out an Instacart form.
Instacart declined to comment on this shopper's case. The company said that if a shopper doesn't supply one of the required documents or there's missing information, it will let them know what's needed to get the sick pay approval.
"These gig companies are just saying this to stay safe and provide a good public image. They are making the burden of truth so impossible to achieve," the shopper said. "If you have someone who's a single parent and literally living day-to-day, what are they to do? There's nothing to protect them from financial catastrophe."
Steve Gregg, a 51-year-old full-time Uber driver in Antioch, California, also hasn't been able to get tested for COVID-19. He started developing the typical symptoms on March 15. As in the case of the Instacart shopper, his doctor wrote him a letter telling him to self-quarantine but said he couldn't get tested unless he exhibited severe symptoms.
"I'm just scared," Gregg said over the phone, choking back tears. "And I have no recourse."
Gregg doesn't have health insurance and is considered vulnerable to the virus because he has high blood pressure and is pre-diabetic. Since his COVID-19 symptoms came on, he's had three panic attacks.
When he sent his doctor's letter to Uber on March 16, the company got back to him in 24 hours. But, it said, he needed to get a test in order to receive sick pay.
"Have you received confirmation of this diagnosis from a medical professional," Uber wrote in a message to Gregg, seen by CNET. "In order to be eligible for financial assistance, we will need documentation of your diagnosis from a licensed medical provider."
This message was sent to Gregg two days after Uber announced it stopped requiring a positive COVID-19 test to get paid leave.
"Requiring a positive test result in order to pay out sick pay is not practical and is actually dangerous," said Moira Muntz, spokeswoman for the Independent Drivers Guild, which represents 200,000 drivers in the tri-state area. The guild was instrumental in pushing gig economy companies to expand their policies and stop requiring a positive COVID-19 test.
"We are happy that Uber and Lyft have now agreed to provide sick pay to any driver with a doctor's note to self-isolate," Muntz added. "But they urgently need to raise awareness of this policy and make the process easier or we will have sick and at-risk drivers continuing to work."
Over the past few days as the number of coronavirus cases swelled, gig workers have used Twitter, Facebook and Reddit to post comments that they're driving, even if they feel sick. The workers often say they don't have a choice because they have bills to pay and can't get help from the companies.
Berlinger from the Hastings Center said these workers are in a Catch 22 that ends up being dangerous for everyone.
"This should be a wakeup call," Berlinger said. "It's a reminder of how we're all connected."
As for the San Francisco Uber driver, he's still fatigued and coughing two weeks after he first felt sick. He's relieved that Uber came through with his paid leave but said the gig economy companies need to do more to protect workers.
If the companies temporarily deactivate a worker because they may have COVID-19, he said, that should be enough to trigger the 14-day paid leave. He said Uber and Lyft should also send messages to all passengers warning them that if they're having COVID-19 symptoms, not to use their apps to get to the hospital or urgent care.
"Uber drivers are not medical transport," he said. "Drivers do not have the training or [personal protective equipment] to protect ourselves."
The driver took a deep, labored breath and sighed.
"The thing is," he said, "nobody wanted this to happen."
Originally published March 25, 2020, 5 a.m. PT.