Lyft pulls bait-and-switch on promised coronavirus sick pay, drivers say

Without a clear paid leave policy, some drivers may still be on the road despite getting infected.

Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
Dara Kerr
8 min read

Lyft drivers with COVID-19 say they're having a hard time getting promised sick leave.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Ben S. stopped driving for Lyft in mid-March. He was worried about his dad, who had a heart condition. A handful of stent surgeries held his condition in check, but since contracting COVID-19, he wasn't doing well.

"His heart rate was up to 90, sometimes it got up to 110 or higher," said Ben, who didn't want his full name used out of fear of stigma. As we spoke over a video call last week, he leaned in close and whispered, "I actually thought he was not going to make it."

Ben, 35, lives with his parents in Brooklyn, New York. Along with his dad, Ben's mom and three other family members were also infected with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Then Ben got it too.

He'd heard Lyft was promising drivers two weeks of sick pay if they were diagnosed with COVID-19 or mandated to quarantine. So he sent the ride-hailing company his doctor's letter. Eight days later, Lyft put a hold on Ben's account, though that only came after he sent in his positive diagnosis for COVID-19. As far as the sick pay goes, Ben's still trying to get that sorted out. 

"I do my best to represent the company in a positive way," Ben said. "But they don't necessarily stand behind you."

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Ben's story isn't unique. Like many people, drivers for Uber and Lyft have been hit hard by the virus, which has shut down the economy and taken over daily life. Drivers have seen rides -- and consequently their earnings -- plummet. And while both companies have volunteered to give two weeks paid leave to sick workers, CNET found that the assistance is difficult to come by. Gig workers for other companies have also hit roadblocks getting sick leave, and some, like Instacart and Amazon shoppers, have staged strikes demanding more help.

At Lyft, something different has happened. Initially, the company said on its website that it'd pay drivers an amount based on "rides they provided on the Lyft platform over the last four weeks," according to screenshots collected by CNET from last month. But now, that language has quietly disappeared. This has made the process of getting sick pay confusing and arduous, Lyft drivers say.

"It's pretty concerning how [Lyft is] handling this and responding to the virus," said a former senior Lyft employee, who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. "It's very company-first and doing what's best for the company, but it's at odds with what's best for drivers and passengers."

Without financial assistance, some drivers say they feel forced to work even if they're sick because they can't afford not to. If infected, the drivers may inadvertently pass on the novel coronavirus, which has already killed more than 80,000 and infected nearly 1.5 million people around the world.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends employers offer workers paid sick leave if they're exposed to or infected with COVID-19. Public health officials say this is crucial in stopping people from continuing to work and exposing others to the virus.

Uber and Lyft drivers, however, are classified as independent contractors and lack the benefits, such as mandated sick leave, that employees get. The debate over gig worker benefits raged even before the coronavirus shut down life but has now been amplified because of the pandemic.

"This is an unprecedented situation, and we are doing everything we can to meet the challenge," said Lyft spokeswoman Alexandra LaManna, noting that the company has given sick leave payments to nearly 1,500 drivers. "We diverted team members away from other areas to handle these types of inquiries full time -- and are actively adding more resources -- to help address these inquiries as quickly as possible."

An Uber spokeswoman said the company has paid more than $3 million to support US drivers during the pandemic but wouldn't say how many drivers have received paid leave. In a court filing last week, as part of a lawsuit regarding driver sick pay, Uber revealed it's given financial assistance to 1,400 workers. A similar lawsuit has been filed against Lyft.

Shannon Liss-Riordan, the lawyer representing drivers in both lawsuits, pointed out that her clients haven't been able to get the paid leave.

"Lyft and many gig economy companies are claiming to be helping their workers during the pandemic, but on closer inspection, many of those claims have turned out to be illusory," Liss-Riordan said in an email. "The 'generous' sick pay they are 'voluntarily' providing is not even something most drivers can access."

Vague calculations

Uber has a formula it uses to calculate paid leave for sick drivers. The company explains on its driver support page that the sick leave is based on an average of a driver's daily earnings over six months ending on March 6. For example, if a driver made an average of $64 per day during that time, they'd get $900 to cover two weeks of earnings.

How Uber calculates drivers' sick leave

Uber calculates drivers' sick leave based on their average daily earnings over a six month period.


One Uber driver who spoke with CNET got $2,108; another received $1,600. While the drivers said they went through a lot of hassle to get those payouts, both agreed the calculations were fair.

Lyft's policy is less clear.

On March 19, Lyft said in a blog post it would "provide funds to affected drivers based on the rides they provided on the Lyft platform over the last four weeks."

That exact same language was also included on Lyft's COVID-19 help page, though it has since vanished. On its current help page, Lyft only says it'll pay "qualifying" drivers "an amount determined by the driver's previous activity on the Lyft platform" and that drivers must submit documentation by April 10.

This lack of a clear policy and way to calculate sick leave has left many Lyft drivers unable to figure out how much they'll get paid.

One part-time Lyft driver based in Atlanta, who wishes to remain anonymous for privacy reasons, developed some of the symptoms of COVID-19 on March 21. Those included fatigue, fever, headache and diarrhea. He got a doctor's letter requiring him to self-quarantine and sent it to Lyft.

After some back-and-forth with the company, Lyft deposited $1,000 into his account on March 23. While relieved to get some money, the driver was confused. He calculated he should've been paid $1,350 based on the average of his last four weeks of driving. He repeatedly pressed the company on the issue and finally heard back 10 days later.

"The funds provided are based on each driver's history on the platform and may vary," Lyft wrote to the driver on April 2, according to screenshots seen by CNET. "At this time, we are not able to provide further assistance."

The driver gave up.

"Now the system is basically, 'We'll give you some money, if we want, based on what we think you deserve,'" he said. 

Lyft's COVID-19 support page

Lyft has an expansive COVID-19 support page but doesn't specify how it calculates drivers' sick leave.


Ben had an even tougher time communicating with Lyft. He started driving for the company because he's hearing-impaired and said that made it hard to find a permanent job. He's given hundreds of rides over the past year and has a solid 5.0 rating, the best possible. When Ben sent his doctor's letter to Lyft, he added a message with a calculation for his pay.

"I request my 30-day pay period be calculated from Feb 7, 2020 until March 8, 2020," Ben wrote on March 18, adding that he avoided driving after March 8. "I earned an average weekly wage of $462.15. So, I should be compensated two weeks of an average weekly wage for a total of $924.30."

Lyft's response surprised him.

"They told me that I should wash my hands," he said.

After Ben contacted Lyft again with his positive COVID-19 test the following week, the company replied that it temporarily deactivated his account.

During our video call, I asked Ben if Lyft mentioned sick pay in its messages to him. He shook his head side-to-side and said, "nothing."

Ben said he sent nearly 30 messages to Lyft asking about paid leave and got no response. On April 3, more than two weeks after he first contacted the company, it deposited $250 into his account with the same message it sent the Atlanta driver.

When CNET asked Lyft for clarification on its sick leave, LaManna said the payments are given in a range of $250 to $1,000. For example, if a driver works an average of five hours a week "over a period of a month" they'll get $250. For a driver to get $1,000, they have to work an average of 37.5 hours a week for a month. It's unclear how Lyft determines the dates for that month.

As of this writing, this information wasn't available on Lyft's website or its COVID-19 driver help page.

At risk

Since the coronavirus pandemic pummeled the US, Lyft has rolled out a series of new programs. It's offering senior citizens free rides to grocery stores in select cities, and it's giving rides to caregivers of the elderly in several areas. In some places, Lyft is letting health care workers use scooters for free.

For drivers, it's piloting a program for delivering medical supplies and test kits to senior citizens, people with chronic diseases and other vulnerable populations. It has a similar meal delivery program. Lyft has also partnered with Amazon to provide the retail giant with delivery drivers.

"They are positioning themselves as helping in the public health crisis," said the former Lyft employee. "It's a signal to investors that they're continuing to operate."

The former employee added that some of these programs created risk for both drivers and passengers, especially given that some sick drivers might continue working without an accessible paid leave policy.

Two weeks ago, Lyft sent drivers an email saying that if they choose to work, they could put a plastic barrier between the front and back seats. The company gave them a link to an Amazon page where they could buy one but didn't say if it would reimburse drivers for the cost. Lyft also recommended rolling down the windows during trips to increase ventilation in the car.

Ben, the driver in Brooklyn, said these are good recommendations. But he's unsure if he'll continue working for Lyft after his recent experience. For now, he's focusing on all of his family members who have COVID-19. He and his father seem to be on the mend. 

Ben added that he's worried about Lyft drivers in the rest of the country. As the coronavirus continues to proliferate, more and more drivers will need safeguards.

"Makes you realize what little protection you have as an independent contractor," he said. "Right now, New York City has a big outbreak. What's going to happen when it spreads to other parts of the country and those drivers are then going to be at risk?"

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