Jerome Gage, a Los Angeles-based Lyft driver, makes a weighty decision every morning. He has to decide between driving and risking exposure to the novel coronavirus or self-isolating and not earning money. For now, he's decided to keep working but, he said, he'd feel better if he had proper safety gear.
"It's scary," he said. "We don't have the protections that Uber and Lyft should be offering us."
Gage is one of thousands of Los Angeles ride-hail drivers calling on Uber and Lyft to provide them with personal protective equipment, or PPE. These drivers, who are organized through a group called Mobile Workers Alliance, held a telephone press conference on Thursday demanding Los Angeles' mayor and city attorney hold Uber and Lyft accountable in giving them these supplies.
"These are billion-dollar Silicon Valley companies consistently touting their innovation," said Mike Long, spokesman for the Service Employees International Union Local 721, which works with Mobile Workers Alliance. "These companies can take bold steps to address driver health and safety."
Gig workers have been on the front lines during the coronavirus pandemic, which has now infected more than 2 million people and killed nearly 150,000 worldwide. Many drivers say they've been hit hard, seeing their earnings plummet or by getting infected with the virus. At least two Uber drivers are known to have died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Workers for other gig economy companies have also come up against roadblocks in getting protective gear. Some of them, like Instacart and Amazon shoppers, have staged strikes demanding more help. Part of the problem is that store shelves have emptied during the coronavirus outbreak and this safety gear is now in short supply.
Los Angeles lawmakers have taken a strict approach with PPE. Last week, Mayor Eric Garcetti issued a Worker Protection Order that requires all essential workers, including grocery store clerks and ride-hail drivers, to wear non-medical face masks. He also mandated that employers of these workers provide the masks free of charge. The city's Department of Public Health published an order with the same mandate Friday.
"The city's workers continue to provide essential services during this emergency, and some of these critical workers face an outsized risk of exposure," Garcetti wrote in his order. "Essential workers who come into frequent contact with others must also be protected from infection."
Short supply of face masks
Ride-hail drivers are providing crucial rides during this pandemic, such as taking people to grocery stores and transporting doctors and nurses to and from hospitals. Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi acknowledged this service in a tweet on Wednesday, which showed a series of photos of health care workers thanking Uber for the transportation.
Uber said it'sand disinfectant spray for drivers. But the Mobile Workers Alliance, which represents 16,000 drivers in Southern California, said its drivers have yet to receive the gear.
A company spokesman told CNET that Uber is focusing first on cities most in need, like New York City, and cities that have mandated essential workers wear masks, like Los Angeles. He said the first shipments of the masks have been sent out and drivers and delivery people in Los Angeles should receive them in the mail by the end of this week.
"We have ordered tens of millions of masks for drivers around the world and expect another major shipment to the US very soon," the spokesman said. "This is a long-term commitment."
A Lyft spokesman said the company has begun distributing masks and sanitizing products to drivers in Los Angeles every other day. To get the gear, drivers must go to a specified parking lot where a representative hands out the supplies.
"We've ordered face masks for drivers at no cost to them," the Lyft spokesman said. "We have been making them available to drivers, prioritizing regions where additional guidance about face coverings has been given. This includes LA, where we've already begun handing out thousands of face coverings to drivers."
Lyft says on its website, however, that the masks and sanitizer are only available on a first-come, first-served basis and drivers are limited to one face mask and one sanitizing product per week.
"We have received reports of supplies running out," Long from the SEIU 721 said. "Drivers have been doing everything they can to keep themselves and their passengers safe."
Under Garcetti's Worker Protection Order, drivers must wash cloth face masks at least once a day and paper masks are considered single-use and must be discarded after wearing. Lyft gave out single-use masks in Los Angeles on Friday, the company spokesman said, but switched to cloth masks this week. The masks in Uber's first shipment to drivers are considered single-use.
For now, given the lack of protective gear, drivers say they're trying to make do with what they can supply on their own.
"Drivers like myself sacrifice so much for this company and to see them not make any effort to do the bare minimum, such as providing masks, that's unacceptable," Gage, the Lyft driver, said. "Unless this city enforces the Worker Protection Order, people will die."
The offices of Garcetti and City Attorney Mike Feuer didn't return requests for comment.