Uber, Lyft issue coronavirus warnings, but some drivers feel left in the lurch

Many drivers have tackled the issue by spraying Lysol between rides, wearing masks and constructing plastic barriers around their seats.

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
4 min read

A Shanghai driver for the Chinese ride-hailing company Didi wears a mask and isolates the front seat from the backseat with plastic sheeting. Didi is supplying drivers with masks and ordering them to disinfect their cars every four hours as a preventive measure against coronavirus.

Yifan Ding/Getty Images

At least three Uber drivers have come in contact with passengers believed to have been infected with the novel coronavirus, according to the ride-hailing company. That news has left both Uber and Lyft drivers feeling insecure about how to protect themselves from the contagious and deadly disease, which has reportedly infected nearly 100,000 people and killed more than 3,000.

Drivers have posted pictures and comments on Twitter, Facebook and Reddit with tips on what to do, along with the virus symptoms. Some drivers have put plastic barriers around their seats, while others are carrying boxes of masks and gloves that they switch out between passengers. There are also drivers who spray Lysol between all rides and others who are avoiding pickups at airports.

At the end of last week, Uber and Lyft began sending drivers messages with ways to avoid the virus while working. Lyft told drivers to "wipe down surfaces that get a lot of touching, like door handles and seat belts" and to "practice good hygiene." Uber gave drivers similar recommendations and said, "if you feel sick, stay home."

Watch this: Coronavirus and COVID-19: Everything you need to know

Many drivers said they were unhappy with the guidance to "stay home." As independent contractors, drivers aren't entitled to sick days, health insurance or paid time off. If they don't work, they don't get paid.

"Your landlord and other monthly bills will surely understand," one Reddit user joked in a discussion thread on Saturday.

"Hmm. Possibly get sick or get evicted and be homeless," another Reddit user wrote. "Those are some awesome choices."

The state of California passed a law called AB 5 last September that could require gig economy companies, like Uber and Lyft, to reclassify their drivers as employees. That means drivers would get the same benefits as people on company payrolls. Several other states are looking at similar legislation. But Uber and Lyft have resisted the change to keep their costs down, according to financial filings. So, for now, drivers remain contractors.

To help stop the spread of coronavirus via its platform, Uber said it has a global law enforcement response team that's been working with public health organizations worldwide. The company added that as the virus moves and changes, it'll continue to evaluate and evolve its approach in all cities where it operates.

"We are always working to help ensure the safety of our employees and everyone on the Uber platform," an Uber spokesman said in an email. "And we continue to be concerned by the ongoing spread of coronavirus."

Lyft didn't respond to request for comment.

After two Uber drivers in Mexico City came in contact with a passenger believed to have been infected with coronavirus last month, Uber temporarily suspended roughly 240 riders who possibly came in contact with the drivers. The company did the same in London after a woman who tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, took an Uber to the hospital.

Some Uber and Lyft drivers have been accused of discriminating against riders of Asian descent, (China is where coronavirus was first known to have occurred.) In a private Facebook group for Uber and Lyft drivers that has nearly 13,000 members, CNET noted several people saying they'd refuse to give a ride to someone they thought was Chinese.

In their messages to drivers, both Uber and Lyft reminded them that discrimination is prohibited on their platforms and such behavior can lead to deactivations. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says, "People of Asian descent, including Chinese Americans, are not more likely to get COVID-19 than any other American."

Despite the guidance from Uber and Lyft, drivers still say they feel abandoned by the companies without a clear sense of how to fully protect themselves -- and keep working.

In a conversation on Reddit, one driver sought advice, asking, "Will passengers get offended or give me a lower rating for wearing a mask while doing Uber?" 

One response was, "If I felt the need to wear a mask to protect my health, then I wouldn't worry much about my rating."

LegalRideshare, a personal-injury law firm in Chicago that represents drivers and passengers, has offered local Uber and Lyft drivers with either the flu or coronavirus up to seven consecutive days of paid time off during the month of March. The drivers must have a signed diagnosis and quarantine notice from a medical doctor, along with other documentation to prove they're drivers.

"Ill drivers are in a no-win situation. They either stay home and lose wages, or continue to work and possibly infect others," said Bryant Greening, co-founder of LegalRideshare. "That drivers face such a dilemma is immoral and unsafe."