Two weeks ago, a New York-based drivers group sent a letter to Uber with a demand: give drivers sanitizing equipment and face masks. The letter was sent after an Uber driver became the first known gig worker to die of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
"We were deeply saddened to learn of the death of Queens Uber driver Anil Subba who contracted the coronavirus after transporting a sick rider home from the airport," wrote the Independent Drivers Guild, which represents 200,000 drivers in the tri-state area. "To prevent further tragedy, those drivers who continue to work transporting essential personnel are in need."
The group never got a response.
But last week, Uber announced it was beginning to ship out one-quart bottles of disinfectant spray to some drivers for cleaning their cars. And, on Thursday, the company announced it's distributing millions of face masks to its workers.
"Drivers and delivery people are providing essential services around the world, from helping essential workers get around to delivering meals to people staying home," Gus Fuldner, Uber's vice president of safety and insurance, wrote in a blog post. "As they help our communities through this crisis, helping them stay safe is our priority."
Gig workers have been on the front lines during the coronavirus pandemic, which has now infected more than 1.5 million people and killed nearly 95,000 worldwide. Many drivers say they've been hit hard, seeing their earnings plummet or by getting infected with the virus. While Uber has promised to give two weeks paid leave to sick workers, CNET found that the assistance has been difficult to come by.
Workers for other gig economy companies have also come up against roadblocks getting sick leave and 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.
The masks that Uber is distributing aren't N-95 respirators that health care workers need, but rather ear-loop face masks coming from manufacturers in China. An Uber spokesman told CNET that the company shipped its first order of about 20,000 masks to drivers in New York City on Tuesday. It's receiving a shipment of nearly 500,000 more masks to send to drivers in other hard-hit US cities, as well as New York City, shortly.
Over the next few weeks, the company said it will deliver tens of millions of additional masks to other cities and regions around the world.
Moira Muntz, a spokeswoman from the Independent Drivers Guild, said drivers in the coalition have yet to receive any of the disinfectant sprays or masks from Uber.
"Despite early promises of providing drivers with cleaning supplies, those never materialized," Muntz said.
The Uber spokesman told CNET that the masks destined for New York drivers are currently in the mail and in some cases will be automatically sent to drivers with the disinfectant spray.
The first batch of the disinfectant spray was limited and so Uber said it had to prioritize the spray for the most active drivers in the worst hit cities. Those selected drivers are able to place an order through the Uber app and the company said it'd send the spray to their homes for free.
For the masks, the Uber spokesman said the process will be the same.