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Uber urges early COVID-19 vaccine for drivers, but it could get complicated

Gig economy companies are asking that their workers get priority in vaccine access. It might be easier said than done.

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
6 min read

The CDC is working on who will get priority for the COVID-19 vaccine.

James Martin/CNET
For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO and CDC websites.

In early December, Uber's head of federal affairs, Danielle Burr, sent a request to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The ask was straightforward: Give drivers early access to the COVID-19 vaccine.

"Rideshare drivers continue to provide critical transportation services for essential workers such as hospital workers, caregivers and first responders," the letter reads. "Delivery people provide the meals, groceries and goods needed as people stay home to slow the spread or shelter in place when sick."

Burr sent the letter as the federal agency hammers out who will be prioritized to get the vaccine after it's distributed to health care workers and elderly people living in long-term care facilities. Shipments of the vaccine are arriving in states across the country this month. Since an initial undersupply is anticipated, companies, trade groups and public interest organizations are rallying to have their workers be among the first to get inoculated. Going into 2021, the discussion around vaccine priority is expected to only get louder and gig economy companies plan on being central to that conversation.

Gig workers have been on the front lines during the novel coronavirus pandemic, playing a critical role in this socially distant status quo by delivering food and giving rides during emergencies. California, along with several other states, recognized gig workers' importance early on in the pandemic, deeming their labor "essential." But where they end up in the line for vaccine distribution will shine a light on how the federal government views these workers, who aren't deemed official employees of any company. 

Uber, Lyft, Instacart, DoorDash and Postmates haven't said how many of their workers have been infected with COVID-19. But thousands are estimated to have been exposed, according to driver advocacy groups. In early April, Uber confirmed to CNET that more than 1,400 of its drivers had been infected. At least six workers are known to have died from the virus.

On Dec. 7, four days after Uber contacted the CDC, DoorDash's global head of public policy, Max Rettig, sent his own letter on behalf of the company. Echoing sentiments similar to Uber, Rettig said "early access to the vaccine will ensure that delivery drivers, who have worked throughout the pandemic, continue on with their essential roles at a reduced rate of risk of contracting or transmitting the virus."

DoorDash also sent Rettig's letter to every governor in the country, along with other public health officials at federal and state levels. Three days later, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi sent a letter to all governors too. Lyft said it's additionally been talking to policymakers at various levels countrywide.

"We're working with policymakers at state and local levels to make sure [drivers] have priority access to vaccines," a Lyft spokeswoman said. "We will have more to share as states finalize their distribution plans, but we believe Lyft can play a significant role in increasing access to the vaccine."

While gig economy companies are advocating for their workers to be first in line for the vaccine, they've been criticized for not doing enough to help during the pandemic. Gig workers have protested over not being provided sufficient personal protective equipment or adequate sick leave when exposed to or infected with COVID-19.

"By getting in the car, drivers are putting their lives at risk. So, it's critical that they be among the first to get the vaccine," said Nicole Moore, a part-time Lyft driver in Southern California and co-founder of the driver group Rideshare Drivers United. "But we can't even get masks and car dividers from the companies, how are we going to get a vaccine?"

Complicating things is that gig workers are classified as independent contractors. That status means they lack the same benefits and protections as full-time employees. Drivers and delivery people for these services don't have company health insurance, sick leave, family leave, disability or workers' compensation. They also aren't unified under one employer that could neatly organize something like vaccine distribution. Some regulators say the process could be challenging.

"We won't be able to as easily categorize them based on employment compared to someone who works at a health care facility or a restaurant," San Francisco Supervisor Matt Haney said. "We need to make sure that there's a streamlined process for them to access the vaccine."

Getting the vaccine

App-based food delivery services have boomed during the pandemic, and both DoorDash and Instacart have hired hundreds of thousands more workers to meet demand. DoorDash went public last week far exceeding Wall Street's expectations. Meanwhile, ride-hailing services have plummeted -- leaving the companies reeling from losses and drivers without work. Lyft's rides, for instance, were down by 75% in mid-April and even though the company has since seen an increase in ridership, they were still down by 50% in November.

Uber and Lyft may see it in their business interests to get drivers vaccinated to gain an edge on the transportation market going into the new year. In its letter to the CDC, Uber emphasized how its drivers have provided "critical transportation services" as "major cities have reduced service hours for mass transit." When the country begins to emerge from the pandemic, the idea of getting into a ride-hail car could seem more appealing than using public transportation. 

"I expect a lot of people who used mass transit will use Uber and Lyft," said Arun Sundararajan, a business professor at New York University's Stern School of Business who studies the gig economy. "Knowing that one's Uber driver or Lyft driver is vaccinated can go a long way to making people feel comfortable with getting in that car."

Sundararajan recognizes the rollout of a vaccination campaign for gig workers could be complex. He believes the most logical way for it to happen would be a collaboration between the companies and regulatory agencies in each city or state. For example, Uber and Lyft could work with transportation departments.

"With food delivery, I think it's a little more complicated because there's no real licensing body," Sundararajan said.

Haney, the San Francisco supervisor, said the city would work with the companies if it meant ensuring gig workers had access to the vaccine. Having the app is helpful, he said, because it could allow the government to coordinate with Uber, Lyft and DoorDash to send alerts and notifications to drivers and delivery workers about the vaccine.

"I hope [the companies] will help to facilitate that process," Haney said. And also "provide [workers] paid time for going to get the vaccination."

Getting information about the vaccine out to gig workers is critical, said Nancy Berlinger, a research scholar at the nonprofit think tank Hastings Center, who was the lead author on ethical guidelines in responding to COVID-19. She said that because these workers are independent contractors, who mainly work from their car or a bicycle, they can be hard to organize.

"What would it take to reach people who do not have a traditional workspace and who are on the go all day?" Berlinger said. "The phone is really important."

Public service announcements will probably also play a role, she said. The Ad Council, a nonprofit known for PSAs like Smokey Bear's "remember, only you can prevent forest fires," has already partnered with companies like Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google to show coronavirus safety announcements on different types of tech platforms. Now, the organization is working on a new campaign about vaccine safety that will also be on various digital mediums.

In his letter to US governors last week, Uber's Khosrowshahi acknowledged that "distributing vaccines fairly and efficiently will be a massive logistical challenge." He didn't mention sending app notifications to drivers, but did say the company was ready to use its technology to spread information about the vaccine and encourage people who are eligible to get it.

"We believe we can use our suite of apps, used by millions of people every day, to disseminate high-quality information about vaccines, rooted in science and the latest public health advice," Khosrowshahi wrote to the governors. "Together, I hope we can use our technology to accelerate the end of this public health crisis and the beginning of the economic recovery to come."

An economic recovery that would include those gig economy companies, as well as their workers.