Your Uber Driver Has a Front Seat for the Pandemic. The Company Doesn’t Provide Health Insurance.

In few places does the nation's social fabric look more fragile than in the so-called gig economy.

Portland-based driver Joseph Larson stores face masks in his glove compartment. He'll ask passengers to wear one if he suspects them to be ill. (Mick Hangland-Skill)

When Joseph Larson started driving for Uber and Lyft in 2017, he gave his passengers free gum and water bottles. These days, the Portland ride-hailing driver offers a new handout: medical-grade face masks, kept in his glove compartment.

Larson, 44, says when he picks up passengers from Portland International Airport, he asks where they're coming from. If they flew in from Seoul, Sicily or Seattle, Larson has a prepared response.

"I don't mind taking you," he says to the customer, "but I would request that you wear this cough mask."

He then hands them an N95 filtration mask—the kind carpenters and surgeons use—and asks that the passenger wear it for the duration of the ride. If passengers choose not to wear the mask, Larson may decline to drive them altogether.

He says it's a proportional response to the threat of novel coronavirus.

"I don't want to be exposed and I don't want to expose other people. I give easily over 100 rides a week," Larson says. "A lot of Uber drivers are freaking out. I don't think people understand how real it is."

With 15 people testing positive for COVID-19 statewide this month, Oregonians are on edge. But few are as directly threatened by the virus as drivers working for Uber and Lyft.

COVID-19 is transmitted via droplets within a 6-foot radius, making a vehicle occupied by multiple passengers daily akin to a coronavirus incubation pod.

Yet drivers for these transportation tech giants are independent contractors, not employees—which means the companies don't provide them health insurance.

Uber offers an optional health insurance policy that its drivers can pay for. Other drivers are on the Oregon Health Plan or buy private insurance. But not all.

"I would be on my own if I did get [coronavirus]," Larson says. "I'd have to pay my medical bills, so that sucks. It's what I choose to do, but it would put me in more financial hardship. Medical isn't cheap."

The COVID-19 outbreak spreading across the U.S. will test the nation's social and economic fabric. And in few places does that fabric look more fragile than in the so-called gig economy—where workers plying side hustles deliver fast food and drive passengers without the protections enjoyed by full-time employees.

For years, Silicon Valley companies have skirted regulation by classifying their workers as independent contractors. Those workers now wonder whether they have to choose between income and their health.

Both Uber and Lyft have pledged to provide some form of paid leave for drivers diagnosed with or officially quarantined for COVID-19, though neither company has laid out specifics of what that might look like.

In an email to WW, an Uber spokesman says in the wake of the outbreak the company has sent its drivers advice from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and encouraged drivers to follow safety precautions set forth by local health officials. The spokesman added that, to Uber's knowledge, there has been no transmission of COVID-19 between drivers and passengers to date.

A Lyft spokeswoman says in an email to WW that the company will provide some funds to drivers in the instance that they are diagnosed with COVID-19, or if a public health agency puts the driver under quarantine.

"This helps support drivers financially when they can't drive, while also protecting our riders' health," the spokeswoman said.

On its website, Lyft says if health authorities alert the company that certain drivers have contracted the virus, it will deactivate their accounts until they get "proper clearance from health officials."

Gig economy workers were specifically mentioned in Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan's emergency proclamation March 5. The Seattle City Council urged ride-hailing companies to provide paid sick leave, but the demand appears to be purely symbolic.

In Portland, transportation Commissioner Chloe Eudaly says she's working with public- and private-sector employees to strengthen protections for gig workers in the wake of coronavirus.

"I am deeply concerned about the disproportionate impact that COVID-19 will have on insecure workers like [ride-hailing] drivers," Eudaly tells WW. "While I am pleased to see that Uber and Lyft have committed to providing paid leave for infected or officially quarantined drivers, I encourage Uber and Lyft to take stronger action to protect their drivers, increase access to health care, and compensate them for lost revenue."

Lane Jensen, who spends about 40 hours a week driving the Portland area for Uber and Lyft, says he is worried how he would pay medical bills if he contracted the virus. (Jensen will be familiar to longtime WW readers: In 2014, he pleaded no contest to telephonic harassment of a TriMet spokeswoman while blogging about public transit.)

Jensen says he stores two big bottles of hand sanitizer behind the front seats for customer use. If a passenger exhibits signs of being ill, Jensen says, he would consider ending the ride or not letting the passenger into his car in the first place.

"There's a very good chance the ride's going to end after the first or second cough," Jensen says. "I don't want to take that risk. I don't have health insurance. I can't afford it."

Another Portland Uber and Lyft driver, Tim Larson (no relation to Joe Larson), says the companies won't penalize drivers for turning away riders they suspect of being ill. He says the decision to decline passengers based on a suspicion they may carry coronavirus may be made on a case-by-case basis.

"It would be a judgment call. We have the ability to turn down any rides we feel are dangerous," Larson says. "If there was some reason for me to believe that they might be carrying the virus, I would definitely ask them to do that."

Larson, 74, says he's not particularly alarmed about the virus and believes much of the panic has been caused by the media. Still, he says, he stores masks in his glove compartment, and he would ask an obviously ill passenger to wear one.

Joseph Larson thinks the threat is more serious—and not just to his own health. He fears a passenger carrying COVID-19 could lead to the infection of the tens or hundreds of other passengers he drives weekly.

That's why he has taken measures to minimize his risk as much as possible. He washes his hands one to two times per hour, he says, and regularly cleans his vehicle with Lysol spray and disinfectant wipes. He carries a jug of Purell in his car, and he encourages passengers to use it.

"I'm not a super-ornery driver," Larson says. "I just want to be safe."

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