The Uncertain Life of New York City’s Immigrant Uber Drivers During the Pandemic

The Uncertain Life of New York City’s Immigrant Uber Drivers During the Pandemic

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Originally published by The New Yorker

Anil Subba, a Nepalese immigrant in his forties, living in Jackson Heights, Queens, worked as a rideshare driver to support his family. In early March, he picked up a visibly unwell passenger for Uber and drove him from Kennedy airport to Westchester County, a journey that took roughly an hour. New York City had just reported its first case of the novel coronavirus, and, according to Subba’s cousin, Munindra Nembang, who also drove for Uber, the trip from the airport so unnerved Subba that he stopped driving. (After publication, Uber reviewed location data attached to the driver’s account and disputed that Subba drove this route on the date Nembang recalled. A similar trip, from J.F.K. airport to Stamford, Connecticut, took place on February 27th.) Then he began to show symptoms of covid-19 and was admitted to Elmhurst Hospital, a public facility in Queens that soon became known as “the epicenter of the epicenter.” He spent the last two days of his life on a ventilator. When he died, after midnight on March 24th, he became one of thirteen patients in the hospital to succumb to their conditions that day, and the first of several dozen drivers in the city who have done so.

In some respects, Subba’s life was like that of many rideshare drivers in New York City, Uber’s largest domestic market. According to a study conducted by two economists, James A. Parrott and Michael Reich, for the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs, more than nine out of ten of those drivers are immigrants. Around ninety-seven per cent are male, and half are middle-aged. Half have dependents, and seventy per cent are the main wage earners in their households.

The Independent Drivers Guild, which was formed in 2016 as an affiliate of the Machinists Union, represents more than two hundred thousand drivers in the tri-state area, including more than eighty thousand in New York City. The majority of them have stopped working; those who haven’t are seeing their expenses—insurance, gas, vehicle upkeep, and the cut that their company takes—outpace their earnings. (The insurance and the upkeep continue to be expenses even for those who stop working.) Shortly after Subba’s death, the guild released a statement blaming “poor federal screening and quarantine procedures at the airports” for putting drivers at unnecessary risk. “The government was telling returning travellers to go home and self-quarantine, but wasn’t providing a safe way to get them home,” the statement reads. “Where were the quarantine shuttles with drivers in protective gear, like we saw transporting cruise ship passengers?”

Four days after Subba’s death, I talked on the phone with an Uber driver named Johan Nijman, a soft-spoken native of Suriname who lives in St. Albans, Queens. After arriving in New York, in 1992, he saved up enough money to buy a taxi medallion, and, in 2003, he started his own company, Johan’s Limousine Service. But, when the rideshare services started, his business fell off, and, in February, 2017, he started driving for Uber himself. Like other drivers, he has seen his earnings drop in the past few months; by mid-March, he was pulling a tenth of his usual number of fares.

Nijman, who is sixty-four, lives alone—his wife, who had been a nurse, died in 2003, and their four children are grown and live out of the house—and he occasionally hosts friends and family from Suriname. At the end of March, a friend who had stayed with him returned home and, appearing ill, was quarantined. Nijman informed Uber that he may have been exposed and that, although he had no symptoms, he was following the recommendations of the C.D.C. and self-isolating. He added that his age and the fact that he has diabetes left him particularly vulnerable at this moment, and he requested sick pay.

Rideshare drivers don’t generally get sick pay, but, on March 7th, Uber announced that it would offer the equivalent of up to fourteen days’ worth of pay to drivers who could show that they had been infected with the coronavirus. However, because tests were in short supply, on March 15th, the company agreed to make payments to drivers who had a doctor’s note saying that they were sufficiently ill to quarantine. (The company has since offered to compensate drivers who are at high risk, too, but these payments are capped and do not cover a full fourteen days’ worth of pay.) But an Uber representative told Nijman, in an e-mail, that financial assistance is reserved “for drivers and delivery people on our platform who are diagnosed with covid-19 or have individually been asked to quarantine by a public health authority or licensed medical provider due to their risk of spreading covid-19.” Nijman told me, “I will not be tested if I don’t have symptoms. But, if I continue to work, how do I know I’m not passing it on to my passengers?” Moira Muntz, a spokesperson for the Independent Drivers Guild, told me that Nijman’s case is not unusual. “Every day, we are battling with companies on language,” she told me. “Which is so frustrating, because it seems like a word game on paper, but, for drivers, it’s their life and livelihoods.” When contacted about Nijman’s interaction, an Uber representative said that Nijman needed to submit a doctor’s note stating that he should self-quarantine owing to a preëxisting health condition that would put him at higher risk of serious illness stemming from covid-19. The representative added that “the team is going to follow-up with him again and I hope that we’ll be able to help.”

Dara Khosrowshahi, the C.E.O. of Uber, has said that it is because Uber drivers are independent contractors that he can’t do much to improve their circumstances. Rideshare drivers, like other workers in the gig economy, are considered independent contractors, not employees, and are not entitled to traditional benefits, such as guaranteed wages and health insurance. “This situation certainly demonstrates the downside of attaching basic protections to W-2 employment,” Khosrowshahi said in a conference call with financial analysts on March 19th, adding that there needs to be a “third way” that “allows workers who want flexibility to work flexibly, based on what their own needs are, but also have access to protection.” Khosrowshahi also sent a letter to President Donald Trump in which he requested that the coronavirus stimulus package include funds for rideshare drivers and asked that Trump consider legislation “on a ‘third way’ that would update our labor laws to remove the forced choice between flexibility and protection for millions of American workers.”

A particularly pressing issue now is unemployment benefits. Uber, Lyft, and other rideshare companies are not legally required to contribute to an unemployment fund. But, in 2018, the New York State Court of Appeals ruled that drivers for Postmates, an online food-delivery service, and “others similarly situated” were eligible for unemployment benefits. The decision was reaffirmed last month by the same court. Though the ruling marked entitlements for gig workers, companies disagree that rideshare drivers are “similarly situated”; in the meantime, Uber and Lyft have declined to report drivers’ wages to the state, forcing drivers to engage in lengthy processes to prove that they are entitled to the payments. On Friday, some Guild drivers in New York began to receive Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. Andrew Byrne, a senior director of public policy at Uber, told me that the company has been pushing for a third legal category for years, in part because the concept of unemployment, as it exists under current law, does not fit with Uber’s model. “We want to raise the standard for independent and flexible work so drivers maintain control while getting a real safety net when they need it,” he told me.

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