For Workers Without Sick Leave, Coronavirus Threat Spurs Heightened Anxiety

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Ride-hail driver Erica Mighetto outside her car in Oakland on March 10, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Recently, business has been exceptionally slow for Erica Mighetto, who drives for Uber and Lyft in San Francisco. Even so, she's still out there looking for passengers, and has taken steps to prepare for whatever rides do come along.

When she stops to pick me up in Glen Park earlier this week, Mighetto immediately rolls down the window before I get into her car and asks if I want her to put on a surgical mask.

Mighetto’s car is immaculate. There’s a lingering whiff of bleach from the disinfectant she has been religiously rubbing on the surfaces between passengers. Up front, behind the gear shift, she has a stack of pink surgical masks, which she said she received from a doctor at a hospital, who suggested she hand them out to any coughing passengers.

Late last week, she received messages from both Lyft and Uber telling her to keep her car clean and to stock up on hand sanitizer, which she found most stores had sold out of. A few days later, Lyft said it was providing sanitizer to drivers.

Ride-hail driver Erica Mighetto disinfects the door handles of her car between rides. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The hospital doctor Mighetto consulted with said she should use a mask as well, but she remains hesitant to wear one when picking up passengers, concerned it will freak them out. Everyone is already on edge, she says.

Mighetto is scared, too. She doesn’t want to be on the road driving, which she thinks could be particularly dangerous for her.

“I have a heart condition called supraventricular tachycardia,” she tells me. “Ten years ago I had surgery, and I haven’t been monitored since then. I don’t have a primary care practitioner or a cardiologist.”

“It’s really nerve-wracking to be out here driving people around,” she adds.

But coronavirus fears aside, Mighetto has little choice but to continue driving this month; she needs the money.

Now in her late 30s, Mighetto used to work as an accountant in Sacramento. Driving for a ride-hailing service was never part of her game plan.

Mighetto hasn't had a steady job since working at a property management firm three years ago. She says it started as a bookkeeping gig, but increasingly involved hounding tenants for money and issuing eviction notices. She started feeling sick about the work and eventually quit, she says, and took up driving for Lyft while looking for something more permanent. She never imagined she'd be working behind the wheel for this long.

Four months ago, Mighetto says her landlord kicked out all the tenants in her apartment building, offering a small buyout. Since then, she's been staying on friends' couches and renting rooms in hostels while searching for a permanent residence.

Right now, Mighetto is driving as many hours as she can with the hope of scraping together enough money for a new apartment. But it’s an uphill battle. Between her car payments and credit cards, she is $18,000 in debt. Sometimes, to save money after a night shift, she folds down her backseat, pulls out a pillow she keeps tucked in the spare tire cavity and sleeps in her car.

This is not the life Mighetto envisioned when she left her last job.

Erica Mighetto on the job in Oakland. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“You just get sucked into it,” she says. “The bills stack up and the credit card debt mounts and you have to get that clutch and you have to get that battery and you go from a paycheck-to-paycheck basis to a cash-out-to-cash-out basis.”

Mighetto says she has an automatic phone payment coming up in two days that she currently doesn’t have enough money to cover, and she just received an email from her credit card company about an outstanding bill.

“I just have no choice whatsoever. I am running myself into financial despair,” she says, noting that the coronavirus has only made the situation tougher.

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Earlier this week, Lyft and Uber both announced plans to provide up to 14 days of sick leave for their drivers, but only if they’ve been “diagnosed with the coronavirus” or have been ordered to self-quarantine. Neither company has stated how much drivers can get compensated. And because both companies are continuing to classify their drivers as contractors, none are guaranteed minimum wage, regardless of drops in ridership.

There are as many as 2.5 million Lyft and Uber drivers in the U.S., most of whom do not receive any paid time off. But this predicament is certainly not unique to gig workers, says Elise Gould, an economist with the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, pointing to wider economic trends.

The U.S. is one of the only industrialized countries in the world that doesn't require paid sick leave (South Korea is the other), and a huge contingent of U.S. workers don't have adequate access to paid time off or the capability to work from home, Gould says. The less workers make, she notes, the greater the chance they lack these benefits.

To drive her point home, Gould points to several data sets based on figures from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics showing that about 30% of all private sector workers in the U.S. have no access to paid sick days and only about 4% of workers have access to more than 14 paid sick days. Meanwhile, almost everyone in the top 10% has access to paid time off, while less than a third of the bottom 10% do.

“When you are thinking about the workers who are living paycheck-to-paycheck,” Gould says, “those are the ones least likely to work from home or have those paid sick days.” When a pandemic hits and consumption slows down, these workers are on the front lines of the economic shockwave, she notes.

The coronavirus is exposing this disparity of privilege between workers across the country, and the contrast is particularly stark in the Bay Area. Companies like Google and Facebook have told their office employees to work for home or take paid time off if they’re feeling sick. Lyft told its office employees to do the same. But if its drivers want to make money, they have no choice but to go out on the road whether or not they are afraid of getting sick or think they may be already.

And like many service workers without access to paid leave, gig drivers often go to work sick.

Lyft driver Edan Alva in Alameda on March 10, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Just over a month ago, Uber driver Edan Alva was exhibiting flu-like symptoms. And while he tried to “power through” at first, he says he eventually had to take time off, unpaid.

“I stayed at home for nearly a week to recover,” Alva says, “which put me financially into a very bad situation.” He says he doesn’t need the coronavirus to underscore how precarious his financial situation is without paid time off.

“This is just one more illustration of why drivers should organize and unionize and directly negotiate with Lyft,” he says.

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Both Lyft and Uber recently posted details on their ongoing response to the coronavirus outbreak. Uber says it has already helped drivers in affected areas with its drivers fund, although it does not provide details on how many it's supporting, or how much compensation they've received.

In the meantime, Erica Mighetto worries she’s going to run out of options.

“When people ask how you’re doing it always makes me cry because I appreciate the concern,” she says. “It’s lonely and it’s terrible and I made a promise to myself to at least acknowledge the people on the side of the road asking for money because I’m scared I could be that person.”

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