Rideshare drivers protest outside Uber's former headquarters on Market Street in downtown San Francisco on Aug. 27, 2019. (Courtesy of Gig Workers Rising)
Cherri Murphy started driving for Lyft in 2017.
She had just finished her master’s program in divinity at the Berkeley School of Theology, and was about to start pursuing a doctorate there. She needed a job to pay off school debt, and a car to get around Oakland. Lyft provided both.
“It seemed like a godsend,” Murphy said. “I needed the flexibility they had promised me along with a rental car. But over time, I found myself in this constant cycle of working just to make ends meet.”
Lyft’s rental car program covers routine maintenance, but if a tire blows out or a window is broken during a smash-and-grab, the driver could be charged for the damages if Lyft decides the damages were the driver’s fault. Murphy was struggling to keep up with payments to repair the car, and she said she frequently experienced racism and verbal harassment from Lyft passengers.
Feeling frustrated with the lack of support from Lyft, Murphy started organizing with Gig Workers Rising, a San Jose-based nonprofit that advocates for workers like Murphy. She began collecting the stories of hundreds of rideshare drivers who felt they were being treated unfairly by the companies they worked for. Murphy and others at Gig Workers Rising came across several GoFundMe pages for rideshare drivers who died while driving and delivering food. The families of the drivers were searching for answers and compensation.
In a recently released report, Gig Workers Rising found that over 50 rideshare and delivery drivers were killed from 2017 to February 2022 in the United States. The report focuses on drivers who have been slain, but does not include fatal traffic accidents or other injuries drivers sustained while on the road.
“The killings are the tip of the iceberg,” said Murphy. “Thousands are getting into car accidents, they’re being sexually assaulted, physically assaulted and emotionally accosted. These workers aren't afforded the important legal protections that they deserve.”
Major gig companies have responded to requests for comment from KQED by focusing on the safety features the apps provide drivers.
An Uber spokesperson highlighted the company’s “in-app emergency button with 911 integration, Follow My Ride location sharing” and a new function that allows riders and drivers to record audio during the ride if either party feels unsafe.
Julian Crowley, a spokesperson for DoorDash, said “while negative incidents are incredibly rare, we’re constantly working to improve safety for all those who use our platform.” He pointed out that like Uber, DoorDash has an in-app emergency button.
DoorDash and Lyft also have partnered with security company ADT to offer safety features within their respective apps.
Grubhub was the only company to claim there were inaccuracies in the Gig Workers Rising report, specifically in the case of Salauddin Bablu, a Grubhub driver who was killed in Manhattan in October during a carjacking attack. The report claims Bablu’s family “only received sympathies” from the food delivery company, but a Grubhub spokesperson said the company offered the family financial support “for the amount they requested.”
Grubhub was not legally obligated to financially compensate Bablu’s family because he was not “online” at the time of the incident, and therefore not working for the company at that time. Similarly, when Uber driver Ahmad Fawad Yusufi, an Afghan refugee, was fatally shot in San Francisco’s Mission District while napping in his car between trips, Uber did not offer compensation to Yufusi’s family because he was offline at the time of the incident.
“We have long known, for over a century, that [transportation] is a dangerous sector,” said Professor Veena Dubal, a labor expert from UC Hastings. “Whether it’s because you’re getting into accidents or because you’re held up at gunpoint or because your body is constantly in the car.”
“It makes sense that this danger translates to people who are doing similar work, like food delivery work, transportation and ride-hailing work,” Dubal said.
But unlike taxi drivers, who have unionized to receive workers' compensation if they are injured on the job, rideshare and delivery drivers for gig companies like DoorDash, Lyft and Uber are considered independent contractors and therefore ineligible for traditional workers' compensation.
Companies play in the gray of Proposition 22
California Proposition 22, a ballot proposition that solidified the classification of gig workers as independent contractors, was passed overwhelmingly by California voters in 2020. Gig companies including Uber and Lyft lobbied heavily, pouring almost $200 millioninto the campaign to pass the measure, making Prop. 22 the most expensive ballot measure in California history.
According to Dubal, rideshare workers occasionally received workers' compensation if they were injured on the job before the law was passed.
“There have been workers all over the country who have applied for workers' compensation based on injuries that they had sustained while on the job and claimed that they were employees,” Dubal said. “They had been misclassified by their employer and received it.”
Since the controversial ballot measure passed, it has been harder for gig workers who have been injured on the job to receive workers' compensation. Alameda County Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch ruled the law was “unconstitutional” and “unenforceable.” The law’s constitutionality is currently being debated in other courts, specifically around the limited kinds of workers' compensation the law provides gig workers.
Limited forms of coverage
Keshon, who asked KQED not to use his last name for safety reasons, had enjoyed working for DoorDash while going to school in San Diego. One night in August, he picked up an order from Jack in the Box and was driving to deliver it when he was shot in the face and crashed into a traffic signal pole. The San Diego Police say his case is still open and they have made no arrests.
“There are fragments of bullets still in my nephew’s head,” said Jasimine StokesOliver, Keshon’s aunt and a former DoorDash driver. “I don't know if those things are going to affect him later.”
Prop. 22 promises that gig companies would offer contractors “occupational accident insurance” to cover medical expenses and lost income in the case of injuries sustained while on the job. The insurance only goes so far, and many companies, including DoorDash, do not require drivers to opt into the insurance.
Prop. 22 also requires companies to cover medical bills up to $1 million — in contrast to the state’s system, which requires companies to cover all medical bills for injuries sustained on the job, no matter how expensive. The law also requires companies to offer disability payments for up to two years. For non-gig workers, companies could be required to offer disability payments for the rest of a worker’s life, according to California law.
According to StokesOliver, DoorDash covered Keshon’s medical expenses and gave him about $300 a week for two months — half of what he would have made if he hadn't been bedridden. DoorDash did not cover the damages to Keshon’s car, which was totaled in the accident.
More On Gig Workers
Under Prop. 22, gig companies do not have to cover damages to a driver’s car, and it’s up to the company to set its rules. Lyft’s insurance, for example, covers damage to a car up to its actual cash value, if the driver already has comprehensive and collision coverage. Uber’s insurance covers physical damage to the car, "regardless of who is at fault."
StokesOliver herself narrowly avoided an assault while driving for DoorDash.
“As I bent over to arrange [the food] at the door, I saw the gun in his hand,” StokesOliver said of the stranger who followed her to the door.
She pulled out her phone and said she had to take a picture of the order and send it to DoorDash. She said once the man saw her phone, he pulled the gun away and left. StokesOliver was horrified and hurried back to her car. Her 10-year-old son was in the back seat.
As she drove away, StokesOliver kept the app open and ignored alerts to move to the next order until she felt safe enough to report the incident. StokesOliver said she was assured the company would look into what happened.
“I was hoping they would send the police to that address,” StokesOliver said. “They never contacted me to tell me that they notified the police or [encouraged me] to make a police report. There was just none of that.”
StokesOliver left gig work soon after. She feels unsafe because of the lack of protections.
“It was now time for me to protect my 10-year-old and make sure that he can make it to his teens,” StokesOliver said. “I don't want those types of violences affecting him and his lifestyle.”
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