In recent weeks, workers who drive passengers with the mobile applications Uber and Lyft began to see a lot of their business dry up as more and more people cancelled events and started telecommuting in the midst of the Covid-19 outbreak. Even though it is safer to stay home, some workers cannot afford to do that, and low wage workers in general are unlikely to have work-from-home as an option.
On March 11, a radio reporter with KQED was hit by a strong odor of cleaning products as he interviewed driver Erica MacGetto: "I have the surgical masks that the doctor gave me today for any passengers who are coughing. I have my Lysol and then I have my mask that the doctor gave me today that she recommends that I wear…but I'm afraid to wear because I might scare people." MacGetto, who lost her apartment and sleeps in her car, spoke of being hounded by debtors. "PayPal wants their money. I got a reminder that Capital One wants their money today. I just have no choice whatsoever."
By March 18, Uber and Lyft were encouraging only medically necessary rides, and they were transitioning many of the drivers to UberEats and other food delivery apps. Lyft started allowing the use of its passenger app to arrange delivery of free and reduced-cost lunches to schoolchildren sheltering in place. For Lyft driver Dominique Smith, this setup was woefully unsustainable. “I worked 10 hours yesterday and made $40,” he told the Guardian. “We are getting starvation wages while getting food to people who need it.” In the same article, Uber driver Cherri Murphy said she was able to make $90 in 9 hours, which only barely covered gas and sanitizer.
In San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, drivers held protests (with physical distancing) outside of empty corporate offices on March 18.
In California, Uber and Lyft have been flouting AB5, a state law that specifically classifies rideshare drivers as employees of the apps and not contractors. In San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, drivers held protests (with physical distancing) outside of empty corporate offices on March 18. The corporate employees had all been directed to work from home, while the drivers were demanding paid sick leave, a guaranteed minimum wage, reimbursement for cleaning supplies, and a redirection of a $110 million campaign war chest for the repeal of AB5 by ballot initiative.
Nor did drivers give a pass to the state for its unwillingness to enforce the law. Starting on March 30, the independent union Rideshare Drivers United began encouraging workers to file wage claims online with the California Labor Commission. "It’s time for drivers and other misclassified workers to enforce AB5 and show the public and the State of California how much these companies are stealing from us." Add your own claim here.
Though Uber and Lyft have made commotion over their offer to give drivers sick pay if they are diagnosed with Covid-19 or under a doctor's order to self-quarantine, the companies know as well as the rest of us that there are not enough testing kits. In a Mobile Workers Alliance virtual town hall on March 31, Uber driver Ruben said that even with a doctor's note he was denied any benefits. Uber's last communication to Ruben: "We are sorry that this upsets you, but our decision is final."
The general lack of worker protections in ridesharing and other precarious jobs had spillover effects on the Instacart strike of March 28-29, when hired grocery shoppers stayed home in an attempt to hold their second nationwide strike. The workers wanted hazard pay and reimbursement for personal protective equipment, but on March 30, the company bragged to The Verge that the strike had "absolutely no impact on operations" because of a wave of 50,000 new people who signed up to deliver groceries.
Similarly, Amazon has been bursting with new business and has scooped up any worker that doesn't have savings to stay at home during the Covid-19 epidemic's spread. The turnover adds to preexisting challenges for workers in Amazon's enormous fulfillment factories who are trying not to contract the virus. On March 20, workers at the Amazon fulfillment factory in Queens, N.Y. learned of a coworker's positive test for Covid-19 and walked off the job. Reports of other infections trickled in over the next week at Amazon facilities in Staten Island, N.Y.; Joliet, Ill.; Moreno Valley, Calif.; Shepherdsville, Ky.; Houston and Katy, Tex.; Edison, N.J.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Brownstown, Romulus, and Shelby, Mich.; Wallingford, Conn.; Oklahoma City, Okla.; Calenzano, Italy; Barcelona and San Fernando, Spain.
On Monday, March 30, one-third of the Amazon employees at the Calenzano, Italy plant went on strike, and in Staten Island, N.Y., where the number of cased had climbed to 10, the workers walked out and demanded the warehouse be shuttered for health reasons. There was also a solidarity walkout at another Robbinsville, N.J. site. The vast and workforce-leveraged company lashed out immediately, illegally firing a strike organizer and dispatching public relations to portray workers who remained on the production line as "heroic." The next day, non-union supermarket workers at various U.S. locations of Amazon's subsidiary Whole Foods moved forward with a work stoppage that had originally been planned for May 1.
It reportedly wasn't until April 2 that Amazon so much as provided surgical masks to employees. The company announced 80,000 new hires and said it will electronically gather their temperature as they report to work. Any worker who registers a fever would be sent home; however, as health officials have repeatedly announced, they would have been contagious before that point.
This spark of activity comes 9 months after the first Amazon-created consumer holiday of Prime Day, when workers went on strike in Shakopee, Minn. for higher pay. When asked why she planned to strike, Meg Brady told KALW: "I think the turning point came when I got injured from repetitive stress. The job I do is basically like doing aerobics for 10 hours…I take an item from a conveyor belt, turn around, take a few steps, and put it into a chute. On the other side are packers…It is constant movement—squatting, walking, reaching—for 10 hours. The good part is it's very physical, you get in great shape, but the bad part is I work on concrete and it's really hard on a lot of workers. I think if Amazon made an investment in ergonomics, it would reduce a lot of injuries. I suggested a raised floor. I've talked to [management] a few months ago and no changes have been implemented to make it a better workstation."
Through Prime Day, Amazon hopes to offer fulfillment of shipping orders faster. "Rebinners" like Brady are expected to process 600 items per hour, equivalent to 10 per minute, or 1 item every 6 seconds. Amazon engineers and tech workers—who are the cutting edge of the company's use of such innovations as work speedup bracelets that time and track worker movements—shocked the corporate sector when they spoke out publicly in support of the Shakopee strike.
As public health and well-being comes into visible conflict with the efficiency of companies in extracting surplus value from labor, more and more people can be expected to oppose this type of order.
Buddy Bell is a labor activist and a part-time driver for Lyft.