In these scary, lonely times, delivery—be it for groceries, made-to-order food, or household essential—is seeing far more demand than usual. Now, in a move ostensibly intended to help its drivers “find new ways to earn,” Uber is asking them to make food deliveries for its courier service Uber Eats.
In a blog published to its site this week, Uber Eats chief Pierre-Dimitri Gore-Coty announced that drivers in more than a dozen cities in the U.S. have been given an option to toggle in-app between making deliveries and providing pickup and drop-offs, even in the event that they’ve never driven for Uber Eats in the past. This is being framed as an opportunity for drivers to make more money, but more clearly what’s going on here is that Uber is doing what’s best for Uber’s bottom line—not necessarily those of its drivers.
“While it’s too early to say what impact the coronavirus crisis will have on food delivery overall, we’re seeing signals that people are relying on delivery services more,” the blog states. “The impact has varied widely city-by-city and country-by-country, but cities like Seattle and San Francisco have seen an uptick in food delivery requests on Uber Eats recently. In the US and Canada, we’ve also seen a significant increase in the number of restaurants looking to offer delivery as dine-in has been restricted—including a 10x increase in self-sign-ups.”
Both cities listed here—San Francisco and Seattle—are hotspots for the spread of the covid-19 disease, where people are required to shelter at home and self-isolate in the event that they are ill. And as the company noted, Uber has seen a spike in the use of its delivery service in these areas. Citing a source familiar with the matter, the Information reported this week that Uber Eats sales spiked 10 per cent last week from the week prior, in what the site described as “unprecedented” for this time of year.
“This is an uncertain time for all of us, and business as usual looks much different than it did just a few weeks back,” an Uber spokeswoman told the Information in a statement. “We’re focused on being there for restaurants, delivery people, and their customers to provide a safe and reliable marketplace now and in the long haul.”
To be sure, opportunities for work for drivers who may not be earning as much as they normally do will be paramount in the coming months as the U.S. grapples with the economic fallout from the global coronavirus pandemic. But the idea that the company is doing drivers a solid by encouraging them to make deliveries is not the altruistic gesture that Uber makes it out to be.
Increased human-to-human contact—whether by picking up food from a restaurant worker, shopping for food at a grocery store, or delivering an order to an Uber Eats customer—puts that individual at greater risk of exposure. Touching surfaces like door handles each and every time an individual enters or leaves an establishment also puts them at risk, and couriers may not have the necessary access to hand sanitizer or soap and water they need to protect themselves or others. In its blog post, Uber said that “the safety and well-being of everyone who uses Uber is our priority,” but the company isn’t taking necessary precautions well within its power to protect its drivers and mitigate the community spread of the disease.
According to a report from Reuters this week, a driver for Postmates and Uber in Texas who began experiencing symptoms of covid-19 after driving a sick individual was declined a test for the disease when he visited a hospital about his condition—and indeed, access to tests is one of the biggest challenges faced by the U.S. as the disease continues to spread. But in order to receive sick pay from Uber—much like other gig or contract work—he needed to have tested positive or be placed in quarantine by a health authority.
In what he described as “an impossible situation” to Reuters, the driver reportedly continued to work for Postmates in order to avoid eviction from a motel where he was staying. The man told Reuters that he was “trying to get tested, and I was trying to seek financial aid,” but that Uber ultimately required the documentation. After he reported the symptoms to the company, he says Uber shut his account down. According to Reuters, he is currently living in his vehicle. Uber did not immediately return a request for comment about the incident.
When asked about its decision to encourage drivers to take on a job that would increase their human-to-human contact, potentially putting them at greater risk of exposure to covid-19, the company said it was encouraging leave-at-door drop-off, “working” to provide sanitization products to drivers, and encourages people to tip their couriers—placing the good faith offer of greater earnings squarely on the shoulders of customers.
“Safety is essential to Uber and it’s at the heart of everything we do,” the company told Gizmodo in a statement. “In response to the ongoing spread of coronavirus, we’ve reminded Uber Eats users that they can have deliveries left on their doorstep by selecting ‘leave at door’ at checkout. We hope this will be helpful to everyone on the platform.”
Uber did not respond to Gizmodo’s question about whether couriers are offered a larger base pays during this time, even as demand increases for the service and given the personal risk to drivers performing the work. It also didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about whether it will offer sick pay to workers exhibiting symptoms of covid-19 who may not be able to access a test, given the short supply.
This week, it was reported that an Uber driver in Queens died after he stopped driving in order to avoid getting covid-19. His cousin told the New York Post that the individual had stopped driving after picking up an ill individual from JFK Airport and transporting them to Westchester County. Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi told the Post in a statement he was “deeply saddened by this news.”
But if anything, this incident again proves that Uber’s claim that safety is “at the heart of everything we do,” is bullshit. This is to say nothing of its refusal to classify its drivers as employees or its fuckery in response to contractors trying to receive unemployment. Uber doesn’t get to make itself seem like the nice guy for looking out for its own bottom line over the health and safety of its labour force.