Ockenfels-Martinez: Abandoning essential workers is a public health issue
Ride-hailing company Uber

The COVID-19 outbreak has made clear that we are all only as safe as the most vulnerable among us. And yet, many people are risking their own health and well-being so that others of us can care for and protect ourselves. And they are doing this without any policy protections to fall back on.

Platform companies like Uber, Lyft and Doordash have left frontline gig workers needlessly vulnerable to the health and economic impacts of COVID-19. As a longtime advocate and public health researcher, it is clear that gig economy companies are failing essential workers and, in turn, our communities.

Many app workers—the people who find work on apps like Uber and Lyft, Doordash, Instacart and other platforms—are continuing to work through the COVID-19 pandemic not because they want to but because they don’t have a choice. App workers have been deemed essential workers. They are driving people to hospitals, shopping for people’s groceries and delivering meals to homes.

These workers are providing crucial services so that many of us can continue to shelter safely at home. And yet they are some of the least protected workers in our economy. It is next to impossible for them to access paid sick time off, they are unable to afford unpaid time off, and they often have limited or no access to health care.

It is past time for companies like Uber, Lyft, Instacart and Doordash to comply with the law and give their workers access to the benefits and protections due to all workers. And elected officials must also take further steps to protect frontline workers and the broader public. Actions taken by CEOs and elected officials during this time will mean the difference between who has access to safety net protections, who can retain their housing, who can feed their families and who can’t.

Last summer, Human Impact Partners published a report that found that working for companies like Lyft and Uber was a hazard to worker health. Our research revealed that drivers were in a chronic state of stress from: the physical demands of their jobs, driving long hours for low pay, unpredictable earnings and a lack of control over their work. Chronic stress can lead to a host of health issues, including immune-system damage, anxiety and depression, heart disease, digestive issues, headaches, sleep issues, weight gain and obesity, and issues with memory and concentration.

As we all now know, these kinds of underlying conditions can leave workers more susceptible to COVID-19. And being denied on-the-job personal protective equipment, health care or sick leave should they need it amounts to yet another preexisting condition. This means that gig workers on the frontlines of this crisis are more susceptible to COVID-19. It doesn’t have to be this way. Gig companies like Uber, Lyft and others have the power and ability to do more to protect their workers and our communities.

Last year, HIP, alongside many other community organizations, supported workers in their demand to pass California Assembly Bill 5. AB 5 was implemented Jan. 1, meaning that under California state law, gig workers should be classified as employees and in turn granted benefits like paid sick leave.

However, instead of granting workers employee status, Uber, Lyft, Instacart and Doordash have chosen to invest over $100 million into a ballot initiative that would exempt them from AB 5. This means that during a pandemic, the workers who are driving people to the hospital and delivering meals and groceries are doing so without the protections or benefits they are legally owed.

It also means the person driving you to the doctor or dropping off your dinner does not get paid sick time and may have no choice but to work if sick. Gig workers need paid sick time, timely access to unemployment insurance and proper classification at work.

Across California, cities are stepping up to support gig workers and other frontline workers previously left unprotected. Cities like Los Angeles, San Jose and San Francisco recently passed paid sick day legislation that protects gig workers.The Oakland City Council is poised to vote on its own emergency paid sick day ordinance that would include gig workers.  These local paid sick leave ordinances will save lives and are absolutely essential.

Denying workers paid sick leave, and the basic rights and protections everyone deserves, puts us all at greater risk. Now is the time for decisive government action to enforce AB 5 so that every worker we are relying on in this crisis is granted paid sick days, access to unemployment benefits and full worker protections. Doing so would ensure that workers can take the time off they need when they are unwell, protecting other essential workers and the greater public.

Now is the time for cities like Oakland and others to pass paid sick policies that cover all people. It is the time for gig companies to step up and protect their workers and pay into the state unemployment system. It is time for officials in California empowered to enforce AB 5 to do so. And it is time for us all to honor and protect the gig workers who continue to provide the services we depend on to stay home and healthy.

Martha Ockenfels-Martinez, MPH, is a research associate at Human Impact Partners, an Oakland based organization that aims to bring the power of public health to campaigns and movements for a just society.

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