Belabored is a labor podcast hosted by Sarah Jaffe and Michelle Chen. Belabored Stories, a new feature, will present short accounts of what workers are facing during the coronavirus pandemic. Send us your stories at firstname.lastname@example.org
Inder Parmar’s Uber car has been idling since mid-March, when New York City went into lockdown. The streets have emptied, business is down about 90 percent, and the Uber app on his phone—his portal to the rideshare giant’s market of passengers—also went dark.
Parmar said that if the lockdown drags on indefinitely, drivers like him across the city, who were already struggling to eke out a living before the virus hit, will be devastated. He said his adult children have decent jobs, and his household will get by for now, but in the coming weeks and months he cannot afford to fall behind on the insurance and car payments that he needs to hold onto his business, on top of his mortgage and health insurance bills.
With so little traffic, Parmar said, “a lot of drivers, literally, they’re hand to mouth, and they’re suffering.”
One major reason why is that Uber treats its drivers as mere app users, not actual employees. It has announced that it would offer two weeks of paid leave for workers who are diagnosed with or quarantined for the coronavirus. However, whether they fall ill or not, drivers’ earnings are plummeting while their car expenses pile up.
In the coming weeks, any for-hire vehicle drivers—whether they drive an Uber car or a traditional yellow cab—will face being infected, or infecting others, every time they drive through the streets and pick up passengers. They may have to wait until they are diagnosed before Uber offers them any relief.
“We are the drivers,” Parmar said. “We make billions of dollars [for] Uber. If they gave every driver one week or two weeks salary, Uber would not lose their pants and shirt.”
Augustine Tang, who drives a cab he inherited from his father, has also seen his livelihood evaporate in recent weeks. Yellow cabs rely on street hails rather than an app, but like Uber drivers, they are considered self-employed and thus largely excluded from typical employment benefits like paid sick leave policies and unemployment insurance.
Many drivers are opting to stay in rather than pay for gas to drive around an empty car. Tang said he tried driving around one recent evening and ended up giving a free ride home to an elderly woman he came across. During the ride, she told him she had just gotten fired from her retail job. “My heart just broke,” he recalled.
As the citywide lockdown intensifies, he said, “I’m trying to do my part and not go out there. I might be asymptomatic, and I don’t want to be the one who’s infecting other people as I’m working.”
Taxi drivers were already struggling before the pandemic, with the collapse of the medallion market—a licensing system that drove many cabbies into deep debt—and competition from Uber and Lyft cars. These days, after paying off all his expenses each month, Tang is typically left with $1,000 or even less. Currently, drivers’ groups like Rideshare Drivers United and the New York Taxi Workers Alliance are demanding comprehensive aid for both rideshare drivers and cabbies, including unemployment benefits and sick leave. The hope is that the coronavirus crisis might finally spur corporations and the government to recognize drivers’ labor rights.
“I know a lot of drivers, and I speak to them daily,” he said, “and we all feel helpless right now. And the hardest part for me is seeing them stressed out even at times like this. . . . a lot of them—they’re hopeful, but the reality of it is, how can we bounce back from this?”
Though Tang, at thirty-five, is relatively young for a cabbie, older drivers, many of whom struggle with lack of adequate healthcare, face a much more dire situation. “These guys—their health is already an issue. If they get sick with this, it’s a high probability that they’re not going to be coming back to work.”
Michelle Chen is a member of Dissent‘s editorial board and co-host of its Belabored podcast.