Your Rent or Your Life

Your Rent or Your Life

The pandemic is forcing workers to make impossible choices.


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As New York City streets began to empty during the second weekend of March, Inder Parmar caught a lucky break. The driver opened his Uber app and snagged two back-to-back airport trips: One passenger was returning from the United Kingdom; another was fleeing New York to join family in Florida. Afterward, the Uber app on his phone went dark, and drivers across the city settled in for a long pause.

Parmar estimates business is down about 90 percent. He told me he had enough to get by, because his adult children had good jobs, but he said, “A lot of drivers, they’re hand to mouth, and they’re suffering.”

Uber announced it would offer two weeks of paid leave for drivers diagnosed with, or quarantined for, Covid-19. But Parmar said the company is rich enough to compensate all drivers who have been forced to stay home—especially since Uber drivers have been watching their incomes plummet as Uber keeps altering the payment system. Even before business dried up in March, Parmar said, he was frustrated with how little guidance Uber was providing about avoiding exposure to passengers who might have the virus.

“Every few weeks we receive an e-mail [saying] we should give sanitizer to the customer, we should give wet wipes to the customers to wipe their hands,” Parmar said. “But they are giving us $6 for each job! How can I, with $6, supply this many things?”

The crisis facing rideshare drivers is part of a wider economic disaster among the coronavirus precariat: the gig workers, subcontracted service workers, and growing ranks of low-wage workers fueling Amazon’s e-commerce supply chain. Some of these industries will crater. Others might thrive off the online shopping boom. Either way, the pandemic is pushing workers to make impossible choices between protecting their health and feeding their families.

Amazon Surges

In contrast to the collapse of ride-hailing apps, Amazon’s fulfillment centers are doing a roaring trade as retail shifts from brick and mortar to online shopping. The company plans to add about 100,000 jobs (on top of its current 125,000-strong workforce) and bump up hourly pay.

Yet Covid-19 is encroaching on its workforce: In late March, warehouse workers were reportedly diagnosed with the virus at facilities in Kentucky, Oklahoma, Michigan, Queens, and Staten Islandsparking outrage among workers’ groups. Athena (@athenaforall), a nationwide labor and community coalition, has issued a petition demanding that Amazon both improve its health safeguards at work and provide full paid leave to all workers whose family lives are disrupted by the pandemic, even if they are not themselves infected or quarantined. (The company has offered two weeks of paid leave for people diagnosed with or quarantined because of the virus.)

Phillip Ruiz, an Amazon worker at the JFK8 fulfillment center in Staten Island, where a recent Covid-19 diagnosis emerged, decided to go on unpaid leave in early March, fearing that by working he would endanger his aging father. “This isn’t just on Jeff Bezos, even though he makes the ultimate decision,” he said. “But I feel like management and the human resources department, I’m pretty sure if they wanted to, they could make a decision to do the right thing and close the building down. Or if they’re not going to do that, provide enough equipment that the workers could feel more than safe to work. But the problem is, they’re not.”

JFK8 worker Rina Cummings, an organizer with the community group Make the Road New York, said on an Athena conference call, “People are still walking around, whether they’re carriers or not, we don’t even know it…. All of this goes back to not having paid sick time for everyone. Because if you’re getting paid and if you weren’t feeling well, you wouldn’t have to choose between [not having] a roof over your head and coming to work sick.”

Ruiz, who has worked for Amazon for nearly two years, knows he could go back to work and get a raise on top of his current $18.70 an hour. But it is not worth the risk. “At the end of the day, if it ain’t safe, and we end up catching this, what’s the money to us?”

In an e-mail, Amazon wrote that it has enhanced safeguarding practices, which include cleaning work spaces more frequently, staggering shifts, and requiring workers “to sanitize and clean their work stations and vehicles at the start and end of every shift with disinfectant/cleaning wipes.” All employees are also reportedly ordered to “wash their hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing their nose, coughing, or sneezing.” The company has also established a relief fund for subcontracted workers.

Zachary Lerner, director of organizing with New York Communities for Change, which has been supporting organizing efforts at JFK8, said many local Amazon warehouse workers are nervous about being exposed to the virus on the job or during their commutes and perhaps even contaminating the packages that go out: “There are questions [about], should these warehouses still remain open, because by the time someone tests positive, they might have actually infected hundreds of other workers within that warehouse.”

This week, workers at JFK8, along with fulfillment centers in Chicago and the Detroit area, have staged walkouts to protest what they say are extremely dangerous conditions at work and a lack of transparency about Covid-19 infections in the workforce. After the unprecedented protest for a safe workplace, the company fired one of the organizers of the walkout, Chris Smalls, who later wrote in The Guardian, “They don’t care if we fall sick. Amazon thinks we are expendable.”

A Bumpy Road for Drivers

“Jim,” who drives a truck for an Amazon subcontractor and asked to remain anonymous, considers his delivery company, one of many that exclusively services Amazon warehouses, a relatively good place to work—he recently got health insurance through his employer, and his wages are on par with that of fulfillment center workers, around $15 to $17 per hour. “But when I look around the warehouse,” he said, “no one is wearing any masks. Some people are wearing gloves. But it’s a crowded environment, so clearly it’s not a good situation for containing any virus.”

He said he was afraid of putting customers at risk when he drops off bulk orders of sanitizer and other household basics: “For me, it’s a personal issue of how do you continue to work for places like this and not spread the virus, [and] also keep the people who are running it accountable, because they’re not providing any kind of safety precautions?” He said he wants to keep working, in part because during this public health crisis, “our delivery system is pretty essential.” But as the public increasingly relies on Amazon’s supply chain, he said, “we’re good at delivering things, and we’re also really good at spreading viruses while we’re doing it.”

Unlike Amazon delivery drivers like Jim, drivers of for-hire vehicles, including Uber and traditional cabs, are legally classified as “self-employed,” even if they receive all of their rides through Uber or Lyft. In New York, that typically means they do not qualify for unemployment benefits, workers’ compensation, or paid sick days, and they must finance their own vehicles and insurance plans.

Augustine Tang, who took over his late father’s taxi business five years ago while he was taking care of his aging grandmother, decided to stop driving his cab for now, even though the costs for his insurance and the debt on his taxi’s medallion—an antiquated licensing system—are piling up and taxi earnings have been dismal for years. “I’m trying to do my part and not go out there,” he said, particularly since he is unlikely to get many street hails. “I might be asymptomatic, and I don’t want to be the one who’s infecting other people as I’m working.”

The New York Taxi Workers Alliance is pressing the city for a bailout for taxi and app-based drivers, including an expansion of unemployment benefits and sick leave, along with financial relief for indebted drivers. For some older drivers, it may be too late. “I know a lot of drivers, and I speak to them daily,” he said, “and we all feel helpless right now…. A lot of them—they’re hopeful, but the reality of it is, how can we bounce back from this?”

Feast and Famine

Erica Vega usually cooks for a living, but now she is unsure how to put food on the table for her own family as Covid-19 ravages the restaurant sector.

She had a catering job in the Financial District, but her employer, a temp staffing firm for restaurants and caterers, informed workers that there would be no work for the foreseeable future. Speaking shortly after being told to stay home, she said, “Unfortunately when you work in the restaurant industry, whether you’re sick or not, you have to go to work, because, to be sick means you’re not going to get paid.”

Vega does not have health insurance, and is supporting her multigenerational household, including an uncle with a disability.

“It’s scary. The world is a scary place right now,” Vega said.

Vanessa Bain, a veteran Instacart shopper based in the Bay Area, should be well-positioned to prosper from the restaurant business’s decline. Demand for online grocery ordering is reportedly soaring, as people avoid in-person shopping. Bain noted that Instacart’s pay—determined through a complex algorithm based on distance traveled, consumer reviews, and various “incentive” bonuses—has risen significantly, countering a steady decline in earnings that sparked an Instacart strike last year. Nonetheless, Bain said, “there is obviously an immense danger in being in a grocery store all day long.” Despite the pay hike, she is staying home; with three elderly family members at home, she will not risk exposing them.

But among her fellow Instacart shoppers, she said, “most people feel like they have to work because they have no choice: They have to work or else they starve; they have to work or else they don’t have a car; they have to work or else they will be evicted.”

Demanding Health and Safety

Bain and a group she helps lead, Gig Workers Collective, launched a strike against the company this week to demand fair compensation and health protections, including hazard pay. The group is also encouraging fellow Instacart shoppers to apply for basic public benefits such as food stamps, along with unemployment insurance. Filing unemployment claims would help test the boundaries of California’s new AB5 law, which adjusts the legal definition of independent contractor status and could enable many gig workers to be classified as official employees and not contractors. Though companies like Instacart and Uber have protested the law, even if the workers run into legal obstacles, their claims would still highlight glaring gaps in the social welfare system for gig workers.

In Bain’s view, the virus has revealed that “the crisis is and always has been capitalism.” For now, she added, “What I want workers to know is that…our work is precarious by its structure. This is not a moral failing, this is a structural failing, and that it’s…not only fine, but essential that they rely on the existing social safety programs and networks.”

The California-based Rideshare Drivers United has called for immediate economic relief for drivers based on AB5, including unemployment insurance and paid sick leave. The group has also urged a statewide eviction moratorium and a basic income for all drivers. They are demands for a workforce that too often slips through the cracks in labor law.

The Covid-19 crisis “is just pointing to the weakness of the whole gig-economy concept in the first place,” said RDU organizer Tyler Sandness. The ride-hail giants have flouted the traditional “social contract” of the American economic creed, he added. “You work for a company, you make that company profitable through your work, and in exchange, the company provides you with a decent income and the ability to take care of yourself. Well, these companies have severed that contract. They really don’t care whether or not we can survive this.”

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