Most of California’s Gig Workers Don’t Have Enough Work


At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, Uber and Lyft driver Erica Mighetto waited, waited, and waited for a ding on her app taking her to her next ride.

She sat in her car in California's Bay Area for hours, trying for whatever she could get. When she was starting out more than three years ago, she said she could have earned $1,200 to $1,500 in a weekend working in the Bay Area. Her pay kept dropping, she said. But during the pandemic, her pay plummeted to almost nothing.

"You have bills that are due, and a month later, collectors are starting to call, and you don't know where your next meal is going to come from," said Mighetto, 38, based in Sacramento and an organizer with Rideshare Drivers United. "It puts you in a very stressful predicament."

Gig work has always been precarious. But the pandemic has exasperated the situation for the workers, said Saba Waheed, research director at the UCLA Labor Center. "It pretty intensely impacted work conditions that were already difficult and made it worse."Mighetto is not alone, according to a study from the UCLA Labor Center and SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West published Friday. The center's study surveyed more than 300 app-based gig workers between April and June, more than three-quarters of whom had relied on gig work as their primary source of income. Nearly half of those surveyed stopped working during the pandemic, either because they had no work or they were concerned of catching the coronavirus. For those who kept working, 70 percent said they had to cut their hours.

The study comes as voters cast a ballot on Prop. 22, which will decide how gig economy drivers will be classified and what benefits they will receive.

Stopped Working

Of about 150 app-based gig workers who stopped working, more than half said they didn't have enough business to keep themselves going.

Bethsaida Ruiz, 63 in Oakland and an organizer for Gig Workers Rising, had driven for HopSkipDrive for four years before the pandemic. The service provides rides to children to and from schools.

As an older woman, Ruiz said she didn't feel safe driving for Uber or Lyft. She felt more comfortable with HopSkipDrive, but with schools transitioning to remote learning, the work dried up for Ruiz.

Drivers also had a lot of anxiety about contacting the coronavirus. More than 80 percent of those who stopped working said they were concerned about being exposed to the virus, which causes COVID-19 respiratory disease, according to the UCLA Labor Center study.

"It's a huge risk for a lot of people," Mighetto said. "I would feel so guilty if I became a carrier and got someone else sick. That would be pretty devastating."

If drivers got sick, the financial consequences can be devastating. Nearly a third of those surveyed didn't have health insurance, according to the survey.

"They're falling through the cracks in terms of not having this security," Waheed said.

Little Support

For those who kept working, they said they received little support from the companies.

A majority of those surveyed by the UCLA Labor Center said they had to buy their own masks and protective equipment. Companies have been providing protective equipment for their drivers. But in one case, a worker reported that getting the equipment would have required a one-hour drive, said Brian Justie, a doctoral student at UCLA who co-authored the study.

"The real story was what wasn't done," he said. "Everything falls to workers."

In Public Rights Project's separate survey of about 100 Instacart shoppers mostly in California, about 40 percent said they haven't had protective equipment when they needed it, despite the company saying it is providing health and safety kits for its workers.

"When they told us to wear masks, they just said you need to wear one," said Peter Phong, 35 in Oakland who has been working for Instacart since 2018. "I remember my wife saying (as if) the law is saying you need to wear a seat belt, but you have to buy a seat belt."

Instacart has been offering 14 days of sick pay for those diagnosed with COVID-19 or is in mandatory isolation or quarantine. Some workers had a hard time accessing it, said Jenny Montoya Tansey, policy director at Public Rights Project. The company, for instance, had required workers to get a letter from a public health authority.

"It really led workers to think it was a PR stunt, rather than a real benefit that affects workers," Montoya Tansey said.

Instacart said it has distributed nearly 500,000 health and safety kits which includes face masks and hand sanitizers with shoppers, with more kits shipping every week. The company has invested more than $20 million to support shoppers' health and safety since April, the company said in an e-mail.

The company also said it no longer requires workers to get a letter from a public health authority for them to qualify for sick leave.

Financial Insecurity

For those who kept working, some felt as if they had no choice, Montoya Tansey said.

"For many of the people left out of the safety net and the CARES Act, they went to Instacart," she said.

Phong increased how much he worked for Instacart after he was laid off from a printing company around St. Patrick's Day. He's now putting in close to a 15-hour workday in the app. He said he is probably making $12 to $15 an hour after expenses, just around the minimum wage in Oakland where he lives.

Phong can pay the bills, with the help of his wife who still works as an administrative assistant, but it hasn't been easy.

"What I'm afraid of is two things: How long can this last, in the sense of can the economy stay this way? And do we live on the gig economy?," he said.

For those who stopped working, unemployment insurance has helped. Gig workers for the first time qualify for unemployment insurance, under the federal government's Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program. About 80 percent of those surveyed by the UCLA Labor Center said they applied for unemployment insurance.

Still, about 80 percent of those surveyed by the UCLA Labor Center said their pay was insufficient to meet their household expenses. A third had been unable to pay for groceries since the start of the pandemic. More than 20 percent couldn't cover their housing costs, and nearly 10 percent lost their homes.

Mighetto had already lost her home in Sacramento before the pandemic, she said. She's now bouncing between Airbnbs and camping. "I feel like I'm being pushed out of California. I don't know if I can survive here."

What's Next?

Not all workers have had negative experiences with gig companies.

Akamine Kiarie, 27 in Sacramento studying at Sacramento State, said the business is picking up as he drives for Lyft. The company has been distributing masks and sanitation supplies, and requiring people to wear a mask, he said.

" Lyft has been very supportive from the very beginning," he said. "Having a stream of income coming in... it helps pay my bills, pay my schooling."

Al Porche III, 46, of Menifee said he enjoys working for Uber and Lyft.

"I have faith in my companies," he said. "We're almost done with 2020, and I'm here today."

But Montoya Tansey said through her survey of Instacart workers, she found many drivers are wanting better wages and more guaranteed benefits.

"What the earlier month of the pandemic did for shoppers was that... it opened their eyes to all the other ways they were operating without safety," she said. "Workers are reevaluating and considering whether they can afford to continue with the company."

(c)2020 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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