As the United States braces for the novel coronavirus that has seen tens of thousands of confirmed cases and more than 3,000 deaths globally, gig economy employers have begun contacting their independent contractors about basic precautionary measures they should take to avoid spreading the virus. So far, these measures have included the same advice health officials are giving to the population at large: wash your hands, stay home if you’re sick, avoid contact with people who have symptoms.
But one serious reality of the COVID-19 outbreak and its impact on workers—particularly those for whom human-to-human contact is part of the job—is that many of them will be exposing themselves simply by continuing to perform their jobs. Symptoms can appear up to two weeks after someone has been exposed, meaning that a courier or cab driver could have an interaction with an infected person who simply doesn’t know they’ve got the virus. That driver could continue to work, spreading disease, for another two weeks before they show symptoms—and so on, and so on.
Some companies, like Uber, have urged their couriers not to work if they’re worried about the risks of coronavirus. But workers still need income, and many will likely continue working despite any risks to their health and the health of others by being in constant contact with clients and customers. Gizmodo reached out to several delivery companies to ask about how they’re directing delivery workers in response to the outbreak. Like Uber, many appear to be winging it.
In an FAQ on its website, Grubhub recommends its workers practice good hygiene and stay home if they feel sick. It also recommends cleaning insulated delivery bags “with soap and water and/or disinfectant after you are done delivering for the day.” It further advises workers not to touch a customer’s delivery order and asking restaurants to tie or seal bags containing food.
“This is obviously a complex and fast-moving situation,” a Grubhub spokesperson told Gizmodo. “We are focused on prioritising the health and safety of our drivers, diners, restaurant partners and employees during this challenging time. We will continue to monitor the situation closely, including assessing and analysing the potential impact on our business.”
(Grubhub owns Seamless as well.)
Instacart told Gizmodo that it’s currently sharing information with its shoppers—the term it uses for the couriers who pick up customer orders and deliver them—about precautionary measures they should be taking as directed by health authorities. As of Tuesday, the company said that it remains “fully operational” in North America.
“We’re actively working with local and national authorities to monitor the situation as it unfolds,” Instacart said in a statement. “We’re adhering to recommendations from public health officials to ensure we’re operating safely with minimal disruption to our service, while also taking the appropriate precautionary measures to keep teams, shoppers and customers safe. Over the last few days, we’ve seen a surge in customer demand for pantry items such as powdered milk and canned goods, as well as personal care products like hand sanitizer and vitamins.”
In a copy of a notice to dashers shared with Gizmodo by the company, DoorDash advised its workers to wash their hands for “at least 20 seconds each time,” or use hand sanitizer that contains 60 per cent alcohol. Additionally, the company told workers to cough and sneeze into their elbow or a tissue, keep their hot bag and vehicle clean, and stay home if they feel sick.
“The safety and health of our community of employees, merchants, and Dashers is always our top priority,” a spokesperson for the company said in a statement. “We are closely monitoring this situation and have shared the CDC guidelines with Dashers and merchants. We will remain in close contact with them as we learn more.”
Likewise, DoorDash’s recently acquired upscale dining delivery service Caviar has issued directives to employees on its courier portal. That page—nearly identical to one also posted by DoorDash on its dasher site—was dated Tuesday, March 3.
In a statement to Gizmodo, a spokesperson said that Postmates has “shared precautionary CDC guidance with those carrying out deliveries so that they are aware of CDC guidance; and we will continue to encourage employees, merchants, consumers, and everyone to follow preventative measures such as washing hands and staying in if you are sick. While we are operating with business as usual, we will continue to information share as CDC guidance evolves.”
Despite the guidance that workers should stay home if they’re sick, the throughline here is that delivery companies are pushing on, business as usual, even as the number of confirmed cases in the United States continues to rise. It will likely continue that way until they have a good enough reason not to. But none of the companies contacted offered up any formal plan to address the impact that ceasing work will have on these contractors, independent of whether they’re using their earnings as primary or supplemental income.
It’s a sobering reminder of the oversights in the gig economy that leave these workers stranded by their employers when things get rocky. It’s also a strong indication that no one is fully prepared for the potential impacts of the outbreak—not these businesses, not consumers, and certainly not the workers who rely on these jobs to survive.