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Denver’s Gig Economy Workers Share Their Stories

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Photo by Victor Xok on Unsplash

Caught between the new coronavirus and earning a living, the Mile High City’s independent workforce opens up about how Lyft, Amazon, Instacart, and others are supporting them (or not) during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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In many ways, gig economy workers have become the unsung heroes of the COVID-19 crisis, often facing frontline exposure to the virus without the protections—including health and unemployment benefits—provided to traditional employees. Some companies have made efforts to support workers during this time, such as offering two weeks of sick pay for those diagnosed with the novel coronavirus. But even workers ordered to stay at home by local governments have experienced challenges getting the companies approve their claims.

Last week, which began with Instacart and Amazon employees and contractors striking for higher pay and better safety measures, several Denver gig workers talked with 5280 about their experiences during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

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*Full names withheld at the request of the subjects. 

Nate*: Instacart

People are desperate, but that’s good though. Customers, they feel so bad for us, so a lot of the time they’re tipping us like crazy high. I could work seven days a week nonstop and make a ton of money, but I don’t want to do that because there’s a chance that I could be infected at anytime. Amazon and Whole Foods, their workers are going on strike because they don’t feel safe in these conditions.

The thing is, the last time people tried to strike against Instacart, it backfired on us. We used to have this quality bonus—every time a customer gave you five stars you got an extra $3 on your order. So it was a big incentive for us to give really good service. But when that strike happened, they completely removed it. They said they were going to implement new ways for incentivizing us with promotions, but that didn’t happen until—honestly until the coronavirus started to come into effect. Promotions are like, if you work from noon to 5 p.m., every delivery you do in that span you get an extra $3 per delivery. They don’t care. It’s that simple. They know they can exploit us and there’s nothing we can do about it.

Sherrie Salazar: Lyft, Instacart, Postmates

I have always done the express rental program through Lyft and Hertz, but the rental is $250 a week, and I haven’t been making that the last two weeks. Ridership is down. Grocery shopping and food deliveries are through the roof, which is what’s saving us gig workers right now. I just started with Instacart and Postmates during the pandemic. Postmates isn’t a big tipper. Instacart is. My Postmates stuff has all been food delivery; I think maybe customers think they’re paying too much for their food so they’re not going to tip the driver. It’s like, we’re out here making sure you get it. And it’s still warm—or cold, or whatever it’s supposed to be.

I’m a high-risk [patient] if I were to get COVID-19. My heart functions at 74 percent. I have asthma. I have kidney disease. I’m pre-diabetic. I’m still doing my job. I’m being safe about it.

JL*: Lyft

I’m pretty sure I had or still have COVID-19, and I self-isolated the moment I started having symptoms. My children have had it as well. I immediately contacted Lyft to let them know that I would be returning my rental and isolating. I then contacted them to see what relief would be available to me. They indicated that without a positive test result, I get no help. But no one can get tested in Colorado unless they are admitted to the hospital or meet the criteria for high risk. I contacted my primary care physician, and they indicated they would not issue a request for a test because I do not meet the criteria.

I’m convinced Lyft knows that not many people can get tested so they made that a requirement for helping drivers, thus limiting their need to help drivers. This is a crock of shit. I have been driving full-time for Lyft for a year with over 3,900 rides. I would estimate Lyft has made in excess of $40,000 from me. Still, they can’t help me even though I did the right thing and stopped driving. 

Steve*: Amazon Flex

Amazon has said it’s hiring 100,000 workers both in warehouses and as flex drivers. I guess my perception is that they’re trying to bring in a lot of new drivers to increase the pool of people who are picking from available slots so Amazon can avoid surge pricing. My personal opinion is everything Amazon is going to do is going to be in its favor—which is going to decrease the amount it has to pay to do deliveries.

I can certainly understand why people are [striking]: It’s the low pay. It’s all these packages that are coming in from all different locations and you just don’t know if the virus is on any of them. How long can it survive on cardboard packages? With this coronavirus, I’m hoping it does compel some of these companies that are providing gig work to provide better [personal protective equipment]—not only for the drivers’ protection but also for the customers’ protection as well

Stephanie Ramsey: Uber, Lyft, Instacart

I’m not someone who has a savings account that I can fall back on. I’m grateful that I at least have something, because if I didn’t have [Instacart] I would be in a bad position. But yeah, I certainly feel forced into it. There’s not another option, really.

I don’t want this to wreck years of my life financially. I don’t want to get buried. I could stay at home and probably call all of the billing companies, and they would put it off for a little while but—yeah, I’d rather risk going out and getting sick than have to worry about my finances. Definitely.

At this point in time, my tips have been 50 percent and more of my overall earnings. If I was strictly relying on what Instacart is willing to pay me, this would not be worth it. It’s only worth it because there have been a lot of generous people.

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

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Nevada launches system to accept gig workers’ weekly claims – KRNV My News 4

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Point of View: Florida unemployment system still a mess amid COVID-19 crisis, especially for gig workers – Opinion – The Palm Beach Post

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Gig workers, independent contractors (also called “1099 workers”) and the self-employed don’t qualify for state unemployment. But they qualify for federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance included in the CARES Act passed by Congress. They must still apply through the rickety Florida Department of Economic Opportunity’s system.

Ena Beatty and her 23-year-old son applied for unemployment benefits together in mid-March.

Her son, Nick, has already received his first state unemployment check and another one is on the way. He’s also received three $600 checks from the federal government.

Ena, meanwhile, still is waiting to see when and if she will get help. It’s been almost two months since she applied.

>>>Related content: Editorial: Probe of jobless benefits system worthless without fixes

>>>Related content: Coronavirus Florida: Editorial: Do more to fix state’s broken jobless benefits system, policy

Why Ena of Indialantic and her son have had difference experiences might rest in the fact that she’s a gig worker during the coronavirus pandemic.

Ena, 55, used to take tourists from Port Canaveral on tours and hand out food and alcohol samples at grocery stores. Her son had a regular job at the now-shuttered Lucky’s Market in West Melbourne.

“Everyday is another worry and wondering how we’re going to get by,” said the single mother who lives with son Nick, who’s stepped up to pay the bills, and her 16-year-old daughter.

Gig workers, independent contractors (also called “1099 workers”) and the self-employed don’t qualify for state unemployment. But they qualify for federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance included in the CARES Act passed by Congress. They must still apply through the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity’s system.

Yes, they qualify for these benefits but getting their hands on them is a different story.

Florida’s handling of unemployment claims has been, for the lack of a better word, a mess. For weeks, we’ve been documenting glitches and errors with the online system, people whose applications have been pending for too long and people who have been rejected despite apparently qualifying for help.

While some regular and full-time workers like Nick are starting to receive their benefits — though thousands are still are waiting — people like Ena appear to be facing the longest waits, Rep. Tyler Sirois, R-Merritt Island, told me.

I emailed the DEO asking if that’s truly the case and why but didn’t get any answers. Sirois believes that might be explained by the fact applicants had to apply for state benefits, be deemed ineligible and then, in some cases, reapply for federal assistance, which Ena did on April 26. Also, it wasn’t until April 28 that Florida rolled out its Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, Sirois said.

That leaves these already-vulnerable independent workers, who don’t receive employer-provided health insurance and benefits, in an even more vulnerable situation.

And it’s not just independent workers who are experiencing delays. Lawmakers across Florida are being flooded with messages from all kinds of people who struggled to get benefits.

Emails sent to Brevard state Rep. Randy Fine’s office paint a picture of what’s happening. Fine has said his office spends much of each day helping Brevard residents trying to navigate the unemployment process.

“I cant believe! I cant log in! The site doesn’t let me! I have no income. Why is this this hard?” an applicant wrote on April 20.

“I am a teacher who was furloughed in March… I filed (for) unemployment right away and to this day I am still in pending status,” a woman wrote on April 24.

“I logged into the system this morning after it has been down since last week and now I show up as ineligible with no explanation. No ONE from the DEO has ever contacted me. I have tried all day to reapply for benefits and the system is broken,” a man wrote on April 27.

Only 48% of more than 1.3 million unique jobless claims have been paid out as of May 11, according to the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. The situation for those requesting federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (independent workers and others who don’t qualify for state benefits) is slightly worse: 43% of 52,549 claims processed in Florida were paid out as of May 11.

No state was prepared for the flood of jobless claims the coronavirus has caused. But Florida has been notoriously slow in processing claims — it was among the slowest in the nation as of early April, according to an Associated Press analysis. It’s unclear where it stands today.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has ordered an investigation of the $77.9 million system and the state’s contract with Deloitte, the company that built it.

As government bureaucrats try to figure who dropped the ball, people like Ena, who hasn’t worked since late February, are paying the price despite having lost their livelihood through no fault of their own.

Making the problem worse is the lack of information coming from the DEO on when these people can expect to see a check. Even lawmakers like Sirois are having a hard time getting through to ask questions on behalf of their constituents.

“You will receive info mid-week next week,” said an April 25 email from Jonathan Satter, secretary of the Florida Department of Management Services.

The recipient was Melbourne resident Blake Moia, a contractor for an event production company, who had emailed asking for help after his March 15 application was rejected. He reapplied on April 25.

“Mid-week next week” should’ve happened two weeks ago. Checking his still-pending application feels now like an exercise in futility — that’s if he’s able to log into the state website without getting booted off.

“I stopped checking for the most part because I kind of gave up, Moia said.

The problem is giving up, while perhaps the only way to deal with a tortured wait, isn’t an option people like Moia can afford right now.

UPDATE: Blake Moia finally got his application approved, and this week received $226.

ISADORA RANGEL, VIERA

Editor’s note: Rangel is FLORIDA TODAY’s public affairs and engagement editor and a member of the Editorial Board.

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Las Vegas gig vet says system ‘doesn’t fit what we do’

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