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GOP Rep takes side gig on Covid-19 trial board



With Zachary Brennan, David Lim, Susannah Luthi and Lauraine Genota

— Exclusive: GOP Rep takes side gig on Covid-19 trial board raising ethics questions.

The unanswered distribution questions even after an ambitious federal plan.

Lawmakers enter the 340B fray — and PhRMA responds.

It’s Tuesday, welcome back to Prescription Pulse. Tragic news for my Covid-era diet. Send your favorite ice cream, pharma tips and news to [email protected] or @owermohle. Loop in David Lim ([email protected] or @davidalim) and Zachary Brennan ([email protected] or @ZacharyBrennan)!

GOP REP TAKES SIDE GIG ON COVID-19 TRIAL BOARD Rep. Andy Harris, a Maryland Republican and medical doctor, has broken with the scientific mainstream on masks during the coronavirus pandemic, and is now joining the hunt for coronavirus treatments with an unpaid side gig overseeing a drug company trial, Zachary Brennan scooped.

Harris is one of three members of the data and safety monitoring board for the trial run by NeuroRx, a small Delaware company whose CEO and founder has longstanding ties to the congressman.

The arrangement doesn’t appear to run afoul of House ethics rules because Harris is not being paid by NeuroRx and does not own a stake in the company. But several bioethicists questioned his lack of experience in evaluating data from drug trials, and said that his close ties to NeuroRx CEO Jonathan Javitt could complicate matters if problems arose with the company’s study.

Harris’ role is an unusual one: Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb told POLITICO that he’d never heard of a sitting member of Congress serving on a data monitoring committee for any drug.

Walter Shaub, the former director of the Office of Government Ethics, said “it’s concerning” that Harris is involved with a company regulated by FDA, given his position on the House appropriations subcommittee that controls the agency’s purse. “FDA officials may feel nervous about holding the company to high standards if a member of their appropriations subcommittee is involved in the trial,” he said.

In a statement, Harris — an anesthesiologist who still practices part-time — brushed aside any suggestion that he is not qualified to serve on the data board. “I have a Master of Health Science degree from the Hopkins school of public health, which involves training in biostatistics (that’s a matter of public record, which you probably already knew),” he said.

THE UNANSWERED DISTRIBUTION QUESTION — States ultimately tasked with leading the vaccine distribution effort are already confronting a host of logistical and supply chain challenges that could dash the Trump administration’s hopes of quickly distributing a vaccine once it’s approved, write Rachel Roubein and Dan Goldberg.

States are also missing out on desperately sought federal funding to hire and train staff to administer the shots, as they’re also trying to amass basic supplies. Some states may also rely on a new, untested federally designed system to track who’s getting shots and manage supplies.

In short, state officials overseeing the largest and most complex vaccination campaign in history say the effort will require a level of careful coordination with the federal government that’s been lacking during the pandemic.

The plan: CDC on Wednesday released a 57-page interim playbook meant to help states write their distribution plans, but the agency also acknowledged there are “many unknowns and unanswered questions at this time.”

The timeline: Federal officials laid out an optimistic timeline for vaccines to be ready during the fourth quarter of 2020 in a “constrained” phase, when they will be provided to high-priority populations like health care workers.

The cost: Federal officials said the goal is to deliver any vaccine with no upfront cost to providers or out-of-pocket spending for Americans.

CAPUTO: THE RISE AND FALL, THE REMNANTS — HHS spokesperson Michael Caputo’s decision this week to take medical leave capped a five-month run that saw him rapidly expand his influence within the health department … only to have it all unravel over the last eight days, POLITICO’s Dan Diamond, Adam Cancryn and Sarah report.

He had broad authority. Caputo found jobs for at least four close friends and associates across the health agencies.

One of them was John “Wolf” Wagner. The Caputo ally, who has no scientific background, took over FDA’s press shop and subsequently instructed staff to give reporters only brief “top line” responses to questions and resisted requests for FDA spokespeople to speak directly with the press on a wide range of topics, said a current and a former FDA official.

Another was Paul Alexander. The part-time professor at McMaster University sought to direct NIAID Director Anthony Fauci’s messages about coronavirus’ risk to children, hydroxychloroquine and testing, I reported last week. Dan scooped that Caputo and Alexander also tried to edit CDC’s weekly reports on the virus and public health.

What happens next? “He is single-handedly blocking the only window that this administration has that light can shine through,” one HHS official said shortly before the department announced that Caputo would go on a 60-day medical leave.

Want more? Dan joined POLITICO Dispatch host Jeremy Siegel to discuss the hectic week. But first: Dan gets a text from Caputo. Listen to the podcast.

LAWMAKERS JUMP INTO THE 340B FRAY — The hospital standoff with pharma over the 340B drug discount program landed in Congress this week, as hundreds of lawmakers rushed to join hospitals in demanding a federal crackdown on manufacturers that have started to limit the drugs sold to hospitals at a steep discount, Susannah Luthi writes.

In question: Steps that five major companies took over the summer to rein in the number of drugs they dispense at the discount. Eli Lilly stopped offering the discounted price on any drugs except insulin — as long as the pharmacy doesn’t charge patients or insurance companies for dispensing. Merck is asking for claims data on patients, while AstraZeneca, Sanofi and Novartis are starting similar policies.

What’s happening now: The Health Resources and Services Administration, the tiny health agency in charge of 340B, says it’s still weighing whether these recent policies violate the law establishing the program, which says that any participating drug company has to offer its covered medicines at or below a certain price, and whether sanctions like fines may need to be levied.

The HRSA spokesperson added that manufacturers refusing “to honor contract pharmacy orders” could block access to prescriptions for vulnerable people who live in remote areas and depend on contract pharmacies.

“While PhRMA supports the original intent of the 340B program, we are concerned by the mounting evidence showing the program has strayed off course and is not helping needy patients,” the lobby said in a statement. PhRMA added that it can’t comment on specific companies’ actions, but “we agree with this Administration’s recent statements regarding the rule of law and status of agency guidance.”

BIDEN: ‘I DON’T TRUST TRUMP,’ AS OTHER DEMS ARE CAUTIOUS — Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden on Wednesday sharply questioned the Trump administration’s process for approving a coronavirus vaccine, while expressing broad confidence in vaccines and the scientists who create, study and vet them, reports Alice Miranda Ollstein.

“I trust vaccines, I trust the scientists, but I don’t trust Donald Trump,” he said at a news conference in Wilmington, Del., following a nearly two-hour briefing from his team of health experts.

Trump quickly hit back, accusing Biden of “promoting his anti-vaccine theories” during a White House briefing later that day.

Other Democrats tread lightly. While most Democrats are withholding judgment for now, Republicans have accused several who raised concerns of undermining public confidence in the effort to inoculate Americans against the coronavirus, Alice writes with POLITICO’s James Arkin.

Experts caution that candidates across the political spectrum should avoid talking about a vaccine at all to avoid further politicization.

What if they’re asked on the campaign trail? “They should talk about the importance of letting the science community speak and not having politicians drive the conversation,” advised Ashish Jha, an adjunct professor of global health at Harvard. “Deeply politicizing this as a ‘Trump vaccine’ won’t be helpful.”

DEMS REJECT KODAK INTERNAL REVIEW — House Democrats are dismissing an internal review initiated by Eastman Kodak’s board that claimed there was no evidence of illegal insider stock transactions around a planned $765 million government loan to launch pharmaceutical production, Zachary Warmbrodt writes.

House coronavirus subcommittee Chair Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), Financial Services Chair Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Oversight Chair Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) said the report “raises more questions than it answers” about the Trump administration’s efforts to provide the loan despite the photography company’s lack of experience in the field and about windfalls gained by the company’s leaders.

…Just the beginning. The inspector general for the U.S. International Development Finance Corp., the agency that announced it was considering providing the loan in July, has agreed to review the deal. The agency has put the loan on hold as it addresses “recent allegations of wrongdoing.”

FDA CAUTIONS APPLE WATCH SHOULDN’T BE USED TO MONITOR COVID — Apple unveiled blood oxygen monitoring capabilities in its newest version of the Apple Watch, but the feature should only be used for general wellness purposes, FDA says.

Sumbul Ahmad Desai, Apple’s vice president of health, described blood oxygen levels as a way for customers to monitor respiratory health earlier this week, but did specify that the product is only supposed to be used for “fitness and wellness purposes.”

FDA told POLITICO its medical device center has not cleared or approved the Apple product for medical purposes. “The Apple Watch 6 should not be used to monitor oxygen saturation of COVID patients or suspected COVID patients at home,” an FDA spokesperson told POLITICO.

MAINE FAILED TO INVOICE REBATESHHS’ Office of the Inspector General found that Maine didn’t always comply with federal Medicaid requirements for invoicing manufacturers for rebates for physician-administered drugs. Maine claimed more than $100 million for physician-administered drugs paid between January 2012 and December 2016, with the federal share tallying almost $70 million. One of OIG’s recommendations is that Maine refund the federal government $4 million for claims for single-source physician-administered drugs and $276,000 for claims for top-20 multiple-source physician-administered drugs.

NEW YORK TAKES LEGAL ACTION AGAINST J&J — New York’s Department of Financial Services filed charges and initiated administrative proceedings against Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiaries. New York alleges that the company fraudulently mischaracterized the safety and efficacy of opioid drugs in order to expand the market. The state says J&J violated two state insurance laws. The charges come amid an ongoing DFS investigation into the opioid crisis. A hearing will take place on Jan. 25.

OXFAM: RICH COUNTRIES BOUGHT UP VAX SUPPLIES — Rich countries representing 13 percent of the world’s population have already bought more than half of the promised doses of leading coronavirus vaccine candidates, according to an Oxfam analysis published Wednesday.

“Supply deals have already been agreed for 5.3 billion doses, of which 2.7 billion (51 percent) have been bought by developed countries including the UK, US, Australia, Hong Kong & Macau, Japan, Switzerland and Israel, as well as the European Union,” Oxfam said.

The remaining 2.5 billion doses have been bought by or promised to developing countries such as India, Bangladesh, China, Brazil, Indonesia and Mexico, reports Carmen Paun.

It’s happened before. Rich countries buying up most of the vaccine supplies is a scenario that played out in the swine flu pandemic a decade ago, writes Carmen.

This time the World Health Organization and the international vaccine alliance Gavi are trying to avoid that by getting everyone to procure vaccines through COVAX, a mechanism by which rich countries pay for their own vaccine doses and donate money for developing countries’ doses. But the U.S. refused to join, and China has been vague about committing.

Many states either don’t release or have incomplete data on the rapid antigen tests that are now considered key to containing the coronavirus, and officials are worried that could leave the country “blind to the pandemic.” Read more from KHN.

The coronavirus pandemic has hit patients with sickle cell particularly hard. The pandemic has halted clinical trials and introduction of new drugs, and it has made accessing care for sickle cell more difficult. Read more from STAT.

FDA released comparative data on the performance of more than 55 authorized coronavirus tests against a standardized reference panel.

Diagnostics manufacturer Thermo Fisher Scientific announced this week it is spending $140 million to boost consumable laboratory plastics needed to conduct Covid-19 testing.

The FDA’s Circulatory System Devices Panel of the Medical Devices Advisory Committee will meet Oct. 27, 2020, from 9 a.m. to 6 pm.

The FDA is proposing to reclassify cytomegalovirus deoxyribonucleic acid quantitative assay devices from a class III device into a class II to provide patients more timely access to these devices.

BioNTech will get up to €375 million (or about $444 million) from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research to support the company’s development of Covid-19 vaccines.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), ranking member of the Senate HELP Committee, said in a statement that the Trump administration’s vaccine plan is “still missing far too many pieces.”

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It is a ballot fight for survival for gig companies like Uber, DoorDash




By Kate Conger

OAKLAND: By late August, the urgency was becoming clear. Top executives of Uber, Lyft and the delivery service DoorDash met to discuss a California ballot measure that would exempt them from a new state labor law and save their companies hundreds of millions of dollars.

The survival of their businesses was on the ballot.

Days later, political strategists responded to the executives’ concerns by telling the companies, which had already pledged $90 million to back the measure, that they needed to spend a lot more if they wanted to win, said three people familiar with the discussions, who were not allowed to talk about them publicly.

The fight over the ballot measure, Proposition 22, has become the most expensive in the state’s history since then, with its backers contributing nearly $200 million and 10 days still to go until the Nov. 3 election. Along the way, the companies have repeatedly been accused of heavy-handed tactics; a lawsuit filed Thursday claims Uber is coercing the support of its drivers.

Despite the big spending and a barrage of television advertising, only 39% of likely voters said they supported Uber and Lyft in a poll last month by the University of California, Berkeley, while 36% opposed their proposal and others were undecided. People close to the campaign said they would want to see close to 60% approval in polling before they could breathe a sigh of relief.

The ballot measure, which is also being backed by Instacart and a delivery company that Uber is acquiring, Postmates, could be a harbinger for gig companies in the rest of the country.

Prop 22 would exempt the companies from complying with a law that went into effect at the beginning of the year, while offering limited benefits to drivers. The law is intended to force them to treat gig workers as employees, but Uber and its peers have resisted, fearing that the cost of benefits like unemployment insurance and health care could tip them into a downward financial spiral.

Although Uber and Lyft, for example, are publicly traded companies with a combined worth of $70.5 billion, they have never been profitable. They lose billions of dollars each year, and the pandemic has made turning a profit even more difficult. DoorDash, which has filed to go public, has also struggled. Analysts estimate that complying with California’s gig worker law could cost Uber, which lost $1.8 billion in its most recent quarter, as much as $500 million a year.

Uber said it planned to cut off work for the approximately 158,000 California drivers who were active on the platform each quarter if its ballot measure failed. It would employ roughly 51,000 remaining drivers, it said, and raise fares to meet the higher business costs.

The ballot fight gained additional urgency Thursday when the California 1st District Court of Appeal ruled that Uber and Lyft must treat their California drivers as employees under the new labor law. The state attorney general and the city attorneys of San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego had sued the companies in May to enforce the law.

“If Prop 22 does not win, we will do our best to adjust,” said Dara Khosrowshahi, Uber’s chief executive, in a Wall Street Journal interview this week. “Where in California we can operate is a question mark, and the size and scale of the business will be substantially reduced.”

In past dust-ups with local regulators, Uber rallied its passengers for support. The pandemic has made that difficult, so it has urged its tech employees to get involved and used its app to reach out to drivers for support.

The Yes on 22 campaign also started an effort to organize drivers, a move copied from the labor groups that have long tried to organize drivers to fight for better working conditions. And it has forged relationships with high-profile advocacy groups, like Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the California chapter of the NAACP.

“Drivers want independence plus benefits by a 4-to-1 margin, and we’re going to fight for them,” said Julie Wood, a spokesperson for Lyft. “We believe California voters are on the side of drivers, too.”

A spokesperson for DoorDash, Taylor Bennett, said, “Our support for Prop 22 is part of our commitment to protecting the economic opportunity that tens of thousands of Californians value and the access to delivery that so many restaurants rely on, especially at such a critical time.”

A spokesperson for Instacart declined to comment. Postmates did not respond to a request for comment.

In an effort to gain support, the companies have bombarded riders and drivers with push notifications, campaign ads that appear in their apps and emails promoting Prop 22. Before logging on to start work, Uber drivers have been presented with a slideshow of warnings about how their lives could change if the proposition fails.

“A no vote would mean far fewer jobs,” one of the slides on the Uber app warned. “That’s why we’re fighting so hard to win.”

In the lawsuit filed against Uber on Thursday, drivers claim that the messages violated a state law that forbids employers to coerce their employees to participate in political activity.

“I can’t rule out that employers have engaged in coercive tactics like this in the past, but I have never heard of an employer engaging in this sort of barrage of coercive communications on such a broad level, ever,” said one of the attorneys for the drivers, David Lowe, a partner at Rudy, Exelrod, Zieff & Lowe. “It is such an extraordinary thing, from my perspective, for Uber to exploit this captive audience of workers.” Lowe said he opposed Prop 22.

Matt Kallman, an Uber spokesperson, said, “This is an absurd lawsuit, without merit, filed solely for press attention and without regard for the facts.” He added, “It can’t distract from the truth: that the vast majority of drivers support Prop 22.”

In early October, the Prop 22 campaign was denounced by Sen. Bernie Sanders after a fake progressive group calling itself Feel the Bern endorsed the proposition in a campaign flyer that implied Uber had the backing of progressive leaders. The mailers were, in fact, sent by a firm that creates political mailers representing different views.

“The Prop 22 campaign is working hard to reach voters across the state and the political spectrum to ensure they know that drivers overwhelmingly support Prop 22,” said Geoff Vetter, a spokesperson for the Yes on 22 campaign, which is funded by Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and other gig economy companies.

Questions have also been raised about the NAACP endorsement. A political consulting firm run by Alice Huffman, leader of the California NAACP., has received $85,000 from the gig companies’ campaign, public records show. The payment was reported earlier by the news site CalMatters.

Vetter said the payments were for “outreach.” The NAACP did not respond to a request for comment.

Uber held an all-hands meeting this month for employees to meet drivers who support the proposition, and sent several emails encouraging staff to lobby friends and family.

Although the internal messages were upbeat, the policy staff raised concerns with campaign consultants during the meetings in late August and early September, the people familiar with those meetings said. Among their worries: that the ballot language was unfavorable to the companies and that people were voting earlier than usual because of the pandemic, meaning advertising would need to be rapid and aggressive.

“We look at the data every day, and our metrics show a tight race,” Justin Kintz, Uber’s head of public policy, said in an early October email to Uber employees, obtained by The New York Times. “At the same time, with continued strong execution against our plan, we’re confident we can win.”

While the email noted that campaigning was optional, Kintz encouraged employees to participate in texting banks to contact voters and to promote the campaign in conversations with friends.

“The big reason that you’re seeing so much spending is because of the high stakes in this election,” said Vetter, the spokesperson for the campaign. “Hundreds of thousands of jobs are on the line. These are services that millions of Californians rely on.”

The opposition campaign, which is funded by labor unions, has raised about $15 million. Supporters of the No on 22 campaign have argued that voters should reject the push by tech companies and that the measure would harm workers already at a disadvantage during the pandemic.

“Proposition 22 will make racial inequality worse in California at the worst possible time,” said Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif. “You have very clearly crossed the line when you try to claim the equity mantle for a campaign that has always been about allowing multibillion-dollar app companies to write their own law so that they can keep exploiting the labor of drivers, 8 in 10 of whom are people of color.”

No matter the outcome of the vote, the gig companies and their opponents are likely to take their campaigns to Washington. Massachusetts has filed a lawsuit similar to the one that the California court decided Thursday, and Uber hopes to avoid continued state-by-state battles by pressing for federal legislation.

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In Gig-Dependent LA, Rent Payments Begin To Skid As Payday Loans Spike




Reports of the Los Angeles County’s gig worker-dependent economy falling apart ring true, but rent collection numbers, while lower than those from last year across the board, don’t seem to paint Los Angeles as any worse off than other expensive, coastal cities, some experts say. But is paying the rent alone a good indicator of how hard the coronavirus pandemic has hit renters?


Los Angeles County in August had the second-highest unemployment rate in the state: 16.6%, according to the state’s Employment Development Department.

According to data from RealPage, by the last week of August, 91.9% of LA renters had paid their rent, a 5.1% drop from 97% in 2019. By the last week of September, 93.4% of LA tenants had paid their rent compared to the 97.8% that had done so by the same time in 2019, or a difference of about 4.4%.

Stacking this year’s data up against 2019’s offers some necessary context to current numbers, said Adam Couch, a market analyst at RealPage, one of the companies whose data is used for the National Multifamily Housing Council’s nationwide rent payment tracker. The difference between the two years offers a good way to tell how much a metro has been impacted by the pandemic, Couch said.

Los Angeles saw a bigger year-over-year change in rent collection than New York in the last two months. 

By the last week of August, RealPage shows that 90.5% of New Yorkers had paid their rent, a 3.1% drop from the same time in 2019. By the last week of September, 93.3% of New Yorkers had paid their rent, a 2.9% difference over the previous year.

But Couch said that the two metros have regularly been jockeying for position toward the top of the list of biggest discrepancies between 2019 and 2020 rent collection. He highlighted New York, LA and the Bay Area as some of the standouts in terms of decline, with New York being impacted the most. 

Nothing in the data so far stands out about LA or indicates that it’s doing worse overall for rent collection than the Bay Area or New York, he said. “The rent payments in gateway markets have typically seen some of the largest annual declines,” Couch said. 

That’s not totally surprising considering those areas are among the most expensive places in the country to live. 

“It’s more difficult to make rent payments when rents are so expensive,” Couch said.

Additional federal unemployment benefits expiring and the smaller amounts that were being provided by states aren’t going to be as helpful toward paying for rent and other necessities in places where the rent is very high, Couch said. 

Though RealPage’s data doesn’t indicate that Los Angeles renters are particularly hard-hit by the pandemic compared to renters in other cities, a report published by UCLA’s Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies suggests an additional layer to the story: that perhaps LA renters are going to unsustainable lengths to make their rent payments on time.

“Paying on time and in full, in other words, should not be mistaken for ‘having no problems’ paying rent,” the report said. 

The report COVID-19 and Renter Distress used data from two sources: the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, which the bureau undertook specifically to gather data on how American households have been affected by the pandemic. It includes questions about late rent payment and a more detailed survey of 1,000 LA County households conducted by a third party for UCLA.

The report was co-authored by USC Lusk Center for Real Estate Director Richard Green and UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs associate professors Michael Lens, Michael Manville and Paavo Monkkonen.

Using information from the survey, the report found that “nontrivial proportions” of renter households that were paying their full rent on time between May and July were doing so by using their savings, asking friends and family for help, or by using credit cards or high-interest payday loans. The use of these methods is much higher among households that paid rent late at least once in that time period, or that only made a partial rent payment during that time, the report said. 

The UCLA survey found that just under 40% of renters who had paid rent late at least once and more than 40% of tenants who made a partial rent payment during those months had used a payday loan to help them pay rent during that time. Just under 40% of tenants who paid partial rent during the three-month span reported that they had used credit cards to help them pay rent.

“Looking at people and their ability to make rent, we should not mistake that for an absence of financial distress,” Manville said in a public discussion about the findings.

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Pandemic leaves U.S. gig workers clamoring for jobs




Tyrita Franklin-Corbett knew she was risking her health delivering groceries during the coronavirus pandemic, but she didn’t expect to be laid up by a dog attack.

Furloughed from her job as an auditor at a public accounting firm in May, the single mother of a 12-year-old son from Upper Marlboro, Maryland, started to take on more shifts with online grocery pick-up and delivery service Instacart.

Franklin-Corbett, 45, had been an Instacart “shopper” for several years to supplement her salary, but she never imagined the app-based work, with its wild swings in earnings and no health insurance or sick pay, being her sole source of income.

“It’s a gig, not a career,” Franklin-Corbett told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “When I was in the office, I knew what my paycheck was going to be every day. With this, you do not know. There’s a lot of unknowns, a lot of uncertainty.”

Tyrita Franklin-Corbett stands for a portrait outside of a local grocery store as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in District Heights, Maryland, October 6, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Michael A. McCoy

“You don’t know if you’re going to have to carry four cases of water up three flights of steps. You don’t know how much traffic you have to sit in if you want to make 40 bucks.”

Aside from carting heavy groceries and risking exposure to the coronavirus, Franklin-Corbett was bitten on the foot by a customer’s dog in March.

“It was horrific,” said Franklin-Corbett, who had to stop work for two weeks, getting $60 compensation from San Francisco-based Instacart and $1,600 from the customer’s insurance plan.

But with the pandemic sending unemployment to highs not seen since the 1930s Great Depression, more people are joining the growing U.S. army of gig workers, competing for jobs they say pay less and less while trying to avoid contracting COVID-19.


Tyrita Franklin-Corbett delivers an Instacart order to a customer as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Fort Washington, Maryland, October 6, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Michael A. McCoy

Gig workers are independent contractors who perform on-demand services, including as drivers, delivering groceries or providing childcare – and are one-third more likely to be Black or Latino, according to a 2018 Edison Research poll.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2017 that 55 million people in the United States were gig workers – or 34% of the workforce – and this was projected to rise to 43% in 2020.

Of these about 1.6 million are part of a growing group of workers to emerge in the past decade, paid by tech platforms like ride-hailing giants Uber and Lyft or food delivery apps like DoorDash and Postmates.

In the past 12 months alone, two million Americans have started freelancing, according to a September study from Upwork, a freelance job platform.

This ongoing shift in the workforce and calls for greater protection for gig workers has put the issue on the political agenda ahead of the Nov. 3 election, with California voters to decide on a landmark state law ruling such workers as employees.

For while some companies and workers praise the flexibility of gig work for juggling families and multiple jobs, some labor activists fear an economic slump will leave gig workers in dire straits with no safeguards like minimum wage or health cover.


Tyrita Franklin-Corbett sanitizes a grocery cart before shopping at a local grocery store as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in District Heights, Maryland, U.S., October 6, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Michael A. McCoy

Gig workers were included when the U.S. government introduced a $2.3 trillion coronavirus relief bill in March.

The bill included payments of up to $1,200 each to millions of Americans, increased and extended unemployment benefits for workers including contractors, and small business loans.

But after the initial round of pandemic-related aid dried up in August, job growth has slowed more than expected with COVID-19 cases rising and the number of deaths nearing 220,000.

Lawmakers remain in a deadlock on further aid ahead of next month’s election, adding further uncertainty to an already weak U.S. economic recovery in which many companies and workers initially facing job furloughs are now permanently laid off.


Tyrita Franklin-Corbett sits in her car for 45 minutes as she waits for an Instacart order outside of her home as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, U.S., October 6, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Michael A. McCoy

In September the number of unemployed people in the United States was 12.6 million compared to 5.7 million a year earlier, with an overall jobless rate of 7.9% but higher numbers among teenagers, Blacks and Hispanics, according to government data.

One of those laid off was Serenety Hanley, whose career in digital communications included a stint in the White House under President George W. Bush.

The 45-year-old single mother was let go from a retail job in March and now makes a living by shopping for Instacart, whose orders jumped fivefold during the pandemic as consumers grew wary of venturing out to stores.

Living off money she makes lugging groceries and dipping into a college savings account set aside for her 11-year-old son, Hanley said she still can barely make ends meet.

“It felt like a free fall,” said Hanley, who lives in Arlington, Virginia.

“(But) even though I’m not getting the same benefits as a white-collar job, I do appreciate that I have an opportunity to make money at all.”

Getting government help has proved difficult.


Tyrita Franklin-Corbett completes an Instacart order at a local grocery store as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in District Heights, Maryland, U.S., October 6, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Michael A. McCoy

After the relief bill was passed, many state authorities were overwhelmed by applications for unemployment pay, with a record 10 million Americans filing for assistance in late March and April, and many gig workers fell through the cracks.

Franklin-Corbett said she received her federal stimulus check but, despite calling Maryland state offices regularly, she has not gotten the additional unemployment benefits she is due.

She was also concerned that the delivery business during the pandemic had attracted a flood of new workers who lost other jobs so the pay was no longer as good.

Tyrita Franklin-Corbett fulfills an Instacart order at a local grocery store as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in District Heights, Maryland, October 6, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Michael A. McCoy

Instacart said this month that it had brought on 300,000 new “shoppers,” more than doubling its workforce to 500,000.

Prior to the pandemic, Franklin-Corbett said she could make up to $300 in a few hours. On a recent trip that took more than an hour and a half, she made $9.

“I have to work twice as much to make half of what I was making to survive,” she said.


Tyrita Franklin-Corbett delivers an Instacart order to a customer as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Fort Washington, Maryland, U.S., October 6, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Michael A. McCoy

Other areas of the gig economy, particularly ride-hailing services, have taken steep hits with fewer people traveling.

Lyft’s number of active riders fell 60% to 8.69 million during the second quarter, according to the company’s latest earnings report. Uber’s gross bookings declined 75% overall in the second quarter, the company said in August.

Ayana Headspeth, 33, a mother-of-four from Montgomery County, Maryland, became one of Washington’s first 100 Uber drivers in 2014 and has made her living with the largest gig platforms including Uber, Lyft, Instacart, and DoorDash.

But to protect herself and her children from coronavirus, she stopped driving in late March and hasn’t driven since.

Not only were there health risks, driving for Uber became financially “pointless,” said Headspeth.


Ayana Headspeth stands for a portrait outside of a local grocery store as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Landover, Maryland, U.S., October 6, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Michael A. McCoy

“The last time I drove, I drove around for three-and-a-half hours and I made $11, which has never happened in the history of me doing Uber,” she said.

“My very first night doing Uber, I did Uber for an hour-and-a-half and made $40 – and this was when no one knew what Uber even was.”

Amid the pandemic, Kristie Taylor, a single mother of three from Leesburg, Virginia, also quit driving for Uber after five years of using the work to supplement her salary as a full-time elementary school teacher.

“People are going out because they want a change of pace …. but are they going out and partying and getting drunk and calling Ubers? No,” she said.

“And is it worth it to make $12 to $15 an hour to risk exposure?”

Pre-coronavirus, trips to and from Reagan International Airport were a sure way for Uber and Lyft drivers in the Washington D.C. area to pick up longer, more profitable, rides.

An Uber driver waits in frustration at the Ronald Regan National Airport ride share parking lot for a new customer, in Arlington, Virginia, U.S., October 6, 2020. Since the pandemic drivers often wait hours at a time as less travelers use ride share services as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Michael A. McCoy

But during one recent morning rush hour, the designated area for drivers waiting for passengers was only half-full.

“What can we do? We have to stay cool and pray and wish this pandemic to end,” said Uber and Lyft driver Ali Mohammadzai, 32, an Afghan immigrant, who had been waiting an hour for a fare.

He said less people were also willing to give tips now.


Ali Mohammadzai sits inside of his vehicle in frustration as he waits in the Ronald Regan National Airport ride share parking lot for a new customer in Arlington, Virginia, U.S., October 6, 2020. Since the pandemic drivers often wait hours at a time as less travelers use ride share services as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues. Thomson Reuters Foundation/ Michael A. McCoy

Headspeth, who has worked predominantly for Instacart since the pandemic began, said a flood of new customers prompted a surge in those falsely reporting missing or incomplete orders in order to scam Instacart and not pay for groceries.

She said those complaints chip away at her rating – and pay.

Instacart uses a star system in which its shoppers are rated for their job performance; those with higher ratings have access to larger and more costly orders so they can make more money.

“When I’m a five-star rating, there are days when I’m seeing orders well over $100,” said Headspeth.


Ayana Headspeth stands for a portrait outside of a local grocery store as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Landover, Maryland, U.S., October 6, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Michael A. McCoy

“Since I’ve been at this rating – I’ve been stuck in the 4.5 to 4.7 range – the largest orders I’m seeing are about $30.”

“When you’re taking away from my ratings, you’re taking away from my ability to make bills, my ability to buy groceries, my ability to clothe my children because this isn’t just a gig for me, this is how I make it.”

Instacart said in written comments that its aim was to offer a safe and flexible earnings opportunity to shoppers and to “deliver the best possible shopper experience” for customers.

“We’re focused on serving as an essential service for millions of families, while providing immediate earnings opportunities for hundreds of thousands of people across North America,” the company told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


Ayana Headspeth stands for a portrait outside of a local grocery store as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Landover, Maryland, U.S., October 6, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Michael A. McCoy

Some gig economy companies have faced lawsuits accusing them of misclassifying workers as independent contractors who are cheaper than employees with no entitlement to the minimum wage, overtime pay and reimbursements for work-related expenses.

Under the National Labor Relations Act, independent contractors cannot join unions and so do not have legal protection when they complain about working conditions.

Uber, Lyft and DoorDash have launched a campaign to overturn a law in California, California Assembly Bill 5 or AB5, the first in the country, that took effect this year making it harder to classify workers as contractors in the state.


Tyrita Franklin-Corbett fulfills an Instacart order at a local grocery store as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in District Heights, Maryland, U.S., October 6, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Michael A. McCoy

The companies have spent more than $100 million on a “Yes on 22” campaign supporting a California voter initiative on the November ballot that, if passed, would overturn the AB5 law.

“A forced employment model will have devastating consequences for drivers and consumers who use these services,” said Geoff Vetter, a spokesman for the “Yes on 22” campaign.

“Rideshare and delivery drivers want to remain independent contractors, they do not want to be employees. They prefer independence because it provides the flexibility to choose when, where and how long they want to work.”

Ali Mohammadzai stands outside of his vehicle in frustration as he waits in the Ronald Regan National Airport ride share parking lot for a new customer in Arlington, Virginia , U.S., October 6, 2020. Since the pandemic drivers often wait hours at a time as less travelers use ride share services as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Michael A. McCoy

But the surge in newcomers to the sector and the challenges posed by the pandemic underscore the need to classify gig workers as employees, according to labor rights campaigners.

“It’s really just rearranged the chess pieces on the chess board,” said Katie Wells, a postdoctoral research fellow at Georgetown University’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor, whose research centers on the D.C. gig economy.

“It may have shone some more light on some corners that were previously dark, but at the end of the day, this is still a pernicious and exploitative workplace that involves a lot of hard work and a lot of risk.”

Uber and Lyft each would face more than $392 million in annual payroll taxes and compensation costs if they paid workers as employers and not contractors, a Reuters calculation showed.


Ali Mohammadzai sits for a portrait outside of the Ronald Regan National Airport ride share parking lot as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Arlington, Virginia, U.S., October 6, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Michael A. McCoy

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, have voiced strong support for AB5 and have directly called on voters to reject the companies’ ballot proposal to weaken it.

Republican President Donald Trump has not commented on the issue, but in September, the U.S. Department of Labor published proposed rules that would allow the ride-sharing companies to maintain independent contractors across the country.

As she dashed from the supermarket to her car with bags loaded with groceries, Franklin-Corbett said gig work had filled a gap for many people but she was concerned that too many people were now totally reliant on a job-to-job existence.

“I don’t think it’s a feasible way to make a living, especially if you have children,” she said.   

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