- Interview by
- Jonah Walters
On March 24, Anil Subba, a Nepalese immigrant in his forties living in Queens, died of coronavirus. Two weeks earlier, he had driven to John F. Kennedy airport in his capacity as an Uber driver, where he picked up a passenger who exhibited symptoms of the disease. Subba self-quarantined after that experience, receiving no assistance from Uber. But he was later hospitalized and, after being placed on a ventilator, Subba became the first Uber driver (that we know of) to die as a result of contracting coronavirus on the job.
On March 23, the day before Subba’s death, Uber sent an email to all of its drivers encouraging them to stay on the roads. “You’re getting essential workers to their shifts and home again,” the message said. “You’re getting food to people staying home. And you’re doing all this while trying to keep your own world together.” The email also included a letter Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi wrote to President Donald Trump, urging federal authorities to assume the cost of supporting drivers who, like Anil Subba, refuse to drive for fear of spreading the virus.
So far, Uber has been unwilling to shoulder any of that burden itself, despite announcing earlier this month that the company has cash reserves of $6 billion (plus a $2 billion revolver) to insulate it from the COVID-19 shock. On March 7, when worldwide coronavirus cases already exceeded a hundred thousand, Uber rolled out a new policy providing “financial assistance” to drivers who are formally diagnosed with COVID or “placed under quarantine by a public health authority.”
On March 15, the company released further details about the policy, but failed to elaborate about what kind of “financial assistance” ill drivers could expect. Still, sick drivers around the country report serious problems collecting even this meager assistance. To date, the company has not announced any plans to encourage drivers to get off the road, to support drivers who are at increased risk due to pre-existing medical conditions, or to offer any relief for the many thousands of drivers who have decided to quit working as a result of the virus.
On March 25, Jacobin’s Jonah Walters spoke to an Uber driver in Philadelphia about his decision to quit driving and Uber’s refusal to support its most vulnerable workers at this time. He has been granted anonymity to protect him from reprisal.
How long have you been driving for Uber in Philadelphia?
I’ve been Ubering for just under five years. I’ve done about 7,000 trips. At first I had a van, so I did UberXL, which is Uber for five or more people. I did that for 7 months or so, but it got really wacky. I was Ubering through the night then, from like 6:00 or 7:00 p.m until like 4:00 a.m. That much drunken energy sitting right behind you all night can really wear on you. So I got a smaller car, and I quit driving at night. Now, I try to work from around 11:00 a.m to 6:00 pm, Monday through Friday.
Ballpark estimate, how much are you normally able to make, at your best and at your worst?
It’s very rare, of course, but sometimes you get those one-out-of-a-thousand trips. (Like once when I was Ubering in the van, I drove these people from Philadelphia to the Bronx in the middle of the night. That night I made 800 dollars.) Anyway, discounting fluke trips, I’d say I can make $700 in a really good week. That’s if I’m working really hard, pushing myself, trying to make rent or something.
My worst days are in the summer. A big part of the rider base is college students. Without college students in the city, there are about 30 percent fewer rides. Sometimes in the summer, I can work all day and only make like 50 dollars or something. On a bad week I’m only making between 150 and 200 dollars, and that’s going out driving every single day.
Tell me what happened on Monday, March 16. Why did you make the decision to quit driving that day?
I had already been talking to some family members and friends about the coronavirus situation. Going into Monday, the attitude was like, ‘the virus is getting bad, so try to work as much as possible while you still can.’ Even my parents were really encouraging me to work a lot that week. So on Monday morning, I went out expecting to work the whole week.
Uber drivers are responsible for paying for our own car maintenance, and that includes cleaning. Before I went out on Monday I managed to find some Lysol wipes. I got lucky; this was before stores started selling out of those things.
Then I ended up picking up two sick people, on separate trips, from two different hospitals. I don’t have any reason to think these passengers had coronavirus; it was just that almost immediately I was exposed to crowds on the curbs of two different hospitals. Very quickly, I also ended up at the airport, which is obviously another location I would have rather avoided. And then I got called to 30th Street Station [Philadelphia’s Amtrack terminal].
Actually, the person I picked up from 30th Street Station was coming from New York City, and she clued me in a lot. She told me things were getting heavy in New York, young people had finally started taking this seriously, people were wearing gloves and masks. I drove her out to the Philly suburbs, where she was planning to hide out until after the pandemic.
My experiences that day made me realize I was in more danger than I had thought. I don’t have health insurance. [Because drivers are classified as independent contractors, not employees, Uber provides no health insurance benefits.] I was on Medicaid until it expired in February, and I had forgotten to reapply. I realized I was driving around, possibly exposing myself to the disease, without any way to pay for it if I got sick.
That night I made the decision to stop driving, in order to avoid contracting the disease and/or spreading it myself.
Do you have any savings to fall back on?
I don’t have any savings. To be honest, any money I would have kept as savings has gone to cover the costs of car repair over the years.
I got a Pep Boys credit card when I first started working for Uber, because I couldn’t afford the repairs I needed to keep driving. I accumulated a lot of debt that way. Anything I could have saved for emergencies like this went to settle that debt. I even sold my van to pay it off.
Can you describe what the communication has been like from the company?
It has been such a letdown. They’re essentially saying if I contract the virus, they’ll help me. The last communication I had from Uber was a few days ago, saying they’re in the process of working out how to help us secure disinfectant for our cars. But I haven’t received any help.
Honestly, I’ve been feeling really sad and defeated. I re-read that email from two days ago [which included the CEO’s letter to the president and encouraged drivers to continue working], and I thought, wow, what a shitty response. Especially the tone of it, I just couldn’t believe that they were acting like they were doing all they could. They’re handing us a penny and acting like it’s ten grand.
They’re offering nothing to people like me, who are opting out of Ubering altogether to prevent the spread. I haven’t seen anything that even suggested it might be a good idea to stop driving to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In all the communication from the company, there’s just a strange and passive encouragement to continue driving.
The company is clearly trying to instil in us the sense that it’s socially important, even essential, that we continue to drive. But there’s no mention of the safety of the drivers. Nor any mention of the drivers taking precautionary measures to keep themselves from getting the disease.
Do you know anybody who works for Uber who is still driving right now?
I don’t think so. A lot of people have stopped.
I’ve turned my app on a few times in the past few days, just out of curiosity. It seems like the surging process is still functioning, which is bizarre. The way the app functions is that rates go up when the network isn’t meeting the demand for rides. When they’re “surging,” as they call it, customers are charged more and we get paid more. It’s a way to incentivize us to go out and drive in certain areas.
I guess if you’re still out driving right now, you must be making a lot of money. It’s pretty dark, actually, to incentivize drivers to go out and potentially spread the disease, especially when the company has made it clear that they’ll only offer emergency support if you actually contract coronavirus.
What do you need? What could Uber offer you that would allow you to stay afloat through all this?
Right now, the most valuable thing would be a few weeks pay. That would help me immensely.
It is crazy how well the company is doing. Uber is one of the most successful companies in our economy. And yet they don’t feel any responsibility whatsoever to the thousands of drivers like me who are opting out of working for the sake of preventing the spread of the virus. They haven’t even mentioned the possibility of extending any aid or assistance to us. It’s pathetic.