Undercurrents in the gig economy

[SCENARIO: https://www.wired.com/story/gig-workers-murder-report/]

A new report claims that companies like Lyft and Uber offer meager assistance to the loved ones of workers slain on the job.

ON AN OVERCAST Sunday morning last August, 26-year-old Isabella Lewis pulled into a concrete lot in an industrial section of Garland, Texas, to pick up her Lyft passenger. The vehicle idled between a truck loading bay and a beige poultry slaughterhouse as her passenger, Imran Ali Rasheed, climbed into the car. Isabella wanted to squeeze in a few Lyft rides before she went to celebrate her sister Allyssa’s 23rd birthday. She would not make it out of the lot.

Isabella, or Bella as her family called her, lived with her boyfriend of nine years and his mother, who they cared for together. She had recently left her job as a day care director to work customer service for Blue Cross while she figured out what to do next. She drove for Lyft on the side to make a little extra money. Speaking to WIRED, Allyssa described Bella as someone “who was there for everybody” and “the glue of our family.”

Early that afternoon, Allyssa received a phone call to come to Forest Gate Drive. It’s about Bella, Allyssa was told. She had been robbed, and her car was stolen.

When Allyssa arrived at the scene, Bella was dead. Rasheed had shot her before speeding off toward the Plano Police Department in her car. Police confirmed that he died there following a shootout. They found a note in the car which suggested that he may have been motivated by terrorism, according to the Dallas Morning News and Allyssa, who says she read it. The FBI is still investigating.

The next day, Allyssa read a statement from Lyft in the news: The company’s heart was with her family. That’s nice, she thought at the time. She didn’t know it was all her family would receive from the company.

Bella was insured through a policy Lyft held with Liberty Mutual, which covered damages to the car and injuries to third parties but not drivers. It didn’t include survivor benefits or funeral expenses. The cost to repair a bullet-pierced window and clean blood off of the console amounted to less than the $2,500 deductible. Allyssa and her family received no compensation.

To pay for a proper funeral, Bella’s family launched a GoFundMe page. Support poured in from their community, which donated $8,940. Without that, “I’m not sure what my family would have come up with,” says Allyssa. After hearing nothing from Lyft following its statement to the press, Allyssa soured. “The least they could have done was help us bury her.”

A Lyft spokesperson says the company tried to reach Bella’s family on the day of the incident but was unable to make contact. Allyssa denies this. When WIRED asked who the company tried to contact and whether they sent a message, Lyft stopped responding.

Bella is one of approximately 50 gig workers murdered or allegedly murdered on the job in the US between 2017 and February 2022, according to a new report from the worker organizing group Gig Workers Rising. The group estimates that nearly two-thirds of the victims were people of color. More than two-thirds were Uber and Lyft drivers; however, GWR also found several alleged killings of delivery drivers for services such as DoorDash and Uber Eats. In five of the 52 cases cited in the report, gig companies said the victims were not working on the platform when they were killed.

Since comprehensive nationwide data about app-based driver homicides is not publicly available, GWR assembled its own database using public information, including internet searches, GoFundMe fundraisers, The Markup’s database of ride-hail driver carjackings, and gig company press statements following worker deaths. Because of the limitations of their methodology, they say, their figures are likely an undercount. The report includes non-rider-involved killings such as drive-by shootings, which Lyft’s biennial safety report excludes. It also includes “dead head time” or time between rides, which Uber does not necessarily include in its safety report. (DoorDash, GrubHub, and Instacart do not release safety reports.)

WIRED independently confirmed the alleged murders against police statements or contemporaneous news reports.

Of the five families GWR spoke with for the report, all said that they received no compensation from the gig platforms after their loved ones’ deaths. Because such matters are often handled privately, it is difficult to know how many other workers received compensation; however, GoFundMe fundraisers for funeral expenses were a common feature of these cases.

“Each of these incidents is a horrific tragedy that no family should have to endure,” an Uber spokesperson wrote in a statement. “While every situation is unique, we have programs in place to support families, including with insurance.” Uber says it invests heavily in new technologies to improve driver safety, including an in-app emergency button with 911 integration, a location sharing feature called Follow My Ride, and newer pilot programs like audio recording.

A Lyft spokesperson wrote, “We are committed to doing everything we can to help protect drivers from crime, and will continue to invest in technology, policies, and partnerships to make Lyft as safe as it can be.”

A spokesperson for DoorDash wrote that while negative incidents are “incredibly rare,” Dashers can find support through its in-app safety features or from its 24-hour Trust and Safety team. They are also covered by occupational accident insurance at no cost during deliveries.

The debate over gig worker misclassification often focuses on the lack of protections afforded to independent contractors, such as guaranteed minimum wage and recourse against sexual harassment. But less attention has been paid to the people who are killed on the job and the families who suffer their loss. Because gig platforms do not pay into the US workers’ compensation system, their workers are excluded from its benefits, which include wage replacement regardless of fault and survivor benefits for family members. Instead, gig workers are responsible for insuring against their own injury and death through a web of policies and supplemental policies that can be difficult to understand, navigate, or even know about. This leaves many families and communities to assume the financial burden when their loved ones are hurt or killed on the job.

Taxi driving is a notoriously dangerous profession. Cab drivers consistently rank amongst the highest professions for workplace homicides. They often drive at night and in poorly lit areas, venture into isolated or high-crime neighbourhoods, and interact with intoxicated members of the public. However, many taxi drivers are employees, and those who are can collect workers’ compensation, as can their families.

For a long time, ride-hailing companies portrayed themselves as safer than taxis because they were cashless, their cars were GPS tracked, and riders were star rated. But the lack of comprehensive public data has made this claim difficult to verify.

A 2019 Bureau of Labor Statistics report found that gig workers suffered a higher rate of fatalities than employees, and ride-hailing and taxi driving were one of the top 10 most fatal professions for independent workers. After mounting pressure, Uber began releasing safety reports every two years starting in 2019, and Lyft did the same in 2020. The reports vary in terms of what they count as company-involved incidents.

For years, Uber and Lyft successfully fought to keep their safety data out of the public eye, according to the San Francisco Public Press. In 2020, the California Public Utilities Commission reversed a rule that kept this data secret, but pre-2020 data remains confidential. A subsequent Public Press investigation found that the reporting varied widely between the two companies due to the CPUC’s broad definitions.

Gig Workers Rising argues that some conditions of app-based driving worsen safety. If drivers decline or cancel too many rides, they risk deactivation, leading some drivers to remain in dangerous situations because they fear letting their cancellation rate rise too high. Adebayo Adeyemo was reportedly shot while driving for Uber in October after a passenger made racist remarks. Adeyemo later sued the company. He told a CBS reporter that he felt pressure to continue the ride because he didn’t want to risk raising his cancellation rate.

Uber says drivers’ rates will not be affected by cancellations for safety reasons. Lyft says it “can exclude safety-related cancellations from affecting drivers’ cancellation or acceptance rates.”

Since gig drivers are not treated as employees, gig companies do not pay workers’ comp insurance like employers do, and their workers do not receive those benefits. (Uber and Lyft add a 3 percent surcharge to rides in New York, which goes into a workers’ compensation fund called the Black Car Fund.)

Excluding their drivers from workers’ comp was a good deal for ride-hail companies, because it saved them money, says Catherine Fisk, a labor law professor at UC Berkeley. The advantage of workers’ comp to employers is that it replaces tort liability, or injury lawsuits from employees. “So Uber’s lawyers looked at this and said, ‘We don’t face tort liability because it’s going to be a rare case where our negligence is the cause of the accident.’ All that Uber thought they needed to worry about was making sure that the drivers have ordinary auto liability insurance, so that if an Uber driver runs over a pedestrian in a crosswalk, their survivors can’t sue Uber.”

So Uber and Lyft provide third-party liability coverage for when drivers aren’t covered by their personal policies. They also include collision coverage in certain instances. After that, “Workers are on their own to figure out strategies and find resources to protect themselves,” says Cherri Murphy, a Lyft driver who coauthored the GWR report.

The maze of policies and supplemental policies can get complicated quickly. First off, most personal auto insurance plans don’t cover workers when they’re driving for hire. Secondly, payouts vary based on the trip phase: Transporting passengers, traveling to pick them up, and waiting for a new ride can all come with different benefits. If a driver turns the app off to pick up a snack or use the bathroom, their work policy no longer applies. Some policies contain exclusions for certain circumstances, like physical assault. California’s Prop 22 mandates more coverage than laws in other states, including survivor benefits, but payouts can still be denied on grounds such as fault or engagement in “personal activities.”

One evening this February, Agha Raza Ali received a phone call from his aunt. His 71-year-old uncle, Abdul Rauf Khan, was late coming home, and she was starting to worry. Agha and Abdul ran a limousine service together in the Washington, DC, area, but after the pandemic hurt their business, Abdul decided to drive for Lyft instead of collecting unemployment. “I have my health and power, so I’m going to work,” Agha recalls him saying. The police could not conduct a search until he had been missing for 12 hours, and Lyft would not turn over his location without a subpoena. Agha drove around searching for hours. Finally, around 3 am, police arrived at his door. Abdul had been shot during a carjacking and died. His 17-year-old passenger was arrested and reportedly confessed to the killing.

The family was devastated. Abdul had been like a father to Agha and a pillar of the local Pakistani community.

Abdul supported his wife and 17-year-old daughter. Because his insurance policy did not include survivor benefits and wage replacement, they were on their own. Abdul says Lyft told his brother they would volunteer to pay for the burial expenses. When asked why it offered to pay expenses for Abdul and not Bella, Lyft would not comment on specific cases but said it attempts to provide support based on each family’s specific needs. Uber also doles out assistance on a case-by-case basis.

Agha and his family didn’t want to ask the community for money, so family members chipped in to support his wife and daughter. “He was the one who was working, so now we have to figure out how to survive,” says Agha. He thinks Lyft “should understand that somebody’s working. They should be compensated if something like this happens, if he loses his life on the job.” Additionally, he would like to see the company require identity verification for all passengers.

To address the crisis, GWR makes four demands: Payments to victims’ families equivalent to workers’ compensation; an end to forced arbitration, which limits the evidence workers are able to collect when they bring a case and keeps the information out of the public realm; detailed transparent reporting of harassments, assaults, and fatalities; and a union, which would allow workers to collectively bargain over safety. In response, Lyft cited its annual safety report, its outreach to victims, and its Driver Advisory Council, which collects feedback from drivers.

The report adds a new dimension to the swirling debate over Prop 22 copycats, which aim to cement app-based drivers’ status as independent contractors. Companies are spending big to get a Prop 22-style ballot measure passed in Massachusetts this fall, and more are expected to follow. In addition to their scant protections, gig workers often receive low pay given the risks they assume, and their independent contractor status exempts them from minimum-wage laws.

Bella “lost her life over a trip [that totaled] $15,” says Allyssa. “And she wasn’t even going to see all of that.”

Updated 4/8/2022 16:30 ET: This piece has been updated to reflect that Bella’s family claims they were not contacted by Lyft.

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