Amid concerns about platform-users’ safety in the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as criticism of gig platforms’ treatment of their suppliers both generally and lately, the heads of gig giants Uber and Airbnb have been personally asking our federal government to help bail those suppliers out.
This week, Uber Technologies CEO Dara Khosrowshahi repeatedly reached out to government officials to ask for financial help for the app’s often economically stricken and at-risk drivers, who’ve seen fares plummet during the ongoing outbreak of COVID-19 respiratory illness, caused by the virus ‘severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2’ (SARS-CoV-2).
As CNBC’s Lauren Feiner reported, Khosrowshahi asked President Donald Trump for help on Monday, both in a letter and on Twitter, for the sake of providing relief to out-of-work gig and platform workers. “I respectfully and urgently request that the economic stimulus you are considering, along with any other future legislative measures in response to COVID-19, include protections and benefits for independent workers, not just employees,” Khosrowshahi wrote.
The Uber CEO also emphasized that the company itself doesn’t need this relief, but rather its service providers, who he still considers to be individual contractors rather than a large, cumulative workforce. “My goal [is] not to ask for a bailout for Uber, but rather for support for the independent workers on our platform and, once we move past the immediate crisis, the opportunity to legally provide them with a real safety net going forward,” he wrote.
Uber and fellow platform-economy leader Airbnb have also been pitching their particular case to members of Congress, reportedly with fair-to-encouraging success.
See also: Congress ‘Must Step Up’ For Riders In COVID-19 Stimulus And Beyond, Transit Advocates Say [UPDATED]
Eric Newcomer and colleagues reported Wednesday for Bloomberg and Bloomberg Law: “Khosrowshahi has spoken to at least 10 members of Congress in the past week, according to two people familiar with the matter.” Justin Kintz, Uber’s head of policy, told Bloomberg that the CEO is “willing to speak to anyone on the Hill who is willing to listen.”
The Bloomberg team reported that Airbnb’s co-founding trio have been speaking to members of Congress on behalf of their ‘hosts,’ too, as regarding eligibility for forms of income relief in the bailout package expected to be finalized this week, but also for emergency loans from the Small Business Administration.
To be sure, platform ridership and rentals have plummeted. But the companies say they’re on good footing, and do seem likely to receive more funds from investors as well as government.
For example, as Dennis Schaal reported last week for Skift, Airbnb has reportedly been digging into its $2 billion cash on hand leftover from 2019, but says it’s also gotten offers of up to a billion from potential investors after spreading word that it was open to going public.
Since the end of trading on Febrary 26, Uber lost nearly 20% of its market value, but shares rose again a week ago after Khosrowshahi said the company had plenty of cash on hand to survive — an estimated $19 billion at the end of 2019, and “$10 billion of unrestricted cash as of end of February.”
Bloomberg reporters also noted, “While Uber is eager to advocate for its workers, it has not moved to use the $10 billion it had in cash as of the end of February to provide relief itself, [which] could increase the likelihood the company would be compelled to continue paying out those benefits going forward, the company says.”
And in fact, both platforms “built their business models on offloading as many costs and as much risk as possible to their suppliers … [thereby] putting pressure on the governments to whom it will inevitably fall to support them,” Newcomer and colleagues wrote.
In most states, for example, Uber legally “doesn’t have to pay salaries for drivers with little or nothing to do.” So now it’s up to Uber drivers and Airbnb hosts “to worry about paying for cars and houses that are not generating income as they depreciate in value,” they explained.
In terms of workers’ current or upcoming options for relief, the present stimulus package does seem to include some provisions to help gig workers and other contractors with one-off or ongoing aid, and is expected to be signed by the president this week.
Platforms such as Uber and Uber Eats, Doordash, Instacart, Lyft, and Postmates have also launched their own plans and procedures for compensation and safety, though many workers say such systems remain inaccessibly swamped.
See also: Dozens Of State AGs Tell Amazon, Walmart, eBay And Others To Stop Price Gouging
In the mean time, many labor groups and worker-organizers have been compiling and sharing their own resource lists and other methods of finding support. Certain local authorities around the US, like NYC’s Taxi & Limousine Commission (TLC), have also invited professional drivers to help distribute food or other vital supplies during this crisis.
But workers, labor advocates, and critics of the companies said the firms should still step up — and adhere to local laws where applicable — to fill workers’ remaining and/or ongoing needs. Especially so, some argued, given that drivers and other gig workers have been legally designated as ‘essential’ workers in most US areas under ‘shelter in place’ orders, and are acknowledged as taking a higher risk.
“Gig workers pose a clear danger where the continued spread of [the virus] is concerned,” Bryan Menegus noted for Gizmodo Wednesday. “As to the open question of how to responsibly address this massive vector of workers, who are often uninsured and can’t afford not to work in spite of the risks, Khosrowshahi has apparently washed his hands.”
Bhairavi Desai, Executive Director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, commented on the developing NYC and national situations in a statement, “Given how much drivers are hurting, we’re thankful to see the TLC advocate for our members to have work and pay.”
Desai said that work should include “hazard pay on top of hourly rates, safety training, and paid sick leave and treatment,” be full-time, and “prioritize workers left out of immediate Unemployment Insurance, which in [New York State] is maximum $504 per week.”
She also expressed “a sense of pride for drivers being on the front line of essential services throughout this crisis and everyday life,” and said drivers are “seasoned at keeping calm” in difficult situations.
“They know their work is needed, and it’s the job of those in power to make sure the work of all essential workers — from driving to retail, delivery, warehouse, food chain, sanitation, hospital and care chain — doesn’t come at the worker’s health risk, or leave them just surviving.”
In response to news coverage by David Meyer on the COVID-19-related death of NYC Uber driver and father-of-two Anil Subba this week, Desai commented in a statement, “If there is a clear pattern here, the companies and the city need to suspend the service and let drivers know they are already covered for Unemployment [Insurance] in New York state.”
“Workers aren’t expendable,” she wrote. “Put drivers first, before profit and politics.”
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