How COVID-19 is changing the gig worker industry

Published: May. 20, 2020 at 8:00 AM MDT
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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - Uber drivers are at risk for contracting COVID-19 at work every day.

"When I have a passenger, I wear a mask, and they wear a mask," said Michael Slie, a Washington D.C.-based Uber driver.

Slie is coming up on his sixth year as a rideshare driver in the nation’s capital. With so many people at home, the demand for rides is low, leaving drivers like him looking for support.

Uber launched a “WorkHub” feature on the app to connect its drivers with UberEats and other companies that might be hiring. It’s also offering financial assistance to drivers suspected of having COVID-19 or those at high risk.

Slie said he's banking on income from food deliveries to make up for the loss in passenger rides.

"It seems like I had a niche in [food delivery],” Slie said. “And I would probably make a little bit more than I would on unemployment, and I did not want to go on the dole.”

For the first time, gig workers like Slie can file for unemployment under the CARES Act. It’s a move many advocates for independent workers support as they try to shape the future of the gig worker industry.

"This pandemic will really empower us in many different ways,” said Hollie Heikkenen, CEO of iWorker innovations.

Throughout her career, Heikkenen has pushed for portable benefits for gig workers -- life insurance, retirement planning, and anti-discrimination protection.

Heikkenen said, with so many layoffs, more people could join the gig worker industry after the pandemic, strengthening the demand for these benefits.

“People are starting to think about what does their future look like,” she said, “And what do they need for that future to be successful.”

While Uber says it is working to support their drivers, the company will soon lay off more than 3,000 full time employees and close 45 offices across the country. This follows a first round of layoffs just a few weeks ago that included another 3,700.

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