The pandemic made clear how many health risks gig workers can face while on the job. But even before COVID-19, workers faced high risks. Uber drivers, Amazon Flex delivery workers and Instacart shoppers have been killed while picking up passengers, delivering packages or fulfilling a customer's grocery order.
"It's been something that, unfortunately, has become somehow even worse over time and has recently been at the forefront of our minds: that gig workers are being murdered, being infected with diseases, encountering all kinds of situations that leave them vulnerable and totally unprotected," Vanessa Bain, co-founder of Gig Workers Collective, told Protocol. "And that's shameful."
In some cases, companies provide death benefits to the families of these workers. Other companies, however, do not offer such benefits. Even companies that do offer those benefits may do so only in California, as a result of state law. Gig workers also have doubt that companies will follow through with their own policies.
That's why Gig Workers Collective is petitioning the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Workers' Compensation Programs to classify gig workers as employees so that they would be eligible for workers' compensation and occupational death benefits. They're petitioning to the DOL "so that we have proper recognition as employees under those programs," Bain said.
The murder of Lynn Murray, who died in a mass shooting in Colorado this year while working as an Instacart shopper, highlighted the differences around what happens to independent contractors and employees when they die on the job, Bain said.
In Murray's case, her family ended up launching a GoFundMe, which received a $50,000 donation from Instacart. The company also reached out to Murray's family to offer its support, an Instacart spokesperson told Protocol.
Instacart also said it offers workers insurance called Shopper Injury Protection at no additional cost to them. Eligible shoppers may be eligible for accidental medical expenses up to $1 million per accident, disability payments equal to 66% of the shopper's weekly earnings from all network companies (subject to minimum and maximum limits), accidental death benefit payments up to $320,000 for eligible dependents and burial expenses up to $10,000.
Uber offers similar coverage for drivers and delivery workers, but only in California. For drivers outside of California, Uber offers workers the option to pay for injury protection coverage. Lyft offers occupational accident insurance, which includes death benefits and disability payments, but only to workers in California.
These types of benefits are more common in California as a result of the highly-contested Proposition 22. Gig companies spent north of $200 million lobbying to pass the law, which solidified the classification of gig workers as independent contractors in California. The proposition, which took effect late last year, also forced companies such as Uber, Lyft, Instacart, DoorDash and others to offer health care subsidies, occupational accident insurance and accidental death insurance.
But Gig Workers Collective takes issue with the fact that it's at the discretion of the company whether a worker is eligible for those benefits.
"It's a conflict of interest if your employer is the one that gets to make the determination," Bain said. "Most of these benefits are conceptual. They're not really practically usable or even something that is accessible in any shape or form."
An Instacart shopper on Reddit said they were injured during a delivery about a month ago. The shopper said they contacted Instacart, who said someone would call them in a few hours, but the shopper said they never heard back. In a follow-up post, the shopper said: "4 days later and still nothing."
Instacart declined to comment on how many shoppers have requested to receive benefits under the Shopper Injury Protection insurance, and how many shoppers actually received them. The company cited privacy concerns and said it was out of respect to its community of shoppers.
Uber also wouldn't comment specifically on how many drivers and delivery workers have benefited from the accident insurance, but pointed Protocol to a recent Uber-commissioned survey that found 77% drivers say "having occupational accident insurance makes me feel safer when I'm out on the road."
Lyft and Amazon Flex did not reply to our requests for comment.
"Being at the mercy of our employers who very clearly already don't value our lives and are not willing to pay into systems that provide a real social safety net, it's not a process that inspires a lot of confidence in workers," Bain said.