Workplace

Gig workers say companies are failing the families of killed workers

Gig Workers Rising released a report Wednesday on gig worker deaths, citing families who say they haven’t received compensation.

A gig worker rides with an Uber Eats backpack.

Gig workers have been sounding the alarm on the dangers they face for a while now.

Photo: Robert Anasch/Unsplash

More than 50 gig workers have been killed on the job in the United States since 2017, according to a new report from Gig Workers Rising. The report has been over six months in the making, but lead organizer Cherri Murphy said the real research comes from her lived experience: She’s been a Lyft driver since 2017, and has seen the dangers firsthand.

“Driving around without workman's compensation was a looming threat,” Murphy said. “Driving around and not having bathroom access. The picking up of passengers who decided to accost me based on the color of my skin, or stealing my phone and running out in the middle of traffic.”

Upon meeting other drivers, she soon found she wasn’t alone. “This was a systemic problem around workplace violence that needs to be addressed,” Murphy said.

Gig workers have been sounding the alarm on the dangers they face for a while now. Last May, the Gig Workers Collective petitioned the U.S. Department of Labor's Office of Workers' Compensation Programs to classify gig workers as employees so they would be eligible for workers' compensation and occupational death benefits. Uber and Lyft drivers have demanded more safety protections as violent crime has risen in some cities.

The report (PDF) stems from the dissonance between companies’ public statements of sympathy and some families’ struggles to get compensation or acknowledgement. It dives into several accounts, including that of 26-year-old Isabella Lewis, who was murdered while driving for Lyft. Her family told Gig Workers Rising they never received compensation from the insurance company Lyft works with, Liberty Mutual. Reading Lyft’s condolences in the Dallas Morning News, but never hearing from the company directly, cut deep, Lewis’ family said.

“We appreciate the kind words, but it would have been more heartfelt to receive those words directly as a family from losing our loved one that was in the hands of a company who was supposed to do what they could to protect all their drivers,” the family said in a statement.

Lyft told Protocol it always attempts to reach out to the driver or the driver’s family as soon as a safety incident is reported. After this story was published, Lyft clarified that it attempted to reach out to Lewis' family but failed to make contact.

Sometimes, companies will dispute whether workers were actually on the job when they were killed, such as in the case of Ahmad Fawad Yusufi, a 31-year-old Afghan refugee who in November was killed in the car he drove for Uber. Uber told Protocol that Yusufi was not driving for Uber at the time of his death. His family says Uber is lying to the press.

Of the 50 slain workers, more than 63% were people of color. Murphy said Gig Workers Rising has struggled to collect worker demographic data, as well as injury and death statistics, from companies. “No one’s talking about this; we can’t even get data about what’s happening,” Murphy said. The majority of workers listed in the report were Uber and Lyft drivers, with some delivery drivers from DoorDash, Instacart, Grubhub and Postmates.

The above companies told Protocol they’re constantly working to keep workers safe. They listed existing in-app safety features, such as emergency 911 buttons and direct lines to ADT security agents. Gig Workers Rising called some of these safety features “half-measures,” expressing concern that they might prevent workers from reaching out to law enforcement directly. Regarding compensation, DoorDash cited its free occupational accident insurance, as did Instacart. Uber also referenced its occupational accident insurance, though drivers outside of California must pay for the product. Lyft and Grubhub offer occupational accident insurance only to workers in California. Proposition 22 solidified this type of benefit for California workers, but also classified gig workers as independent contractors. Gig companies poured millions into lobbying for the law, and are now spending big bucks on a similar fight in Massachusetts.

Mandatory binding arbitration clauses are a way companies try to keep death or injury-related claims out of the public eye, Gig Workers Rising said. Several app-based companies have arbitration clauses baked into their terms of service, requiring that certain claims be settled privately rather than through lawsuits.

“No forced arbitration” is one of the four demands at the conclusion of the report. Gig workers are also demanding compensation for affected workers and families, transparent data on injury and deaths and an app-worker union to make gig work safer. The campaign is planning a rally on Wednesday outside Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi’s mansion, where members will read out the names of killed workers.

“Workers clearly are shut out of safety nets, like worker compensation, despite how dangerous the work is,” Murphy said. “They're left on their own to figure out the strategies to protect themselves. They're murdered on a job, injured on the job, sexually assaulted, physically assaulted, and that that needs to change. We need more than just thoughts and prayers.”

Update: This story was updated April 6 to clarify what type of insurance Lyft and Grubhub offer and to include a statement from Lyft.

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