When you can't work from home: Reducing risks for gig couriers in a pandemic
Stay home. Have your food and other items delivered. Avoid public places and transportation.
These are messages that we've all heard since the pandemic began, and while they do represent important public health measures and actions needed to reduce community spread of COVID-19, they are also easier said than done for a lot of people.
"Physical distancing and working from home are luxuries for a minority," says Dr. Ellen MacEachen, Professor and Interim Director in the School of Public Health & Health Systems at the University of Waterloo. "So how can we protect workers with no such privilege?"
Specifically, Dr. MacEachen is focusing on "gig couriers", the delivery workers who are essentially self-employed within the gig economy. They are the drivers for ridesharing/ride-hailing services (Lyft, etc.), and the deliverers of food (Uber Eats, Skip the Dishes, etc.) and parcels (Amazon, etc.). Distinct from traditional delivery business models (Purolator, taxis, etc.), they represent what Dr. MacEachen calls "a new world of work" where the individual courier is more like an independent contractor than an employee. The new-world twist is that these contractors interact with an impersonal algorithm, not with co-workers or a manager, which adds layers of complexity for dealing with COVID-19 protocols.
"There are pandemic safety guidelines for businesses and managers, but that's not the case when your boss is an app," she explains, adding that research has a critical role to play in making these gig-based jobs safer for both workers and customers. "Formal strategies to protect gig couriers from exposure to the virus and to mitigate their role in community transmission do not exist yet—and we want to fix that."
Part of fixing the situation involves documenting the day-to-day conditions for these workers in order to identify and track risks. Dr. MacEachen is now leading a new 12-month study to delve into these details and work with a wide range of stakeholders to design tailored interventions that will help ensure these gig couriers can be as protected as possible from contracting COVID-19 or spreading it in their communities.
The project builds on her previous research, which focused more broadly on the health and safety of gig ride-hail drivers. "With these gig jobs, there are lots of ratings involved, which puts drivers in a very vulnerable position," she explains. "Customers get to rate their drivers, and if a driver's overall rating gets too low, they get kicked off the app. They end up losing that whole driving gig, but there's no warning about their ratings getting too low before they get kicked off. Our study showed that this rating system—this vulnerability for the drivers—actually made them take risks to please the customer so that they could maintain a high rating and some job security."
She expects these scenarios to play out during the pandemic, as well. For example, most companies behind ridesharing/ride-hailing services have made masks mandatory for drivers and for customers. Drivers are also supposed to keep windows open, at least a little, for ventilation. But if the customer demands to close the windows or removes their mask during the ride, "the driver will have little recourse and will have to either risk exposure to the virus or risk a low rating if the customer doesn't like being asked to comply. A taxi driver would likely be forfeiting a tip in that situation, but a gig driver could lose their job."
Similarly, customers for food delivery apps are currently able to request contactless delivery, but the couriers themselves are not able to choose that option, so "we expect to see that couriers are having to put themselves in riskier conditions than they would like in order to continue the work."
Dr. MacEachen's team will gather this information through interviews with gig couriers from each category (delivering people, food, or parcels), management representatives from the related companies, as well as managers from more traditional courier services. Working with a multi-stakeholder advisory committee and experts in gig work, the team is aiming to establish concrete strategies and policy-relevant recommendations by next spring (2021).
In the meantime, Dr. MacEachen recommends simple things that customers for these services can do now, especially as the country faces the second wave of the pandemic.
"These couriers have to go to a lot of places, so taking steps to reduce their risk of exposure actually reduces your own risk, too," she says. "Opt for contactless delivery whenever you can, and wear your mask in a car or when contactless delivery isn't available. It's also worth remembering that these workers are doing very stressful jobs during a very difficult time. Be respectful. Be kind."
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