A prominent Senate Democrat is calling on the biggest gig economy companies to make it easier for on-demand workers to take time off amid the coronavirus outbreak, and several of the companies have cautiously signaled they are open to the notion.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., is asking Uber, Lyft, Postmates, Grubhub, Doordash and Instacart to alleviate some of the potential financial burden their drivers and couriers may face if they become ill with COVID-19 or choose to reduce their exposure by staying home.

In letters sent to each company on Friday, Warner urged the companies to consider opening a health fund that workers could tap into to help cover testing or treatment. He also suggested offering workers the weekly average pay regardless of how much they work to lessen the incentive to keep working for those who are ill or may have been exposed.

This undated electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in February 2020 shows the Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. Also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus causes COVID-19. The sample was isolated from a patient in the U.S. (NIAID-RML via AP) ny401 ny401 ny401
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In the letter, Warner said gig and contingent workers may be among the most vulnerable workers because they are potentially unable to follow recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to stay home when sick, work remotely or get medical treatment “without experiencing some kind of financial hardship.”

“They may not go to the doctor when they are sick for lack of insurance and they may not stay home due to loss of income,” Warner’s letter reads.

“A health emergency for which they bear no responsibility should not place an undue financial burden on workers and their family,” the letter continues.

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Some of the companies in question have begun to introduce measures designed to help contractors avoid potential contact with the virus. Postmates and Doordash, for instance, are now allowing customers to designate if they want to have their package dropped off at their door instead of handed directly to them. Couriers, however, do not have access to the same feature. Some of the companies have also reiterated CDC recommendations in messages to the workers on washing their hands and staying home when ill.

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In a statement, Uber spokesperson Susan Hendrick said the company will keep Warner updated on its efforts and is “exploring compensation for drivers who have been quarantined or diagnosed with coronavirus, whether independently, through a fund, or in partnership with peer companies.”

Lyft spokesperson Campbell Matthews said the company appreciates Warner’s “leadership on the issue” and that the company is “focused on taking appropriate actions” and is planning for multiple scenarios. The company gave no additional details on what it is planning or what those actions entail. “We stand ready to coordinate with government officials,” Matthews said in a statement.

Doordash spokesperson Becky Sosnov said in a statement that the company intends to speak with Warner. “Doordash’s task force is actively working to develop and implement a comprehensive strategy to protect the safety of our entire community in response to the spread of COVID-19,” Sosnov said. “We will continue to provide the latest public health guidance to consumers, Dashers and merchants and remind our community in affected areas of the delivery instruction feature, enabling requests for food to be left at the door along with a photo of where the food should be left through the app.”

Postmates spokesperson Ashley De Smeath said that while the company is “operating with business as usual,” there are plans to brief Warner’s office about the company’s ongoing efforts “and policy options to invest in the well-being of our flexible workforce.”

“Community health and safety is paramount at Postmates, and we continue to issue in-app, precautionary CDC guidance with those carrying out deliveries so that they are aware of the latest preventative measures,” De Smeath said in a statement. “Postmates also announced today an option to designate drop-off of an item without contact; and we will continue to encourage employees, merchants, consumers and all parts of our community to follow safety protocols such as washing hands and staying in if you are sick.”

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Grubhub did not respond by publication time.

Warner, who with 14 other senators also urged other major U.S. employers to prioritize workers’ health and economic well-being on Thursday, said he’s concerned gig companies’ efforts do not sufficiently address the challenges facing contractors. “In order to limit the spread of COVID-19, it is critical that platform companies lead by example by committing that economic uncertainty will not be deterrents to their workers following public health guidance during the response,” he wrote in his letters.

Several other major tech companies that have large workforces of contractors and hourly staff — including Google, Amazon and Facebook — have committed to paying regular hourly wages to workers who cannot perform their jobs remotely. A number of companies have also temporarily halted nonessential business travel and encouraged employees in some offices to work remotely. Apple, Lyft, Stripe, Google and Twitter are among them.

Several major conferences have been put on hold including the South by Southwest tech and entertainment festival, Facebook’s F8 developer conference and the Game Developer Conference.

Outside of the tech industry, companies such as Trader Joe’s are finding ways to encourage sick employees to stay home. The grocery chain is giving workers additional paid sick time and asking them to stay home for at least 24 hours if they experience symptoms or don’t feel well.

In California, concerns over workplace protections during a health crisis arise amid continued debate over workers’ employment status in the state and the lack of an employer-provided safety net for gig workers. Under Assembly Bill 5, Uber, Lyft, Postmates, Instacart and others could be forced to treat the workers as employees, affording them health care coverage and paid time off.

The companies are attempting to avoid enforcement of the newly enacted law, and are continuing a $110-million campaign to keep treating drivers as contractors while offering some benefits. When it comes to health benefits, a ballot measure the companies are sponsoring offers to pay a quarterly healthcare subsidy for contractors who work a minimum 15 hours a week.

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