Every day at lunchtime, gig workers rush in and out of the noodle, dumpling and gyro joints that line University Way Northeast to grab meals ordered through online apps. During the coronavirus pandemic, their deliveries are keeping Seattle restaurants open and allowing customers to stay home.
Like supermarket checkers and postal carriers, they chance exposure to the virus. Yet they do their jobs without protections that many other essential workers count on, and their pay doesn’t always stack up.
“Some trips, when I don’t get tipped, I might make $3,” said Daisy Torres, walking briskly across the Ave with DoorDash app orders in both hands.
That’s just not enough, according to some Seattle City Council members, who say meal-delivery companies like DoorDash and Postmates, grocery-delivery companies like Instacart and ride-hail companies like Uber and Lyft should provide their independent contractors with paid sick days and $5 “premium pay” for each trip until the crisis subsides.
They’ve introduced emergency bills that would mandate those benefits, urged on by the labor-backed advocacy organization Working Washington, which says no other city in the county has taken such steps. While delivery drivers are connecting restaurants to customers, ride-hail drivers are shuttling nurses and patients to Seattle hospitals.
“We want to make sure that people can support themselves and mitigate the risks they’re taking on,” Working Washington spokesman Sage Wilson said.
The council could vote on both bills as soon as Monday, though the app companies are battling the extra-pay requirement they describe as excessive and threatening to pass the costs on to customers. The premium-pay legislation likely will be held so negotiations can continue, said Councilmember Andrew Lewis, who teamed with Councilmember Lisa Herbold to sponsor the proposal.
“Dashers in Seattle have earned over $26 per active hour, including tips — significantly more than they earned at this time last year,” DoorDash government-relations head Toney Anaya said in a statement.
“By these misguided actions, Seattle risks cutting off these essential services,” Postmates spokeswoman Ashley De Smeth wrote in an email.
The council’s sick days bill, sponsored by Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, would resemble an existing Seattle law that allows conventional employees to take paid leave when sick and in other circumstances.
Drivers working in Seattle would be eligible and would get some sick days upfront before accruing more at a rate of one sick day for every 30 days worked. The sick day pay would be based on a driver’s daily average in their top-earning month since October.
The idea, supporters have said, is to ensure drivers can choose to stay home. Some drivers work sick because they can’t afford to go without income. “I would want to get checked out and take the day off, but I’ve got to eat,” said Zak Elhabbassi, a Postmates driver.
The premium-pay bill would apply to each trip with a pickup or drop-off in Seattle, with the $5 added to what workers would otherwise make. That would provide drivers with coronavirus hazard pay while also compensating them for costs related to personal protective equipment and vehicle cleaning, Lewis and Herbold contend.
Both bills would sunset when the city’s declared coronavirus emergency is terminated, though industry representatives are lobbying for the requirements to end as soon as most businesses reopen. Emergency laws need approval from seven council members and Mayor Jenny Durkan, who’s still reviewing the proposals.
The changes would add complexity to Seattle’s gig-economy regulations that are changing quickly. Durkan and the council recently set a 15% cap on the commissions that apps charge restaurants for deliveries.
The app companies say the sick pay bill is unnecessary because they already are taking steps to keep drivers healthy.
Postmates, DoorDash, Instacart, Uber and Lyft all have offered limited payments to workers who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 or met certain other conditions, though some have complained about problems getting the payments. Instacart has announced a sick pay policy, but workers have reported problems with that, too.
Uber has provided protective equipment and cleaning supplies to more than 5,500 drivers in the Seattle area, spokesman Caleb Weaver wrote in an email. The company also is requiring drivers and passengers to wear masks, he added. DoorDash, Lyft and Instacart have said they are giving drivers protective equipment, as well.
The details can vary. When DoorDash sent Torres a notification offering masks and gloves, the app said she would be charged $5 (for shipping). The protections available are inadequate, Working Washington’s Wilson said, arguing consistent standards and accountability mechanisms are needed.
The app companies say the premium-pay bill would hurt everyone, because the apps would pass the extra $5 on and customers would order less, resulting in fewer trips.
The mandate would “reduce work available to the very workers” the council wants to help, wrote Weaver, the Uber spokesman. Spokespeople for DoorDash, Postmates, Instacart and Lyft issued similar statements.
Lewis and Herbold disagreed with those points. Seattle is a lucrative market and many residents would be willing to pay more, they said. Business leaders issued similar warnings when the city has raised other labor standards, yet the economy has thrived, Herbold said. “Work is work and needs to be equitably compensated,” Lewis added.
Seattle could struggle to strictly police the new rules. The extra-pay bill would require the apps to itemize the $5 boost when compensating drivers, but the companies use pay algorithms that change constantly and might reduce regular pay. Fiscal notes say the bills could require more funding for enforcement at a time when the virus has ripped a hole in the city’s budget.
While Washington’s stay-home order has stoked customer demand for delivery orders, job losses and problems with the state’s unemployment-insurance system have caused many workers with no other options to swarm the gig economy and compete for trips, Wilson said. Instacart alone has added hundreds of thousands of workers across the country since the crisis began.
Torres lost her job at a hotel in March and began relying on DoorDash because her unemployment benefits never arrived. Driving occasionally before the pandemic, she made about $11 most trips. Now $5 is common. Torres rarely declines trips because she worries about homebound customers, she said.
“These companies have a responsibility to treat us right,” said Torres, who hadn’t previously heard about the council proposals.
Elhabbassi, who began driving for Postmates when he lost a car-dealership job in March, has been making $550 to $750 a week, not counting gas, other expenses and the hazards involved, he said.
“The risk is high right now when we’re visiting 15 to 20 restaurants every night, 15 to 20 buildings,” he said.
Elhabbassi said premium pay “would be a blessing,” though he and Torres both said they wonder how the requirement would play out on the ground.
For Uber and Lyft drivers, the crisis looks somewhat different. More people are ordering deliveries but fewer are requesting rides.
Fasil Teka stopped driving for Uber recently because the scant money wasn’t worth possibly bringing the virus home, he said. The $5 boost wouldn’t change that calculus, given demand right now, he said. “It cannot even put food on the table,” Teka said.
Some workers worry the council bills could send them down a slippery slope toward employee status. “I don’t want someone trying to loop me in,” said James Lockhart, an Uber driver. “I enjoy my independence.”
For many others, the proposals make sense. Lyft driver Ikrame Abdi is earning less than before the pandemic and spending more on cleaning supplies, so the extra $5 would truly help, she said.
“We’re an essential business,” Abdi said. “Nurses that work at hospitals … elderly people who need to get to their appointments — they need us.”