Uber and Lyft driver Julie Davis pulled up a calculator on her phone and started doing the math to see whether she could afford to pay $2,295 rent on her Licton Springs apartment.
Since Monday, she has earned $557 driving for Uber and Lyft, even while working long hours, less than half of what she usually makes driving for the companies, she said. Her earnings have cratered as the spread of the novel coronavirus has brought Seattle to a near standstill.
Even with her son paying a portion of the rent, Davis is still left in the hole.
“It’s a luxury to be able to stay home and quarantine,” Davis said Friday. “But this is our business. This is how we make money, and we’re struggling.”
The coronavirus outbreak has brought with it a swift economic fallout, emptying office buildings, obliterating hourly workers’ scheduled shifts and shuttering restaurants. Politicians have announced some economic help, including support for small businesses and new unemployment rules for employees.
Lost somewhere in the middle are tens of thousands of Uber, Lyft and taxi drivers in King County, classified as independent contractors, who appear to qualify neither for new business grant programs nor unemployment payments.
“A significant problem governments are going to have to respond to is what to do about independent contractors who are seeing their work evaporate,” said Charlotte Garden, a Seattle University law professor who has studied the gig economy.
“It’s sort of always been the strategy of these companies,” Garden said. “The risk there won’t be business on a given day is borne by workers.”
Seattle-area drivers said this week they’re facing dramatic drops in their earnings, compounding other fears about interacting with passengers who may be sick or passing on the virus themselves.
Uber and Lyft have agreed to provide financial assistance for drivers who are diagnosed with COVID-19, the illness caused by a new coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2, or quarantined, but that does little for drivers who are not sick but are losing business.
Meanwhile, local and state governments have rolled out funding packages to respond to the crisis, but have not yet released specific plans for app-based workers like Uber and Lyft drivers.
Seattle will defer some business taxes and offer grants to some small businesses with a physical location. Mayor Jenny Durkan also announced Tuesday that Seattle won’t shut off water and electricity service if people struggle to pay.
The city is “working on creative solutions to ensure the health, safety and financial security” of Uber, Lyft and taxi drivers, said Sean Whitcomb, a spokesman for the city’s Joint Information Center, which is being activated because of the outbreak. “We will have more information on this important subject in the near future.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she reached a deal Friday with the White House on a federal package that would address people impacted by the coronavirus outbreak, but it’s unclear at this point whether the legislation addresses gig economy workers, said Subhan Cheema, an aide to Washington Rep. Pramila Jayapal.
The state has expanded some of its unemployment programs for businesses who need to lay off employees during the outbreak. But unemployment benefits may be little help to Uber, Lyft and taxi drivers who are classified as independent contractors, not employees.
Drivers’ status as independent contractors has been challenged in lawsuits all over the country with mixed results. New Jersey found last year Uber had misclassified its drivers and owed millions in back taxes for unemployment. Washington has not made a similar, sweeping finding.
Still, Nick Demerice, a spokesman for the Employment Security Department, said the department encourages anyone to apply for unemployment benefits.
“Everyone’s circumstances are different,” Demerice said. “We try to avoid blanket statements that these workers are [qualified] and these aren’t.”
Becki Smith, a director at the National Employment Law Project who focuses on gig economy issues, said drivers applying for unemployment could force Washington state to make a determination on whether they are really employees. States could also enact emergency measures to pay unemployment to gig workers, she said.
“They will be among the most at risk,” Smith said.
Driver Ahmed Mumin has seen his earnings in free fall. During the week of Feb. 24, Mumin made $1,084 driving for Uber. This week, he had earned $117 as of Friday morning. On Monday, he made just $10.
“By next week, if I can’t make enough money, I won’t be able to make my car payment,” Mumin said.
At the downtown ferry terminal, taxi driver Alex Abel said he’s made about one trip for every six hours of work this week, even when he gets up at 5 a.m.
“I’ve been waiting all day and there has been little to nothing,” he said. “I still have to make money. I still have to eat something and be able to pay rent.”
Abel and other drivers for the taxi company United for Hire are independent contractors, too. The company is not offering assistance for drivers, “but if this continues, we are very concerned,” said Gizaw Refu, of United For Hire. “Some are struggling with day-to-day living expenses.”
Teamsters Local 117, which has organized taxi and app drivers, called on Uber, Lyft and elected leaders this week to provide $1,000 a week in emergency assistance and to suspend fees and commissions drivers pay on trips.
Michael Wolfe, director of Drive Forward, a driver group that receives funding from Uber, said the state should temporarily expand unemployment benefits to cover drivers and other gig economy workers.
That could buy drivers some time, Wolfe said. Then again, no one knows just how long they’ll need.
“The drivers are in the same boat as the waiters, bartenders, baristas, all the service workers in this town,” Wolfe said. “They’re dependent on this town functioning as normal.”