Amid complaints from ride-hailing drivers who were denied help, Uber has expanded its financial-assistance program to include those who are at higher risk of becoming seriously ill from the coronavirus.
Uber’s initial criteria for payments left out older drivers or those with preexisting medical conditions who were self-isolating for their own protection, leaving them to choose between financial loss and health concerns as officials urged people at risk to stay at home.
The company will now offer aid to drivers and delivery people whose doctors told them to quarantine because they may be at higher risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID-19, broadening previously narrow criteria that required drivers to show they had the illness or were at risk of spreading the virus to others.
Uber also is allowing those who have driven in the last month to apply, rather than accepting only those who had driven in the month leading up to March 6, when Uber first announced its assistance program.
Drivers locally and nationally had expressed frustration that even with a doctor’s note telling them to self-isolate, they didn’t meet the original parameters for aid. Inconsistencies in the program also meant some drivers were first denied, then later offered payments.
Bob Gulbranson, who drives in Seattle, is one of those denied assistance under the original criteria.
Gulbranson contacted his doctor after developing flu-like symptoms last month. He didn’t show enough symptoms to be tested for COVID-19, but his doctor said “he should be sheltering at home” because, at age 82, he was at high risk from the coronavirus, according to the doctor’s note shared with The Seattle Times.
Gulbranson sent Uber a copy of the note, but was denied assistance.
“It’s just a confusing mess I don’t understand,” he said.
Now, Gulbranson plans to file again with Uber while his request for state unemployment insurance is pending.
Other drivers received assistance from Uber before the policy change, but only after multiple attempts.
Luke Thompson, 32, contacted a medical facility after he started showing flu-like symptoms March 18, the same day he alerted Uber and Lyft. A health-care provider told him to self-quarantine two days later, after getting tested for COVID-19 — results that later came back negative. Thompson shared information along the way with the companies to little or no response.
Uber told Thompson that an order to self-quarantine because “you are at risk of catching COVID-19” or “because people you live with are at risk or catching COVID-19″ or “because of other health conditions” did not qualify for financial assistance, according to a message shared with The Seattle Times.
Six days later, he tried again. “Hi, I’m sure you guys are swamped with requests but I have a rent payment coming up and really need that financial assistance,” he wrote in a text message to Uber.
Uber rejected his request March 29. After he provided documentation that said he should “remain isolated for 7 days minimum or 72 hours” after his symptoms have improved, Uber deposited $1,172 into his account April 4.
“There have been mistakes that have been made,” Uber spokeswoman Kayla Whaling said. “As this pandemic has evolved, so has our processes. It continues to do so.”
Uber has provided about $3 million to drivers and delivery workers in the U.S. since the policy was enacted, Whaling said. The company did not share information about how many drivers have applied or how many have been denied.
As of Friday, Lyft said on its website it would provide funds to drivers who are diagnosed with COVID-19 or put under individual quarantine by a public-health agency.
Thompson received a one-time $250 bonus from Lyft on March 29. Gulbranson said he didn’t contact Lyft because “I was certain I would get the same answer, and I didn’t want to waste my time.”
Lyft did not respond to questions about its policy.
Joshua Welter, a representative from Teamsters Local 117, a union that advocates for ride-hailing drivers, said Uber’s changes don’t go far enough.
Under the previous policy, a driver who earned about $64 per day would receive $900 in financial assistance for two weeks — aid that was dependent on historical earnings. Uber’s new policy sets a maximum payment “based on typical earnings for drivers and delivery people in each city.” In Los Angeles, that comes to $459 per person, he said.
The state unemployment insurance system presents other hurdles for ride-hailing drivers, who are considered independent contractors, not employees. Washington state uses wage information and hours worked provided by employers to evaluate each claim.
Because both Uber and Lyft have declined to provide information regarding the earnings or number of hours a driver works, the state employment security department confirmed, drivers are falling into a complicated holding queue to receive unemployment insurance.
“We stand ready to work with Washington’s Employment Security Office to expedite getting money into people’s hands and are waiting for their guidance on what they need from us,” Whaling said.
The gaps for some workers have been laid bare as the system has been strained by tens of thousands of jobless claim applicants, said Nick Demerice, a spokesman for the Washington State Employment Security Department.
“The system is not designed for them yet,” Demerice said, referring to gig workers, including ride-hailing drivers. “We are making upgrades and we hope to be able to implement better options for those folks to make it less clunky down the road.”
Beginning April 18, the state will integrate financial support from the federal relief package into the weekly payments for those who qualify, which includes self-employed workers, independent contractors and some gig workers, as well as people who haven’t worked 680 hours in the previous year.
“Regardless of how someone gets a paycheck, there should be a social safety net there for everyone to cover basic costs of food and rent,” Thompson said.
Seattle Times staff reporter Heidi Groover contributed to this story.