• Uber drivers have told Business Insider the company’s restrictive and inconsistent coronavirus sick pay policy is forcing them to choose between their health and their bank accounts.
  • Public health officials have instructed older Americans, those with serious underlying health conditions, and people experiencing common coronavirus symptoms to stay home to avoid catching or spreading the disease.
  • But Uber has refused to pay drivers facing those circumstances, even as it deactivates their accounts in an apparent acknowledgement of the risk they may pose to passengers.
  • By denying sick pay to those most at risk of spreading or developing serious infections from COVID-19, drivers say Uber is discouraging them from following public health guidelines even if they’re sick.
  • An Uber spokeswoman told Business Insider the company made mistakes in rolling out the policy and that it’s working to improve the policy and process for receiving compensation.
  • “We have paid more than $3 million in financial support to drivers and delivery people in the US,” the spokeswomen said.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Uber’s restrictive coronavirus sick pay policy is putting many drivers in a bind: tell the company that they’re at higher risk of catching or spreading the virus and lose their main source of income — or continue driving and potentially put others at risk.

In early March, Uber announced a financial assistance program, effectively a sick pay policy, that promised up to 14 days of compensation to drivers diagnosed with COVID-19 or told by a public health agency to self-quarantine.

After the initial policy was criticized for making it nearly impossible for drivers to meet the requirements given the limited availability of tests, Uber started using additional language on its website and in communications with drivers to clarify that those who had a doctor’s note telling them to self-isolate due to their “risk of spreading COVID-19” or who had their accounts restricted after Uber received information from a public health agency that they had “been exposed to someone diagnosed with COVID-19” were also eligible.

Last week, Business Insider reported that several drivers’ claims were denied even though they met those eligibility criteria. While Uber ultimately paid the drivers after learning about their situations from our reporting, more than 60 additional drivers have since contacted Business Insider to say their claims have also been denied.

At-risk individuals need not apply

A few of the drivers who reached out do appear to meet one of Uber’s criteria, including Daniel H., a driver in Los Angeles who tested positive for COVID-19 but couldn’t get paid because his test result documentation came from the test provider instead of a doctor or public health agency.

An Uber spokeswoman told Business Insider that the company is re-visiting cases where it deemed drivers ineligible and will reverse those it incorrectly denied.

But the vast majority of drivers don’t appear to qualify. Uber’s policy only covers those who are told by a doctor to self-isolate because they’re at a higher risk of “spreading” the disease, but not a higher risk of “catching” it. That nuanced distinction has been a source of confusion and frustration among many drivers who spoke to us, as they believed they should qualify given the increased health risks.

While it’s not possible to publish all of their stories here, a common theme was outrage at the technicalities on which Uber had refused to pay them as well as its decision to deactivate their accounts almost immediately (apparently as a precaution to protect passengers) even as it took days or weeks to ultimately deny them compensation.

(Many requested anonymity out of fear that Uber would retaliate by terminating their accounts.)

Some drivers had a doctor’s note instructing them to stop driving because they’re older or have underlying health issues — such as diabetes, chronic lung diseases, and heart conditions — that may make them more susceptible to severe COVID-19 infections, while some live with or care for such individuals and said they worry about exposing them.

Other drivers had given rides to passengers who were showing coronavirus-like symptoms — or were experiencing symptoms themselves. 

A driver in Boston told Business Insider that his girlfriend, who also drives for Uber, had picked up a doctor who had just returned from Italy and was coughing, sneezing, and complaining of a headache. While she got tested for coronavirus and Uber eventually paid her, the Boston driver has Type 1 diabetes, asthma, and three heart conditions.

Despite his doctor’s note ordering him to quarantine, Uber never responded to his claim. “We each gave a combined 213 rides in the six days after that ride all on Uber’s platform,” he said.

A driver in Dallas told Business Insider that a passenger he picked up from the airport in mid-March “was coughing the whole 26 minutes to downtown Dallas.” But his doctor’s note citing his exposure to the passenger, who ultimately tested positive for COVID-19, didn’t make him eligible for the policy either.

“This [policy] isn’t something Uber should publicly say and not honor it to the ones who need it most,” said the Dallas driver, who has been in self-quarantine since March 30 and is struggling to make mortgage payments.

An Uber spokesperson told Business Insider that the company acknowledges it made mistakes in rolling out its policy and that it has taken steps to improve the customer support experience, though she confirmed the eligibility criteria have not changed.

“We have paid more than $3 million in financial support to drivers and delivery people in the US. As this pandemic continues to evolve, our policy will continue to evolve, too, so we can help support as many of those who are driving and delivering food as possible,” the spokesperson said in a statement to Business Insider.

Dangerous incentives

Public health authorities have advised Americans over 65, those with certain health conditions, and those experiencing coronavirus symptoms to stay home to protect themselves and others in their communities. Meanwhile, Uber explicitly states on its website that such individuals — even they’re ordered by a doctor to self-quarantine — are not covered under its policy.

A majority of the drivers who contacted Business Insider said Uber is their main or only source of income, so having their accounts suspended has put them in a desperate financial situation.

Larry Carroll, a Los Angeles-based driver who has completed more than 6,000 rides over the past two years, submitted a doctor’s note ordering him to self-quarantine, but after initially saying it would disburse his payment within 2-5 days, Uber backpedaled and denied his claim.

“I have officially run out of money,” said Caroll, who is homeless and has been living out of his car, “and now, despite any risk to myself or anyone else, am forced to have to get up and try and find a job or risk even worse financial ruin.”

Drivers who haven’t yet submitted claims say Uber’s narrowly defined policy and the risk of deactivation is discouraging them from getting off the road, despite public health guidelines urging them to do so.

“I wish I could stay home safe because I know if I get coronavirus I have a small chance of making it,” a driver in Hartford, Connecticut, who has Addison’s disease, told Business Insider. “I’m afraid they will deactivate me,” she said, “so I work and pray I don’t get the coronavirus. If I don’t work I lose my car and my house.”

Another driver in Illinois told Business Insider that they’re putting themselves and others at risk by continuing to drive for Uber, but that the economic pressure is too great to stop.

“It is staggering the amount of sick people I drive around these days. I am in conditions that violate public health authorities’ recommendation for social distance,” they said, adding: “This is my only source of income. In order to make a living I must put myself and my community in danger by disregarding the guidelines given by every public health authority.”

Read Uber’s full statement below:

“In a time of great hardship and uncertainty, we are doing our best to provide some relief and certainty to drivers, which is why we took action early on to help support those who were providing essential services to their communities. 

On March 6, we announced a financial assistance package for drivers and delivery people who were diagnosed with COVID-19 or had been ordered to self-quarantine or self-isolate by a doctor or public health authority because they were at risk of spreading the disease.

“To date, we have paid more than $3 million in financial support to drivers and delivery people in the US. As this pandemic continues to evolve, our policy will continue to evolve, too, so we can help support as many of those who are driving and delivering food as possible.”

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