Until recently, Joel Paul had a full-time job working for a political advocacy group. Then, about a month ago, he got laid off.
“Perfect timing for coronavirus to hit,” Paul said.
He hadn’t bothered to file for unemployment, “because I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll just switch to driving Lyft.’ “
But almost immediately after he started driving full-time, the flow of people around the city slowed way down as the coronavirus started to hit. First, the colleges started closing.
“It’s a significant drop just to have them gone,” said Paul, who spoke over video chat recently while seated behind the steering wheel of his parked car. “Then on top of that, all the bars or restaurants are closed as well. It’s catastrophic for anyone who’s driving Lyft or Uber full-time.”
Paul said his earnings from rides around Cambridge and Boston have dropped about 30% compared to what he made during previous weeks. And, he predicted, “it’s going to get worse.”
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As public health experts continue to preach social distancing measures like avoiding gatherings with friends, governments close schools and restaurants, and thousands of people stay home from the office, Uber and Lyft drivers are experiencing a sudden downshift in business. According to data from the market research firm Edison Trends, both companies saw spending on rides fall about 20% between the first and second weeks of March.
To make things worse, Paul worries that when he is on the road, he risks catching or spreading the coronavirus.
Still, he’s got bills to pay, and if he stops driving he’s not earning. So, what should he do? Stay home or get on the road?
“Aside from the public health crisis, this poses an economic crisis for drivers,” said Henry De Groot, executive director of the Boston Independent Drivers Guild (BIDG). Because the companies classify drivers as independent contractors, drivers don’t earn paid sick leave.
As a result, “[drivers] have to choose between their health and the health of Massachusetts, and being able to pay their mortgage, pay their rent, put food on the table,” De Groot said.
Because of that, De Groot is among the driver-advocates looking to the legal system for help.
This week, BIDG sent a letter to Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healy, asking her to take legal action against Uber and Lyft that would force the companies to recognize ride-hail drivers as employees who are entitled to paid sick leave. Under state law, companies with 11 or more must provide some sick time — time that may be used by employees to take care of themselves or certain family members.