[By Edward Ongweso Jr]
On Saturday, Bloomberg reported that Uber had suspended 240 users and two drivers in Mexico to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus “out of an abundance of caution.”
Mexico City has not reported any cases of the coronavirus, but the country’s Ministry of Health confirmed that a man flew from Los Angeles to Mexico City, spent two days in Mexico City before showing symptoms, then took an Uber back to the airport, testing positive for coronavirus once back in the United States.
“We received a request from the Mexico City Health Department for information about an individual identified as a carrier of coronavirus,” a statement to The Verge reads. “Out of an abundance of caution, we temporarily suspended the accounts of two drivers who had transported the individual, as well as approximately 240 other users who had been in contact with those drivers. We directed them to contact the public health authorities for further information.”
Mexican health officials announced on Saturday that they are conducting an “epidemiological investigation” to identify people who may have come into contact with the coronavirus carrier who was briefly in Mexico City before leaving the country. At the time, the ministry said that none of those exposed had developed symptoms of the virus.
Essentially, two gig workers picked up one very unlucky fare, and because of that Uber has automatically suspended their ability to make money through the platform. Normally, in a situation where a worker is an employee rather than a gig economy “contractor,” a job might have some allocated sick days that a worker could take without being penalized or even make some exceptions for a serious illness. In the case of Uber’s temporary suspensions, then, there is no reason to expect a deviation from the norm. That is to say: Uber will do anything to avoid making its drivers look like employees.
Uber did not respond to Motherboard’s request for comment if the suspended drivers will be compensated for lost income, but it is unlikely that it will. On UberPeople, the largest internet forum for Uber drivers, drivers regularly lament how even pursuing insurance claims for lost wages after an accident or injury is pointless and unlikely to work out for drivers.
Compensating drivers, sadly, runs counter to Uber’s problematic defense of its still-unprofitable business model: cut labor costs by misclassifying drivers as contractors, not employees. Uber’s business model isn’t just about cutting labor costs and privatizing urban transport, though. It calls for externalizing as much risk as possible, largely to drivers. If you have to sleep in your Uber car because you have to choose between rent or medicine, that’s your problem; if you entered into a misleading loan program because you were desperate for a car to start Ubering people around in, well, that’s your problem, too.
It’s concerning that a company can unilaterally make such drastic changes to people’s work situations, and it’s somewhat unclear how Uber made the decision. Uber has a portal staffed 24/7 for health officials to notify the company about public health matters.
Now, it appears that if you are unlucky enough to be driving for Uber during a public health emergency, you can be automatically barred from eeking out your sub-minimum wage. And, given all that we know about Uber, these workers will not be afforded the kind of safety net that being an employee is supposed to provide.
After all, if you’re a driver, you’re not—in Uber’s own words—”involved in the usual core business of Uber.” And that’s your problem.