Earlier this month, as talk of a new virus outbreak in the U.S. revved up, Robert Richwine, an Uber driver in Columbus, Ohio, devised a game plan to try to stay on the road. After dropping off each rider, he sprayed disinfectant on “anything the passenger might have even thought about touching.” He posted signs on his gray Ford, notifying people of his precautions. —
Then that talk turned into something scarier and closer. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine declared a state of emergency and then eventually ordered residents to stay in their homes, except for essential needs, until at least April 6.
The coronavirus has already sickened more than 850 people in Columbus and killed 15. The streets of the city, where Richwine, 67, has lived most of his life, are eerily silent, he said. “It feels like right after 9/11.”
Richwine said he knows other Uber drivers who are still working, but for him that wasn’t an option. His wife, Sharon, who is also 67, suffers from atrial fibrillation, an irregular heartbeat that could disrupt her blood flow and send her into a stroke. (Older people and those with heart conditions are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus.) “I looked at my wife, and said, ‘Things are heating up. I should stop driving,’” Richwine said.
He used to make $600 a week driving for Uber and Lyft. Now he’s making $0.
“Financially, I am sort of in shock,” Richwine said. “We already are in recession mode.”
Around 1.3 million people drive for Uber in the U.S. As the global health crisis shuts down businesses and forces people to stay home, many of the drivers have watched their income come to a screeching halt. In a recent survey by The Ride Share Guy, a blog and podcast for drivers, more than 80% of Uber drivers reported that their earnings are down because of the pandemic.
Because Uber has argued that its drivers are independent contractors, they’re ineligible for health insurance or paid sick leave. So far, the company hasn’t offered its drivers much beyond 14 days of financial assistance for those who test positive for the coronavirus or are required to quarantine.
“The growing fear and disruption caused by the coronavirus is being felt by everyone around the world,” a spokesperson for the company said. “We know this is especially true for people who drive and deliver with Uber.
“We have a dedicated team working around the clock to support drivers and delivery people.”
There’s some good news for people like Richwine: Although their classification as contractors makes them normally unable to collect unemployment insurance, the $2 trillion economic stimulus package Congress passed this week expands the benefits program to gig workers like Uber drivers.
“I was thrilled to see that,” Richwine said. “I check several times a day for details.”
Richwine retired two years ago after more than 30 years in the pizza business, first as an owner of multiple Domino’s locations and then as a franchise liaison for more than 100 Papa John’s restaurants. To prevent his income from falling to zero after he left his career, he began driving for Uber.
He said the money he earned doing so allowed him and his wife “to live our lives rather than just exist.” There are lots of people in a similar situation: Another survey by The Rideshare Guy found that 66% of Uber drivers are over age 50.
At the same time Richwine is without income, his wife is, too. She hasn’t been given any shifts at the cookware company she works at, Sur La Table.
He’s eager to start driving again.
“I’ll go back as soon as the [infection] curve has gone down,” he said