Uber said it was shipping tens of millions of face masks to drivers two weeks ago. The ride-hailing giant said it would prioritize full-time drivers working in the cities hit hardest by the novel coronavirus, like New York and Los Angeles. Then it’d continue to deliver face coverings to drivers in other cities around the world.

For the most part, however, those masks have yet to materialize, drivers say.

Driver groups in Los Angeles and New York say they haven’t heard of their members receiving these supplies. A spokeswoman for the Independent Drivers Guild, which represents 200,000 drivers in the New York area, said none of its drivers have reported getting masks. A spokesman for Mobile Workers Alliance, which represents thousands of drivers in Southern California, said just three drivers have reported receiving supplies from Uber.

Wearing masks while on the job has now become mandatory for essential workers in many cities across the US, including New York and Los Angeles. And when not required, it’s strongly recommended. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said earlier this month that all people should wear masks in public places in order to limit the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

Uber and Lyft drivers are considered essential workers, which means they can continue to work as the virus spreads. They’ve been delivering food to people in quarantine and transporting medical workers to and from the hospital. Many drivers say they’ve had a difficult time during the pandemic, seeing their earnings plummet or getting infected with the virus. At least four Uber drivers are known to have died from COVID-19, one in New York, one in Brazil and two in London.

“It’s been disappointing that when crisis struck, Uber and Lyft did not move quickly to protect their workers and riders,” said Moira Muntz, spokeswoman from the Independent Drivers Guild. “After several weeks without income and with unemployment claims stuck in bureaucracy, more drivers are looking to get back to work but they need to be protected.”

Delays and low supplies

Part of the problem is that store shelves have emptied during the coronavirus outbreak and safety gear is now in short supply.

To sidestep that issue, Uber said it worked with manufacturers in China to source its own masks for drivers. The masks Uber is distributing aren’t N-95 respirators that health care workers need, but rather disposable ear-loop face masks.

Initially, Uber said it shipped its first order of about 20,000 masks to drivers in New York City on April 7. Another shipment went to Los Angeles drivers shortly afterward, and Uber said those workers should’ve received the masks in the mail by the end of last week. An Uber spokesman said that as of Wednesday, about 800,000 masks have either shipped or are being packed for shipping and millions more are on the way. The company said it can’t predict mail delays.

“Like so many in the US and around the world, we have struggled to find these types of supplies, but we leveraged our global footprint to source items from suppliers around the world,” the spokesman said. “Of course, given the logistical realities, getting a mask to every active driver will take time, and we have been honest about that.”

The three drivers affiliated with Mobile Workers Alliance who did get masks said they got a package of several single-use masks from Uber. A few other drivers have mentioned on social media that they too got a package of masks.

“I got about 6 face masks from Uber today after filling out the request form last week,” one Los Angeles-based Reddit user posted last Friday. “Good too, the one I was using for the last 30 days is just about trashed.”

Because Uber is prioritizing which drivers get masks for now, the only way to get the face coverings is to be invited by the company. Uber is sending those select drivers a message in the app that says if they want masks, they need to confirm their address. Uber said that as it gets more supplies, its goal is to offer masks to all drivers nationwide.

Lyft said it’s distributing masks to its drivers too. Rather than send them in the mail, like Uber, it’s instead handing them out on certain days in select cities. In Los Angeles, for example, any driver can go to a specified parking lot where a representative will give them one mask and one sanitizing product per week. The supplies are only available every other day and on a first-come, first-served basis.

“We’ve ordered hundreds of thousands of cloth face coverings for drivers,” a Lyft spokeswoman said. “We’ve already begun distributing these to drivers, prioritizing regions where additional guidance about face coverings has been given.”

Sanitizer shortages

Uber announced earlier this month that it shipped 30,000 one-quart bottles of disinfectant spray to drivers in several cities to help them clean their cars. And it said it’s currently shipping out another large order of disinfectant wipes. But the company has run into issues distributing sanitizer as well.

As with the masks, Uber got the disinfectants from third-party suppliers. It said that since its initial order, multiple additional orders from various manufacturers have been either delayed or cancelled to prioritize health care workers and other first responders.

In its first shipment, Uber said it sent 11,000 bottles to New York drivers. But the Independent Drivers Guild said none of its drivers have reported getting any sanitizer from Uber. To get drivers personal protective equipment, the group said it’s been working with the non-profit Black Car Fund to buy and distribute masks, sanitizer and gloves.

In Los Angeles, drivers say they’re trying to do what they can to keep themselves and their passengers safe. Some have homemade masks and erected plastic barriers between the front and back seats. Others have gloves that they’ll reuse. Many clean their cars with Lysol spray, which is still difficult to find at grocery stores.

As long as drivers are only provided piecemeal safety equipment, ride-hailing is going to continue to create risks regarding the spread of COVID-19, said Uber and Lyft driver Armen Oganesyan, who’s affiliated with Mobile Workers Alliance.

“The companies’ refusal to provide all drivers with personal protective equipment will have grave consequences,” Oganesyan said. “They must take action now to save lives.”

*By Dara Kerr via CNET*