Anil Subba, a Nepalese immigrant in his forties, living in Jackson Heights, Queens, worked as a rideshare driver to support his family. In early March, he picked up a visibly unwell passenger for Uber and drove him from Kennedy airport to Westchester County, a journey that took roughly an hour. New York City had just reported its first case of the novel coronavirus, and, according to Subba’s cousin, Munindra Nembang, who also drove for Uber, the trip from the airport so unnerved Subba that he stopped driving. Then he began to show symptoms of covid-19 and was admitted to Elmhurst Hospital, a public facility in Queens that soon became known as “the epicenter of the epicenter.” He spent the last two days of his life on a ventilator. When he died, after midnight on March 24th, he became one of thirteen patients in the hospital to succumb to their conditions that day, and the first of several dozen drivers in the city who have done so.
In some respects, Subba’s life was like that of many rideshare drivers in New York City, Uber’s largest domestic market. According to a study conducted by two economists, James A. Parrott and Michael Reich, for the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs, more than nine out of ten of those drivers are immigrants. Around ninety-seven per cent are male, and half are middle-aged. Half have dependents, and seventy per cent are the main wage earners in their households.
The Independent Drivers Guild, which was formed in 2016 as an affiliate of the Machinists Union, represents more than two hundred thousand drivers in the tri-state area, including more than eighty thousand in New York City. The majority of them have stopped working; those who haven’t are seeing their expenses—insurance, gas, vehicle upkeep, and the cut that their company takes—outpace their earnings. (The insurance and the upkeep continue to be expenses even for those who stop working.) Shortly after Subba’s death, the guild released a statement blaming “poor federal screening and quarantine procedures at the airports” for putting drivers at unnecessary risk. “The government was telling returning travellers to go home and self-quarantine, but wasn’t providing a safe way to get them home,” the statement reads. “Where were the quarantine shuttles with drivers in protective gear, like we saw transporting cruise ship passengers?”
Four days after Subba’s death, I talked on the phone with an Uber driver named Johan Nijman, a soft-spoken native of Suriname who lives in St. Albans, Queens. After arriving in New York, in 1992, he saved up enough money to buy a taxi medallion, and, in 2003, he started his own company, Johan’s Limousine Service. But, when the rideshare services started, his business fell off, and, in February, 2017, he started driving for Uber himself. Like other drivers, he has seen his earnings drop in the past few months; by mid-March, he was pulling a tenth of his usual number of fares.
Nijman, who is sixty-four, lives alone—his wife, who had been a nurse, died in 2003, and their four children are grown and live out of the house—and he occasionally hosts friends and family from Suriname. At the end of March, a friend who had stayed with him returned home and, appearing ill, was quarantined. Nijman informed Uber that he may have been exposed and that, although he had no symptoms, he was following the recommendations of the C.D.C. and self-isolating. He added that his age and the fact that he has diabetes left him particularly vulnerable at this moment, and he requested sick pay.
Rideshare drivers don’t generally get sick pay, but, on March 7th, Uber announced that it would offer the equivalent of up to fourteen days’ worth of pay to drivers who could show that they had been infected with the coronavirus. However, because tests were in short supply, on March 15th, the company agreed to make payments to drivers who had a doctor’s note saying that they were sufficiently ill to quarantine. (The company has since offered to compensate drivers who are at high risk, too, but these payments are capped and do not cover a full fourteen days’ worth of pay.) But an Uber representative told Nijman, in an e-mail, that financial assistance is reserved “for drivers and delivery people on our platform who are diagnosed with covid-19 or have individually been asked to quarantine by a public health authority or licensed medical provider due to their risk of spreading covid-19.” Nijman told me, “I will not be tested if I don’t have symptoms. But, if I continue to work, how do I know I’m not passing it on to my passengers?” Moira Muntz, a spokesperson for the Independent Drivers Guild, told me that Nijman’s case is not unusual. “Every day, we are battling with companies on language,” she told me. “Which is so frustrating, because it seems like a word game on paper, but, for drivers, it’s their life and livelihoods.” When contacted about Nijman’s interaction, an Uber representative said that Nijman needed to submit a doctor’s note stating that he should self-quarantine owing to a preëxisting health condition that would put him at higher risk of serious illness stemming from covid-19. The representative added that “the team is going to follow-up with him again and I hope that we’ll be able to help.”
Dara Khosrowshahi, the C.E.O. of Uber, has said that it is because Uber drivers are independent contractors that he can’t do much to improve their circumstances. Rideshare drivers, like other workers in the gig economy, are considered independent contractors, not employees, and are not entitled to traditional benefits, such as guaranteed wages and health insurance. “This situation certainly demonstrates the downside of attaching basic protections to W-2 employment,” Khosrowshahi said in a conference call with financial analysts on March 19th, adding that there needs to be a “third way” that “allows workers who want flexibility to work flexibly, based on what their own needs are, but also have access to protection.” Khosrowshahi also sent a letter to President Donald Trump in which he requested that the coronavirus stimulus package include funds for rideshare drivers and asked that Trump consider legislation “on a ‘third way’ that would update our labor laws to remove the forced choice between flexibility and protection for millions of American workers.”
A particularly pressing issue now is unemployment benefits. Uber, Lyft, and other rideshare companies are not legally required to contribute to an unemployment fund. But, in 2018, the New York State Court of Appeals ruled that drivers for Postmates, an online food-delivery service, and “others similarly situated” were eligible for unemployment benefits. The decision was reaffirmed last month by the same court. Though the ruling marked entitlements for gig workers, companies disagree that rideshare drivers are “similarly situated”; in the meantime, Uber and Lyft have declined to report drivers’ wages to the state, forcing drivers to engage in lengthy processes to prove that they are entitled to the payments. On Friday, some Guild drivers in New York began to receive Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. Andrew Byrne, a senior director of public policy at Uber, told me that the company has been pushing for a third legal category for years, in part because the concept of unemployment, as it exists under current law, does not fit with Uber’s model. “We want to raise the standard for independent and flexible work so drivers maintain control while getting a real safety net when they need it,” he told me.
The Guild has had some success in gaining protections for drivers; in 2018, it partnered with the Black Car Fund—which provides workers’-compensation insurance to “black car” and limousine drivers—to make free telemedicine available to Uber and Lyft drivers. But Muntz is not optimistic about the “third way” proposal. She sees unionization as the only way to insure that drivers will be able to claim their rights. “Until drivers have the right to bargain,” she told me, “the companies will be able to continue changing driver terms at will.”
“The advantages of driving for these app services when the times are good become catastrophic disadvantages when the times turn bad,” Jonathan Cousar, another New York-based Uber driver, told me. Cousar, who is originally from Atlanta, used to work in advertising. Now he chronicles his experiences on Ridester, a Web site that publishes first-person testimonials and news about the industry, and where he also conducts surveys on the demographics and incomes of drivers. Most drivers are attracted by the flexibility, he said. (Muntz says that many have to schedule their livelihoods around other responsibilities, citing a disproportionate number of single parents and people who are caretakers for others at home.) But, he noted, “The invisibility of the cost is what makes it all so frightening,” adding that “if you have a regular supply of customers you aren’t necessarily gaming out what your bank account will look like when disaster hits.” He told me, “Like this virus, there’s a real unpredictability to the job. And that’s what can kill you quicker than you can react.”
I have taken several Uber rides in recent weeks, when I had to make trips downtown from Harlem, where I live. Cruising down the empty avenues, the driver or I would comment on our shared anxiety, both of us eager to indulge in some manner of social interaction, even if it was from behind a mask and through a clear plastic partition. Every driver I talked to was an immigrant, and each spoke with sorrow at the magnitude of the virus and pessimism about his personal situation. A Mumbai native in his mid-sixties, who had been on the phone with his brother, in India, when he picked me up, said that he didn’t dare tell his family back home that he was still working. “How can I worry them at a time like this?” he said. “I’m hardly making fifty dollars a day right now. What they don’t know will help them sleep at night.” A driver from Guangdong, who had been a government worker in China when sars broke out there, in 2003, told me that President Trump reminded him of President Xi Jinping. “They care about power more than they do about their countries,” he said with a laugh. “But maybe that’s just how politics work.” A young Algerian driver, wearing an N95 mask that he had bought online weeks ago, when he first heard of the virus, told me, “I fought so hard to come here, but right now I’m basically a front-line worker in the middle of a pandemic.”
I recently video-chatted with a twenty-five-year-old Uber driver named Japneet Singh, who lives in South Ozone Park. He started driving when he was nineteen, to help pay his tuition at Queens College. After graduation, he worked in accounting, but found that driving better suited his outgoing personality—he also occasionally runs photo booths at parties. Singh’s parents had moved to New York City from India when he was a year old, arriving in Brooklyn and then moving to Queens when he was eight. (His father is an auto mechanic, his mother a clothing-store salesperson.) Being a first-generation college graduate is a point of pride for him, but much of his life is also defined by his being the child of working-class immigrants. Like many others, “even Americanized ones,” he lives with his parents and helps pay the mortgage on their home. He eats with them and his older sister—usually dal, aloo gobi, paneer, and any other food that’s easy to buy and easy to make and that can last for two days—but he tries to stay six feet away from them at all times. He, too, recently stopped working. Last week, feeling restless and helpless, he called a classmate who is now an administrator at Elmhurst Hospital, where Anil Subba died. Afterward, he and a childhood friend, who is also a driver, bought twenty pizzas from Papa John’s and delivered them to the hospital.
Members of Singh’s extended family live in the neighborhood and also work as drivers. Their goal is the same as that of most immigrants he knows: work hard and save up enough money to open a small business and buy property. “I have uncles who are workaholics, who have only known to problem-solve by working harder,” he told me. He, too, has always thought that diligence is an immigrant’s best defense. “But, in this kind of disaster, you realize that all the years they are working are actually a gamble,” he said. “And, when disaster hits, you instantly lose the bet.”
Of all the drivers I spoke to, the one who seemed the most optimistic about his situation was a young Afghani man named Bilal Ahmad. After working as a translator for the Marines, coalition forces, and Canadian soldiers in his home province of Kandahar (his father had been a middle-school teacher, and he learned English early), he applied for a Special Immigrant Visa for Iraqi and Afghan translators and, after a year, with the help of letters of recommendation from a retired major and his superiors in the military, was granted it. On a video chat from his home, in Flushing, he told me that, before the virus hit, he drove for Uber ten to fourteen hours a day, seven days a week. With the money he made, he supported his parents and his nine younger siblings in Kandahar. “I know I can have a comfortable life here, if it wasn’t for the financial pressure,” he told me. “But one member for the family should do what they can for the rest.” He realized how serious the virus was six weeks ago, when a distant relation who runs a halal food truck on the Upper East Side fell ill. “I became very careful then,” he said, and started using sanitizers, sprays, and gloves while working. He has since stopped driving; the risk doesn’t seem worth it. He has applied for unemployment but has not received a reply. After paying his taxes and his Taxi & Limousine Commission insurance, he has three hundred dollars in the bank, and frets about not being able to send money to his parents.
Five years after arriving in this country, he had begun to think of Americans, and particularly New Yorkers, as his “new family.” He knows that his earnestness makes him sound naïve, he told me. In Afghanistan, he had been a target for insurgents, and endured several ambushes. “I love Afghanistan because it’s where I grew up and where my family is,” he said. “But I love America because, when something happens in this country, people become united, and there is a faith that there will be life afterward. That, no matter what, the family survives.”
Anil Subba’s three children range in age from eleven to twenty-two; he had been paying costs for the eldest, a daughter, to attend nursing school, and for his son to attend college. After Subba fell ill, his wife, Shanta, and the two oldest children were also infected. A week after his death, they were suffering with fevers that kept them up at night; they are still recovering. Subba’s cousin Munindra Nembang was the last family member whom he spoke to, two days before he was placed on a ventilator. Nembang told me that Subba, who was five years older than he, was “beloved in the Nepalese community”—he helped raise money for those in need and joined in celebrations of Nepalese festivals. “Many of us are Uber drivers,” Nembang said, “so we feel close to one another.” Subba, the son of a farmer, came to New York in his early twenties. He wasn’t afraid of hard work, Nembang said. His first job in the city had been as a dishwasher, and, after sixteen years, he had saved enough money to open a small Nepali-Indian restaurant, in Astoria. But, after a year, and despite putting in seven days’ work every week, he had to close the business. In 2014, he began driving for Uber. “Subba was a fighter,” Nembang said. “This is America, and he’s an immigrant, so we are used to struggle and loss.” But, he added, “I don’t think any of us, maybe not even him, could have expected him to lose his life.”