Gig Companies Respond to the Coronavirus. Here’s What Workers Can Expect

A woman photographer poses for a portrait
Jessie Stehlik co-owns a photography business, Foto Bohemia, with her husband, Pavel. They've lost more than $1,700 from coronavirus-related cancellations, and it could grow to $10,000 if more clients cancel. Jessie said now's a good time to barter with friends, such as a free haircut in exchange for a family portrait. Chris Zuppa /The Penny Hoarder.

The new coronavirus is shaking things up in the gig economy.

Gig companies and their workers are reacting to the spread of COVID-19 in light of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for employers and businesses, which recommend workers stay home when they’re sick or work from home if the company’s tech infrastructure permits.

Due to being classified as independent contractors, gig workers typically don’t receive benefits – including sick leave. And because of the very nature of gig services, they can’t simply bring their work home.

Over the past week, some well-known gig companies have announced changes to their policies and app features that are aimed at curbing the spread of illnesses — with some companies announcing paid leave under certain conditions.

Here’s what’s changing.

Delivery Gigs

Delivery orders are surging nationwide.

Grocery delivery company Instacart has seen a 10-fold increase in recent orders and 20-fold increases in California and Washington, Reuters reported. The company announced a “Leave it at my door” feature to limit interactions between the customer and delivery worker.

Postmates and Doordash followed suit.

“We know there are always people who, for health and other reasons, might prefer a non-contact delivery experience and we believe this will provide customers with that option,” Postmates said in an announcement of the feature.

The bills don’t stop just because you’re ill. Here are six ways to make quick money if you need to take unpaid sick leave.

The contactless delivery features are also appealing to some health-conscious ride-share drivers who would rather avoid having customers in their vehicle. For Uber drivers, the transition to food-delivery gigs is pretty seamless. Once workers are approved for the ride-sharing service, they’re eligible to start taking orders on Uber Eats using the same driver app.

But there are also unforeseen hiccups. In advice groups on Facebook and Reddit, grocery delivery drivers have been venting frustrations about item shortages at grocery stores, saying that many customers’ orders include items that are out of stock.

Freelance Gigs

For freelancers, who are best suited for remote work, not a whole lot is changing. Projects may even increase in the short term.

Several staffing agencies and freelance platforms, including TopTal and Outsize, told Forbes that freelance business is up. To stay productive, traditional businesses may turn to freelancers as they implement remote work policies and accommodate higher rates of sick leave.

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Professional freelancers are also better in control of their workload and earnings than typical gig workers, and may have better luck negotiating deadlines if they fall ill. But they still don’t get paid sick days and have to foot medical costs themselves.

Freelance photographers, however, are particularly vulnerable since the job often requires field work.

Kacy Burdette, photo editor of Adweek, tweeted to her freelance photography followers, asking how the coronavirus is affecting their gigs.

Scores of freelancers replied, reporting lost or delayed contracts – especially international- and event-related gigs – due to travel restrictions and cancelations of major conferences and festivals like SXSW.

Ride-Share Gigs

Ride-share apps and workers are perhaps most affected by recent developments with the coronavirus.

Uber and Lyft encouraged their drivers and passengers to stay home if they contract the coronavirus, a potentially unworkable solution for drivers who can’t afford to go without a week or more of wages. Then, in an unprecedented development among gig companies, both ride-share providers announced that they will offer paid sick leave for quarantined or infected gig workers.

“Any driver or delivery person who is diagnosed with COVID-19 or is individually asked to self-isolate by a public health authority will receive financial assistance for up to 14 days while their account is on hold,” Uber said in an announcement.

Doordash announced a similar policy shortly afterward. In all three cases, drivers’ accounts are suspended until they recover.

Several drivers told The Penny Hoarder they are concerned that the changes in people’s traveling habits will impact their earnings. Drivers who rely on airport fares seem disproportionately affected.

Other drivers decried the cancellation of large events, which are usually ripe for picking up fares and increasing their earnings through surge pricing. Many colleges and universities are implementing online classes for the remainder of the semester, further impacting drivers’ income.

“Here in New Orleans the mayor just cancelled all events this weekend,” ride-share driver June Erie said. “Drivers are worried about [the cancellation of] even bigger events coming up” such as French Quarter Fest and Jazz Fest.

A fearless variety of ride-share drivers see the pandemic as an opportunity to earn more money, as some competing drivers in their area may decide to stay home. Some say the hype is to blame.

“No issues. No fear either. I’m just working as normal,” said Illinois-based ride-share driver Kristin Eiswert.

Other drivers are fearful and keep driving nonetheless. Reports and videos depicting drivers in makeshift hazmat suits and bubble-like contraptions that separate them from their passengers are flooding ride-share advice groups.

While most drivers share such photos for comic relief, the phenomenon seems to highlight a unique sense of unease for gig workers.

It’s true that the coronavirus may not directly impact their health. The effects on their bottom line are another story.

Adam Hardy is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. He covers the gig economy, entrepreneurship and unique ways to make money. Read his ​latest articles here, or say hi on Twitter @hardyjournalism.