Credit: Uber

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Olney resident Keion Charles is starting to sweat. He started driving for Uber four years ago. Holding down his 9 to 5 sales job became difficult with a kidney condition that required he get dialysis three times each week.

Driving worked as a solution. He could make his own schedule, sleeping all day after draining treatments and then starting work refreshed at 2 a.m. But now, Uber work has become unmanageable because of his health. And each day, the expiration date for federal benefits gets closer.

“To say I have to rush back out there in unsafe conditions,” Charles said. “I’m not going to sacrifice my life for a couple bucks. I just can’t do that.”

Other rideshare workers, however, say they will return despite health concerns if unemployment expires — because they don’t have a choice.

Many of the 20,000+ people in Philly who regularly drive for Uber and Lyft stopped in mid-March for fear of catching or spreading the coronavirus. Luckily, under the federal CARES Act, many were eligible to secure pandemic unemployment assistance. Extended for the first time to gig workers, drivers benefitted from that extra $600 per week.

That benefit is set to expire at the end of July, and people are worried they’ll have to get back to the taxi grind before it’s really safe. It’s especially hard those who have pre-existing medical conditions, or loved ones who are sick or elderly.

Philadelphia City Council is considering a bill that would extend sick leave benefits to workers in the gig economy — but with the summer recess upon us, it won’t get a final vote for months.

Drivers worry for themselves — but also family

Angela Vogel, a founding member of the Philadelphia Drivers’ Union, said plenty of people start driving for rideshare companies specifically because they have health conditions. it gives them flexibility to create schedules that accommodate their illnesses.

With the current pandemic, it’s not just themselves they have to worry about. Vogel herself has a roommate who’s immunocompromised, she said.

“Most people would be absolutely, utterly flabbergasted at the number of drivers driving specifically because they have health issues and can’t work a regular job,” Vogel said.

That’s the case with Charles. Besides the fact that his kidney problems leave him at a higher risk of coronavirus complications, coming down with the virus would also mean he couldn’t receive regular dialysis treatments at his usual clinic.

He’d instead have to seek treatment at a hospital, or a facility reserved for coronavirus patients. A few weeks he had a persistent cough, and his clinic wouldn’t allow him inside until he got two negative COVID results.

“It’s just that my body isn’t as strong as other men my age,” said Charles, who’s 36 years old. “People coming in with illnesses and stuff like that, it’s not going to help me. Exposing myself to the virus is going to wreck my whole dialysis life.”

Vanessa Emerand, a Nottingham resident who drives for Uber and Lyft in Philly, has similar concerns — but not for herself, for her 9-year-old son. Marcus has asthma, meaning he could have a worse outcome if he catches the coronavirus.

Plus, Emerand relies on her parents for childcare. They’re both healthcare workers. Depending on who gets into her car, the effects could be disastrous for her entire family.

“The virus isn’t going anywhere,” said Emerand, who’s been driving for three years. “You know that one passenger could cough or sneeze and you don’t know if you’re going to get sick or not. I might forget to disinfect and touch something and get sick.”

It’s not mandated, so drivers must ask passengers to wear masks

So what’s the plan for the end of July, when unemployment assistance is likely to run out for Uber and Lyft drivers?

Both Uber and Lyft have offered free cleaning supplies and face masks to drivers still actively working, but Vogel said it’s been hard to get the apps to actually send them to you. She’s been purchasing her own cleaning supplies — plus requiring passengers wear face masks, and keeping the windows rolled down.

But it’s a delicate balance. If Vogel enforces the mask-wearing, she’s worried she’ll rack up service complaints or bad ratings that could cause her to lose all her work.

Asserting rules with passengers is always tricky, Vogel said. “I’ve heard stories of drivers being verbally attacked or assaulted just for refusing to drive an infant without a safety seat. Every week we’d have a new driver who had a mirror kicked off or had racists slurs yelled at them.”

Meantime, Vogel’s putting her advocacy weight behind the local paid sick leave bill.

Charles said he’ll require passengers to wear masks when he gets back to work, but he’s expecting an uphill battle. “I’ll definitely probably get into a lot of fights in those fronts. I’ve gotten into fights with passengers over less.”

Both he and Emerand are hoping federal pandemic benefits will be extended, and they won’t have to drive any time soon. But if the pandemic unemployment assistance expires, as expected, at the end of July, she’ll have to risk it.

“I might end up doing food delivery, or try to find some work from home,” Emerand said. “It’s not as bad as it used to be, but it’s still not great either. The risk is still there.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...