Vincenzo Spallino has been spending a lot of time lately waiting around the Philadelphia International Airport.
Under normal circumstances, he’s made $100 a day as a Lyft driver. But these days, of course, are not normal. Now, as the spread of a global pandemic into the Philadelphia region has shape-shifted the lives of so many so quickly, he’s lucky to bring home $20 or $40 in a day.
“It’s awful,” said Spallino, 24, who lives in Delaware County.
He and other rideshare drivers join in the growing chorus of workers impacted by the coronavirus. While often in competition with Uber and Lyft, taxi drivers echo some of the same concerns. Mounting event cancellations, school and restaurant closures, and social distancing measures have kept people inside in a crucial effort to “flatten the curve."
But what happens when your job relies on people going places? When officials discuss ways to help low-wage service workers, where does that leave the gig economy?
“I’ve been trying to figure that out," he said. "Hours on Google, seeing if we can apply for unemployment, obviously, no, because we don’t meet those requirements because we’re independent contractors, and most of us don’t even have medical coverage or anything like that because of what we do.”
‘We won’t even be counted’
Transportation services are permitted to operate even as nonessential businesses close, but the drop in riders is glaring. Health, too, is a concern.
Sanitation has always been an issue, said Ali Razak, 34, of South Philly, who drives for Uber and Lyft, but the need to take precautionary measures is more imperative now. As ridesharing is their main source of income, he said, drivers have to roll the dice — even if there’s no work.
“We can’t sit at home," said Razak, who’s active with the Philadelphia Drivers Union. "If we sit at home, how are we going to feed our families and pay our bills?”
Ricardo Quintero, 61, of Chadds Ford, said he’s shifted his Uber hours later into the evening, “where the business is nowadays.”
Michael Burke, 60, of New Castle, Del., and a Lyft driver, has a face mask dangling from his rearview mirror. He’s been sanitizing between rides. “I pray about it, and that’s about all I can do,” Burke said.
It’s not that Uber and Lyft are doing nothing, it’s that they’re not doing enough, Razak said. Both have halted their shared ride services, are making hand sanitizer or disinfectants available, will suspend accounts of diagnosed riders or drivers, and intend to make funds available for drivers diagnosed with coronavirus or are under quarantine.
But for drivers who are looking to supplement lost income? Uber is "working with local, state, and national governments to help ensure that any assistance program enacted in response to the coronavirus benefits all independent contractors and freelancers whether they are taxi drivers, freelance journalists, or drive with Uber,” company spokesperson Harry Hartfield said.
Lyft is suspending bringing on new drivers in spots hit hardest by the coronavirus “in order to strengthen earning opportunities,” according to the company’s website.
Angela Vogel, 39, of Port Richmond, an Uber driver and Philadelphia Drivers Union member, is worried about being left behind.
“My greatest fear is that as this wraps up and the sort of impacts of it are being assessed ... we won’t even be counted," Vogel said.
It took taxi drivers at the Philadelphia International Airport on Tuesday eight hours to see one fare, instead of the normal four or five.
The slowdown started last week and worsened after flights to and from Europe stopped at the airport Monday.
“It’s going to be like, every day we are expecting the worst until this coronavirus is over,” said Awad Alikerar, 57, of Southwest Philly and a City Cab driver. "And then maybe we’ll go back to normal.”
Of course, taxis and cabs stand apart from rideshare services. They’re regulated by the Philadelphia Parking Authority and see some guidance from organizations such as the Taxi Workers Alliance of Pennsylvania. But when it comes impacts from the coronavirus, the two share some commonality.
“We are risking our life equally," said Patrick Anamah, 70, of West Philly and involved in the Taxi Workers Alliance of Pennsylvania. “Just like every other person is risking their lives, but we don’t know who is going to speak for us.”
Local officials making the tough calls that mitigate the virus’ spread are well aware of the effect on small businesses. Nationally, there’s been renewed talk of universal basic income.
In a guide for workers affected by the coronavirus in Pennsylvania, Julia Simon-Mishel, supervising attorney at Philadelphia Legal Assistance’s unemployment compensation unit, told The Inquirer that anyone who has stopped working because of the coronavirus is likely to be eligible for benefits. Gig workers, however, are likely to be denied, she said.
The Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry determines whether Uber and Lyft drivers are employees or independent contractors on a “case-by-base basis,” said Theresa Elliott, L&I deputy communications director.
“We encourage Uber, Lyft, or taxi drivers who may have been exposed to COVID-19 in their workplace, have lost your job, or are working reduced hours to file an initial [unemployment compensation] claim online to apply for benefits,” she said.
The city and Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. are working on a program that could help small businesses, but it doesn’t cover 1099s, city spokesperson Kelly Cofrancisco said. The city is “still exploring other options to support solo-businesses and workers through state/federal funds,” she said.
The future of Councilmember Kendra Brooks’ recent resolution that seeks protections for service and health-care workers is uncertain with Thursday’s Council session canceled. Though, Brooks and Councilmember Helen Gym voiced support Thursday for a petition that looks to “address the needs of all workers."
“We need targeted, immediate supports for rideshare workers, taxi drivers, and other vulnerable employees,” Brooks said in a statement. “The petition calls for exactly that.”