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Caviar delivery service to offer free accident insurance. Here’s what that means for couriers

Months after the high-profile death of Caviar courier Pablo Avendano at 10th and Spring Garden, the company will provide what appears to be an on-demand gig economy first.

A Caviar courier picks up food from Twenty Manning Grill in Rittenhouse Square. The delivery company will now offer accident insurance to its couriers.
A Caviar courier picks up food from Twenty Manning Grill in Rittenhouse Square. The delivery company will now offer accident insurance to its couriers.Read moreCourtesy of Square

Just over two months after 34-year-old bike courier Pablo Avendano was hit by a car and killed at a Spring Garden intersection while working for online delivery service Caviar, the company has announced it will offer free accident insurance for all its couriers.

It's a significant move, at the very least symbolically, for an employer in the on-demand gig economy: Caviar appears to be the first of its "tech start-up" cohort — think Uber, TaskRabbit, cleaning service Handy — to offer this type of insurance free. Uber has a similar offering, which it piloted in several states last year, but charges for it. These companies don't offer traditional protections because their workers are considered independent contractors, not employees.

Caviar, which is run by a publicly traded San Francisco company called Square, said the move was not sparked by anything in particular.

"Simply, we feel that providing insurance to protect couriers while they're actively delivering with Caviar is the right thing to do," said Square spokesperson Katie Dally.

Avendano's death has loomed large in Philadelphia and beyond, as an example of the dangers gig workers face and the protections they lack because of their status as independent contractors. "The Gig Economy Killed Pablo," read a banner at 10th and Spring Garden Streets, where Avendano was killed.

>> READ MORE: After Caviar courier's death, what about gig workers' rights?

The accident insurance, offered through a company called OneBeacon that brands itself as the "market leader in providing occupational injury products to transportation and gig economy companies," includes:

·  Up to $1 million per accident for medical expenses.

·  $100,000 accidental death benefit if a worker dies, and survivor benefits for dependents of the worker.

·  Disability at 50 percent of a worker's average weekly earnings across all on-demand platforms, like Uber and Postmates instead of just Caviar, up to $500 a week, for up to two years for temporary disability and five years for continuous disability.

The insurance only covers accidents that happen while a courier is on a delivery, not while the courier just has the app on. All couriers will automatically get the coverage, Dally said. It's unclear if workers can opt out. Previously, couriers were not covered by any insurance, though the company required couriers who used their car or scooter to get vehicle insurance.

>> READ MORE: How incentives in the gig economy put workers at risk

Dally could not share how much the insurance would cost the company but said, "We see minimal impact on our costs."

IThese kinds of benefits are not always easy to claim after an accident.

"Just because you have insurance doesn't mean you're not going to have a fight on your hands," said Shanin Specter of local personal injury law firm Kline & Specter.

If you think you're too injured to work, for example, that's not enough. The insurance company must also agree.

Some have also raised concerns about Uber's accident insurance policy, which was developed by Aon and OneBeacon, the same company that's working with Caviar. For one, Uber's policy requires workers to identify as independent contractors in order to access benefits — notable because legal battles are being fought across the country over the topic of employee classification. In these cases, workers often want to be classified as employees, and employers want the independent contractor status because it is cheaper and allows for flexibility in how they manage their workforce.

>> READ MORE: Uber driver who killed herself battled depression, her insurance carrier

Might providing insurance make a case against being able to classify workers as independent contractors? It's not clear. Insurance coverage is an indication of employee status, said Fisher & Phillips partner Lori Armstrong Halber, but there are many other factors. And it's not unusual for companies to provide accident insurance to their independent contractors, said Winebrake & Santillo partner Andy Santillo, but what is unusual is that Caviar is paying for the insurance. Companies normally charge for this kind of benefit, Santillo said.

Either way, Caviar couriers were cheered by the news. One suggested that it would make Caviar a more competitive option in a crowded online delivery landscape.

"If they offered a group health insurance, I could leave my day job," said the 45-year-old courier, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of her day job finding out.

>> READ MORE: Rittenhouse stabbing exposes how gig workers take safety into their own hands

Another longtime courier, Michael Sanders, said he didn't think it would affect his work that much but that it was nice to know that he'd have a form of support if he were to get into an accident. He added that insurance doesn't stop aggressive drivers and road-rage situations, which he says are the most common dangerous incidents he encounters on the road.

Avendano's best friend, George Ciccariello-Maher, is part of a group that, following Avendano's death, has called for Caviar to classify its workers as employees, not independent contractors. "By assuming responsibility for its couriers," Ciccariello-Maher said, Caviar was finally recognizing their true status as employees. He also said the company should send the $100,000 death benefit to Avendano's family. (Friends of Avendano's raised nearly $20,000 in a GoFundMe for his funeral expenses.)

Ciccariello-Maher sees the insurance offering as a victory of the "organized movement" fighting for gig workers' rights.

Still, he said, "we must keep the pressure up until all demands are met."