by Umme Hoque
This story was originally published at Prism.
Allyssa Lewis spoke to her sister, Isabella, the morning before Isabella died. Allyssa said she called to ask if Isabella could help her do her hair for her birthday, but her older sister was planning to drive for Lyft that day, so they agreed to check in later. At 26 years old, Isabella was doing gig work to make ends meet while simultaneously working for Blue Cross.
Shortly after their phone call, Isabella picked up her first passenger in Garland, Texas. Video footage would later show struggling and the assailant dragging her out of the car before speeding away. Isabella was shot in the side of the head for a fare of around $15.
Despite the fact that she was driving for Lyft, her family still hasn’t heard from the company directly and hasn’t received any financial support. Instead, the Lewises saw a quote in the local paper expressing condolences. Ignoring the human cost, Lyft worried about their financial burden and even sent their insurance company to assess the damages, creating even more grief for a family who simply wanted an acknowledgment of what had happened.
“No amount of money would make [Isabella] come back,” Lewis said. “But justice would be treating this situation like a normal business would. Lyft needs better support, better conditions before situations like this happen. If it does happen, [they need to] handle it better. Instead of worrying about a car, talk about a real person.”
Isabella is one of at least 50 gig workers for companies like Lyft, DoorDash, Instacart, and Uber who have been killed on the job since 2017, according to a new report by Gig Workers Rising. The research compiled reported deaths around the country and found that the majority of workers killed on the job, 63%, are BIPOC, even though people of color are only 39% of the overall workforce.
When loved ones are killed, most families grieve alone and have to pay for the funeral and other costs out of pocket or by setting up an online fundraiser. They don’t receive compensation or support from the companies matching their family members with their killers. Companies aren’t legally required to do anything when a gig worker is killed on the job, but families and workers’ rights advocates are calling for change.
“This could’ve been anyone—what happened to my sister,” Lewis said. “And that means it could’ve been avoided. They need to do better for families in the future.”
Cherri Murphy is a Lyft driver and organizer with Gig Workers Rising. She helped write the report and conduct the research, and she’s seen how the industry has changed since she started driving in 2017.
“I’ve made over 12,000 rides for Lyft,” Murphy said. “And in those rides, I found myself in a cycle: As the number of bonuses decreased, and hours increased, it was a deadly and inflexible cycle. I was working to afford to keep working.”
Because drivers who get work from ride-share apps aren’t classified as workers, they have to take on all financial and safety risks while driving. This means they are responsible for their own costs and expenses, like broken windows and car repairs. They aren’t paid for wait time between rides, and drivers like Murphy were denied unemployment during the pandemic. The health and safety costs for drivers are high, and the report highlights how the potential of death, especially for BIPOC workers, is real.
“Most of these workers who have been killed, they look like me,” Murphy said. “Black and brown workers, killed because app corporations are not doing enough to provide adequate safety for workers. Their philosophy is to have profit rather than safety.”
Safety at work means more than just addressing deaths for drivers like Murphy, which isn’t the only risk for ride-share drivers. Other types of violence, like carjacking, verbal abuse, harassment, and sexual assault are also common. When responding to these safety risks, gig workers are still forced to go at it alone, with no legal access to services or support like paid time off or sick leave.
Gig companies like Uber rose from the ashes of the 2008 financial crisis. Originating as a way for people to make side money, over time the corporations grew their profits while slashing drivers’ security. Changes like raising rates, altering the algorithm, and changing how work is distributed means drivers are having to work more to be able to get by.
These same companies are also spending millions on passing bills that would ensure workers who do work on their platforms never get any rights, like California’s Proposition 22 and Massachusetts’ current gig worker bill. Workers’ rights advocates argue that these pieces of legislation have the capacity to create a permanent underclass of precarious, unsafe, and insecure workers.
Although the number of deaths counted is harrowing, it’s possible that deaths have gone unreported and have been willfully hidden by companies that keep their data closed. In the past, gig companies have forced cases behind closed doors and refused to release information about working conditions for their drivers. To address the crisis, workers are asking for better wages, no forced arbitration, transparency on data and deaths, and the right to form a union.
“This is a systemic issue: not a one-off,” Murphy said. “Racial justice is economic justice. When you pull back the curtain, you realize this is a crisis in the gig economy. There are practices being performed that shouldn’t happen, and it benefits corporations at the drivers expense; it’s causing injuries, emotional and physical abuse. Offloading the responsibility to drivers for profit is an abomination that needs to stop.”
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