MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We've all seen how the coronavirus pandemic has changed life for millions of Americans. Now we want to focus on so-called gig workers who work through companies like Instacart and Uber. Many of these companies are being required to offer benefits they never offered previously, especially now that these workers are on the frontlines, and some are getting sick. NPR's tech correspondent Shannon Bond has more.
SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Last month, April McGhee and her teenage daughter both started feeling sick - cough, sore throat and fever.
APRIL MCGHEE: She had it worse than I did. Her cough lasted longer. It was really a concern. It was like a dry, non-productive, hacking cough.
BOND: McGhee really wanted them both to get tested for the coronavirus. But at the emergency room, she was told they weren't sick enough. So they went home and into isolation. A single mom, McGhee makes ends meet by delivering groceries for Instacart and meals for Postmates. McGhee asked Instacart for sick pay under a new policy the company has put in place because of the pandemic, but she was denied.
MCGHEE: They basically laughed me off and said, unless you have the health department or CDC making you stay home on quarantine or a note from the doctor saying that you've been diagnosed with COVID-19, you're out of luck.
BOND: McGhee joined other Instacart workers who walked off the job on Monday. She says the company's policy not only puts her at risk - it encourages people who are sick to keep working and potentially spread the disease.
MCGHEE: They need to remember that we are the buffer zone and keeping us healthy and keeping our population as a buffer zone instead of as a - you know, a typhoid Mary.
BOND: Instacart says it will start distributing masks, hand sanitizer and thermometers to workers in the coming days.
Workers for other companies are also running into hurdles getting the help they've been promised. Khadim Diop drives for Uber and Lyft in New York. After he fell ill with fever and sore throat, he got a letter from the city's health department saying he must stay home for 14 days. He showed the letter to the companies to get sick pay. Lyft awarded him $250, a fraction of what he says he typically makes in a week. And Uber...
KHADIM DIOP: After a week later or 10 days, they sent me a letter telling me I'm not qualified for the help.
BOND: After NPR contacted Uber, the company said Diop's claims should not have been rejected. He's now received about $1,700 from Uber to cover the two weeks of work he's missed. That's money he sorely needs to pay his bills.
DIOP: To be honest, I'm not - I'm very broke.
BOND: Uber does not require drivers to get tested for the coronavirus to get paid leave. They can show a doctor's note telling them to isolate to prevent the virus from spreading. But the policy doesn't cover drivers who don't want to get into their cars because they're afraid of getting sick. Steve Gregg (ph) lives in the Bay Area. He stopped driving for Uber about three weeks ago.
STEVE GREGG: I have bad lungs already. I'm borderline diabetic. I have high blood pressure. Like, those three categories alone right there were enough that I was - it was - it's like Russian roulette. That's the term I've been using. It felt like - getting in their car felt like Russian roulette.
BOND: He showed Uber a note from his doctor explaining his pre-existing conditions, but no luck. Now he is looking elsewhere for help. He's applied for unemployment benefits, which are now available to gig workers.
Shannon Bond, NPR News, San Francisco.
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