Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies Faculty Associate, Marissa Baker and Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences (DEOHS) Research Coordinator Lily Monsey spoke with the Bridges Center about their research concerning the occupational risk of the COVID-19 pandemic on app-based drivers.
Baker, who along with being a Faculty Associate, has received funding from the Bridges Center for research including a 2022- 2023 Washington State Labor Research Grant for her proposal “Characterizing bus driver exposure to secondhand drug use and impacts to well-being.”
The research project discussed in this interview was funded through a University of Washington (UW) Population Health Initiative Economic Recovery Grant. For further information, please check out this study: "Health and safety risk perceptions and needs of app-based drivers during COVID-19."
Bridges Center: Can you describe the project and what led up to it?
MB: My interest was specifically the occupational risk of COVID-19. Nicole Errett, also a faculty in Environmental & in Occupational Health, and Ann Bostrom, faculty in the Evans School of Public Policy, were concerned people were flying in and jumping into Ubers and Lyfts and potentially spreading COVID-19 throughout the area, and how the virus was impacting the drivers. It was about drivers' risk perception and needs, in this very early stage of the pandemic - before we had the vaccine. We wanted to know from drivers what supplies and support they were getting from their employer. How worried are they about driving? What do they need? As the Fair Share Wage Ordinance was making its way through Seattle City Council in the fall of 2020, there was this need to understand how much money drivers were spending on PPE and supplies for their and passengers’ safety. It’s important to know all these items were coming out of their paycheck while they were trying to keep themselves and their passengers safe. We were able to receive funding through the Population Health Initiative and were able to connect with Union leadership at the Drivers Union (DU), Teamsters 117, to connect with drivers. This was so needed because otherwise, it’s such an independent work population. Because they have a union, we were able to centrally reach people.
LM: Besides the survey, we also conducted semi-structured interviews, and found that drivers were having to work closely with their union for support related to unemployment, benefits, and safety while driving. We had these interviews with drivers affiliated with the union and something that came up in the interviews is that drivers recognized the union’s role. The union was integral to getting people what they needed and the benefits they deserved. They saw that they were stronger together and saw the benefits of being in the union. Folks very much saw themselves as part of a bigger group through the union - not only as individual drivers.
Drivers recognized the union’s role. The union was integral to getting people what they needed and the benefits they deserved.
Bridges Center: As researchers, what was your favorite part of the project?
LM: I primarily worked on the interviews. It was great being able to work with our union contacts and talk to drivers. I was able to learn more about what it meant to them to work in the pandemic. I was able to learn about this, their work as drivers during a pandemic, within the scope of their interests and the pride they take in their work.
MB:Often in occupational health research the research we do has an impact, but it may not be for many years down the road. This project was different. We came in and entered this conversation at a time when we were able to immediately make an impact. I was able to testify at a City Council meeting about drivers’ health and safety needs. We saw what we were doing had impacted the Fair Share Wage Ordinance, House Bill 2076, and the PayUp legislation.
Bridges Center: What was the most difficult part of the project?
LM: The survey development. We worked closely with our union contacts and decided to scale back some of the content for phone administration. It’s necessary to make sure that the survey instrument you’re using will work for the population you’re working with. We adjusted it to make it appropriate and accessible for interviews. Also making sure we reached as many folks as possible to complete interviews was a big challenge.
MB: When you’re going in with a pure research goal, you learn that goal can be a lot different than the goals of the impacted community or organizations. We were using a validated screening tool for stress, and our contacts were telling us that the answers weren’t straightforward and that it wasn’t easy for people for whom English was not their first language. So, we had to adjust our expectations and trust our contacts at the DU and Teamsters 117. By changing a validated screening tool, it could make it less likely for the research to be published. But we had to prioritize the community. It was more important to make the changes needed to make an appropriate and accessible survey. And we were able to publish the research as we were very clear about why we changed a validated screening tool.
Bridges Center: Did you learn anything surprising about the experiences of app-based drivers?
MB: Yes, I learned so much. Companies paint this work as a part-time gig that you do on the weekends and at night, and for a lot of people, it’s a full-time job. Doing this research illuminated how a pandemic where nobody is using these services can be extremely devastating. These are full-time employees that deserve the whole suite of benefits for full-time workers. Obviously, all workers deserve these benefits - but these drivers are not a super majority of part-time employees as painted by their employers. Some of the small things I didn’t always think about include how hard it is for drivers to find a place to go to the restroom, and with COVID-19, the library and so many restaurants where drivers might stop to use services were closed. Also, drivers would be taking people to get their COVID-19 test, and the driver or the rider may or may not have appropriate PPE. These are now truly workers that are on the frontline in terms of exposure. I also did not realize how beholden these workers are to the app. There may be a rule that the rider must wear a mask, but the rider might take it off. And if the driver asks the rider to put it back on, the driver could be rated low on the app and then be deactivated. Drivers may also be rated low because of racist and sexist reasons. That’s why some of these protections around deactivation need to happen. I also wasn’t aware of the extra costs - having your car clean inside and out - all the added expenses drivers are taking on.
These are full-time employees that deserve the whole suite of benefits for full-time workers... [and] that are on the frontline in terms of exposure.
LM: Deactivation came up in interviews, and as Marissa has said, many are not realizing the extent to which that process can just leave someone without a job. No process for determining if that’s fair - it’s very cut and dry and does not consider the driver’s perspective at all. This is especially impactful for full-time drivers. Also, tasks such as having to sanitize between customers. These are stacked costs and stacked labor that are not recognized. I think it’s easy to not consider that as a passenger.
Bridges Center: What do you want consumers using these services to know?
MB:It goes back to how can you ethically consume gig work? It starts with acknowledging that it’s not really gig work for many of the people who do this. When Uber first came out, I was using Uber all the time. Then after a while, I felt done. It’s a bad business model, and I didn’t want to support it. Now I’m thinking about it as it’s so many peoples’ job - and not using it doesn’t punish Uber - it affects the drivers. It’s so important to tip well and rate well. Remember that you are a guest in their vehicle. Make sure you’re wearing a mask, that you’re respectful, quiet, and don’t leave a mess. It’s important to acknowledge all the extra costs like PPE and cleaning supplies to use between riders that come out of their own pocket. It’s so important to tip drivers and to remember that a low rating can have a severe and immediate impact on their ability to drive. With there being fewer drivers, prices have gone up. Hopefully, legislation such as the examples passed in Washington will help increase the number of drivers.
LM:I echo all that Marissa said. I want to reiterate wearing a mask. Please be respectful about that. And remember that even if costs are going up since there are fewer drivers as many reduced hours or quit driving during the ongoing pandemic, those cost increases are not all necessarily going to the driver.