To avoid the flu, Uber driver Eddie Reyes wears a medical mask as he picks up passengers and whisks them about town. The rapid spread of this season’s deadly flu, which has already claimed the lives of at least eight Santa Barbara residents, threatens the health and well-being of all service workers who regularly interact with the public. But for Uber drivers, continued exposure to potentially ill and infected passengers can be especially dangerous since Uber does not offer health insurance coverage.
“I don’t want to get sick and be out of work, so I can’t take any risks,” said Reyes, who also offers masks to his passengers for protection. Driving for Uber is just one of a few gigs Reyes works, alongside driving for Lyft and representing local artists. The holidays were especially tough for Reyes, whose mother died the day after Christmas, and after he was forced to drive far fewer hours due to poor air quality during the Thomas Fire.
Notorious for its controversial labor practices, Uber repudiates most responsibility for its drivers by using legal language that defines the company as a “technology platform” rather than an employer. Legally considered independent contractors, Uber drivers are part of an employment sector that is forced to find other health-care alternatives.
Sandra, another Uber driver, who asked that the Independent not publish her real name, is already home sick with the flu. Both Sandra and her husband rely on Uber for their income, switching off shifts so someone is always home to take care of their three kids. Sandra’s husband typically drives Sunday-Wednesday from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., while she drives Thursday-Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. She’s now bedridden and can’t drive at all.
Sandra and her husband purchase insurance through a private health-care provider, an expensive alternative to traditional, job-based coverage. Despite not receiving benefits or worker’s compensation through Uber, however, they plan on working for the company for as long as they are able. For them, the ability to choose their own schedules is well worth the disadvantages associated with being independent contractors. “Driving gives us the freedom to be with our kids and not have to worry about who’s watching them, paying for childcare, or wondering how my daughter is getting home from school,” said Sandra.
This year’s flu has impacted hospitals across the nation, including Santa Barbara, Goleta Valley, and Santa Ynez Valley Cottage Hospitals. According to a written statement from Cottage Health, the virus has prompted a surge in hospital and emergency-room wait times. With this situation compounded by the recent mudslides that devastated the Montecito area, accessing and receiving medical care have become a fraught ordeal in Santa Barbara County.
Ironically, to combat the flu, Uber has partnered with hospitals in select cities in the past to transport patients to medical appointments. It has also offered on-demand flu shots for app users, who can hail an Uber carrying a registered nurse to their homes or workplaces. The company, however, does not explicitly offer these benefits to its drivers. Uber did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Sandra says her husband is eating “Airborne gummies” and washing his hands as precautions against the flu while on the job. For now, he’s taking over her shifts while she recovers. Sandra said she was actually somewhat grateful for the Highway 101 closure as it prevented other Uber drivers, who “make it harder to make money,” from flocking north to State Street during the weekend.