This Pandemic Exposes the Downsides of Cheap Uber Rides


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Many of us have benefited from the convenience of services like Uber and Instacart. But now in an economic and health crisis, their workers are highly vulnerable, and no one has their backs.

Here’s how this happened, and who is to blame. Short version: Blame everyone, including ourselves.

How we got here:

In the United States, people who drive or deliver for Uber — and for companies like Lyft, Postmates, DoorDash and more — are hired as contractors not employees. That means the companies aren’t required to provide them benefits and protections like health insurance and a minimum wage.

Some people who work for these companies like the flexibility of contract work. But the lack of health insurance, sick pay and other protections for many Americans, including Uber contractors, is stark now.

More people are skipping Uber rides altogether, leaving drivers with little income. And contractors are exposed to health risks when they do drive for Uber or go grocery shopping for Instacart.

Blame Uber:

For years, Uber and its peers delayed a reckoning about its contract work force, which numbers in the millions.

Only recently, as lawsuits and laws questioned whether Uber workers are actually conventional employees, the company and others have stepped up their push for a “third way” to give workers some flexibility of contractor life with some employee-like protections.

Uber, Lyft and other companies are also using this crisis as an opportunity. They helped persuade the U.S. government to extend unemployment benefits to freelancers. That’s good for millions of people in financial difficulty, but it also sticks American taxpayers with the bill for worker protections Uber could have provided all along.

Uber also is paying drivers and delivery couriers who can prove they’re probably sick and are ordered to isolate themselves. It’s not clear how many people are eligible for a payment or have received one.

The company also asked for a temporary legal break so it could offer some worker benefits, without those facts being used against it in court cases seeking to reclassify Uber workers as employees. That’s an understandable step to protect Uber’s business. It’s also gross.

Blame ourselves, and our government:

I started writing this pointing the finger at Uber and other companies that summon contract workers at the tap of a smartphone app. It’s not that simple, though.

We have to admit that when Uber, Instacart and Postmates rely on contractors, it benefits us as well as those companies’ bottom lines. If these companies instead hired masses of employees with benefits, the services they provide probably wouldn’t be as ubiquitous or affordable. Uber might not exist at all outside big cities.

And Uber is far from the only company relying on non-employee workers, in part because it’s cheaper to hire and fire them. That exposes the downsides of government decisions in the United States to tie many basic protections to our employer.

I’m not sure companies like Uber can continue to rely on an all-contract work force. That’s going to be a huge challenge for Uber. It’s also a problem for all of us who enjoyed cheap, handy services that leave workers exposed.

A reader, Caroline Ayres, recently asked us for advice on blocking out noise while she’s working from home:

I love my family, but with two teenagers, a dog, a cat and a preschool for kids of emergency providers in the downstairs of my building, working from home is a bit of a challenge during coronavirus. My question is: What noise-canceling headphones do I need to buy?

Lauren Dragan from the Wirecutter, a product recommendation site owned by The Times, shared this advice:

Hi, Caroline! The first thing you should know is that noise-canceling headphones — while fantastic for low frequency, sustained sounds like airplane noise — aren’t effective on human voices, dog barks or other high-pitched sounds.

What blocks those sounds out is a physical barrier to the sound waves, often referred to as “passive isolation.” While some noise-canceling headphones, like the Bose NC 700 or Jabra Elite 85h, also have decent passive isolation, they’re often expensive.

The best way to block out kiddo shenanigans is to use isolating earbuds. Nearly any earbud you love (that fits securely) can be upgraded to better block sounds by adding sound isolating foam tips.

If you don’t have earbuds already, we’d suggest the Jabra Elite 75t, as they work well for video calls. Or if you want something more affordable, the 1 More Piston Fit BT are a great option.

Another tip is to use white noise (or ocean or rain sounds) via an app to help mask the sound around you. Just be sure to keep your laptop volume below 60 percent to protect your ears.

A final resort, and I’m only half-joking, is to buy wireless earbuds and wear hearing-protection earmuffs over them. Not the most comfortable setup, but man, it’s effective. Trust me. I have a 4-year-old.

  • The iPad is the gadget of the pandemic. Brian X. Chen, the personal tech columnist for The Times, writes that the iPad has transformed from an “other” device to a go-to screen for video calls, cooking tutorials and distraction-free emailing (with an add-on keyboard).

  • Policing Facebook ain’t easy, example infinity. The company says posts encouraging protests against states’ pandemic lockdown rules are fine, as long as the protesters abide by states’ pandemic lockdown rules, Bloomberg News reported. Drawing the line between free speech and protecting public safety can lead to head-scratching rule-making.

  • Competitive. Marble. Racing. Watching YouTube videos of marbles steamrolling down tracks or negotiating hurdles (!) is a balm in the absence of human sports, as my colleague Mariel Padilla writes. There are even play-by-play announcers, marble “fans” and a cappella team chants.

Is it bad that I feel jealous of the pizza groundhog? Just munching without a care in the world.


We want to hear from you. Tell us what you think of this newsletter and what else you’d like us to explore. You can reach us at ontech@nytimes.com.





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