Every time Joanna Ressi shops for groceries these days, she wipes her cart with Lysol, sanitizes her phone, slathers on Purell and avoids opening doors with her hands. If she needs something from a supermarket bulk bin, she’ll use a plastic bag rather than touching the tongs.
Ms. Ressi always uses the self-checkouts now, too. “I’m really not interested in going to the cashier,” she said. “I’m trying to limit the amount of contact I have.”
Her precautions stem from the spread of the novel coronavirus. Ms. Ressi, who lives in Burlington, Ont., works as a shopper for grocery delivery service Instacart, and she completes about 10 orders each day. When a customer recently wanted to shake her hand, she politely declined.
COVID-19 presents a special risk to gig workers in Canada, many of whom don’t have the option of working from home. Complaints are mounting about the lack of support offered to drivers and couriers by their ostensible employers. Gig workers are considered independent contractors and do not receive the same benefits as employees, including sick pay.
Uber Technologies Inc. and Lyft Inc. have said they will provide 14 days of sick pay to drivers who are diagnosed with COVID-19 or quarantined if required by public health officials. Uber said the policy has already begun in some markets and that it will be implemented worldwide, although the company has yet to say when.
Instacart, based in San Francisco, announced similar measures on Monday and said the assistance will be available for 30 days, including to shoppers in Canada. The company has about 200,000 shoppers in the United States and Canada.
The news comes as some relief to Ms. Ressi. “It allows me to go out and still work in an environment where I could very easily become sick,” she said.
Other gig economy companies in Canada, such as the Skip the Dishes food delivery service, have not announced any such support. Owned by Britain-based Just Eat PLC, Skip the Dishes said it has shared health resources with drivers and that it’s monitoring the situation.
Foodora, a rival service with 5,000 couriers in Canada, said on Wednesday it will offer compensation for up to 14 days to those who are diagnosed or quarantined. “As the situation progresses, we’ll provide more details on this program,” a spokesperson for the company said.
But those details are crucial, said Brice Sopher, a Foodora courier in Toronto. “If this assistance ends up not being enough, many will still choose to work and it will thus defeat the purpose,” he said. Foodora couriers are pushing to unionize, and cleared a major hurdle last month when the Ontario Labour Relations Board ruled couriers are dependent contractors.
The federal government announced economic measures on Wednesday in response to the virus, including waiving the mandatory one-week waiting period to access Employment Insurance. But gig workers would not be eligible for EI unless they’ve registered as self-employed at least 12 months prior and paid contributions.
Participation has been low, according to Angella MacEwen, senior economist at the Canadian Union of Public Employees. “Since we’re counting on workers to self-identify at this point, they need to be completely confident that they’ll still have their jobs and be financially secure while away from work,” Ms. MacEwen said.
But looking to companies like Uber for support is unfair, said Linda Nazareth, a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, adding that such work is often a side gig to a full-time job. “The problem is that many are looking to gig work to be the equivalent of full-time work, and it really is not,” she said.
Companies that are not offering sick pay in the wake of the virus may be trying to avoid setting a precedent of treating workers as employees, which could open a “legal minefield,” Ms. Nazareth added.
Some gig workers are taking extra precautions to prevent the spread of the virus. Earla Phillips, an Uber driver in Toronto, said she keeps masks for passengers who are coughing or sneezing, in addition to sanitizing her car twice a day with Lysol wipes.
Jesse Keanu, who drives full-time for Uber and Lyft in Mississauga, spritzes the passenger door handle and seat belt with an alcohol spray after each drop-off, then lets his car air out. Mr. Keanu noticed business has slowed as fears of COVID-19 have grown. “My income has been significantly cut due to lack of demand, and I’ve had to contact close friends to see if I can get a job where they work,” he said.
Instacart, meanwhile, said last week that its sales growth in North America was 10 times greater than the week before. That surge can be a worry. Josh Molot, an Instacart shopper in Ottawa, said he and his fellow shoppers are more at-risk than other gig workers because of all of the surfaces they touch while at grocery stores.
Earlier this week, Mr. Molot delivered groceries to a long-term care facility, where illnesses can spread rapidly. “If one of us walks in there with coronavirus,” he said, “that’s concerning to me.”
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