As pandemic safety measures have lifted in the US, ride-hailing drivers risk deactivation for imposing their own mask rules.
Nearly two weeks ago, Uber and Lyft removed in-app buttons that allowed US drivers to easily cancel rides if their passengers weren’t wearing masks—to protect themselves against Covid-19.
“It’s an absolute tell for what they care about in the workplace,” says Lyft driver Rondu Gantt.
The change came after a federal judge in Florida struck down a nationwide mask mandate in April that applied to many forms of public transportation: trains, planes, buses, and ride-hailing. The next day, both companies lifted their own mask rules. For drivers like Gantt, who says he’s “vaxxed to the max” and still wears a mask while driving for Lyft in the Bay Area, the change “adds a layer of complication to driving.”
He’s mostly OK with people not wearing masks in his car if they’re sitting in the back with the windows open to promote more airflow. But when Uber and Lyft changed their mask policy, they also did away with pandemic-era rules that banned passengers from sitting in the front seat, and allowed an extra person to take each ride. Gantt doesn’t want unmasked people sitting right next to him, especially when it’s raining and the windows have to be closed. “There’s a lot more negotiating, a lot more thinking that’s involved,” he says.
Most of all, Gantt feels even less in control in his own vehicle, which is his workplace—a feeling that drove him to get involved with a drivers’ advocacy group called Gig Workers Rising two years ago. Throughout the pandemic, front-line gig workers say they’ve had to deal with angry and scared members of the public, divided over whether masks are a vital public health tool or a politicized nuisance. (Science demonstrates that masks, and particularly N95s, KN95s, and KF94s, slow and prevent transmission of the Covid-19 virus.) About one in every 10 Bay Area riders tried to ride without masks even when the mandate applied, Gantt says.
As governments roll back masking policies, ride-hailing drivers are left to set their own rules. Uber and Lyft spokespeople say that any rider or driver who wants to continue wearing a mask can do so. In an email sent to drivers last week, Uber wrote that masks are still recommended.
In the US, app-based drivers are independent contractors, which means legally they run their own businesses. Theoretically, the apps just serve as an intermediary between drivers and riders.
But drivers must comply with the platforms’ rules to keep driving for them. These rules include how often they’re allowed to cancel rides after they’ve accepted them. Drivers who spoke to WIRED say they’re worried they’ll be penalized for canceling on someone who refuses to comply with self-imposed mask rules. Drivers who cancel too often can be threatened with “deactivation,” meaning they’re kicked off the platform. Cancellation rates also affect where drivers rank in the companies’ rewards tiers. On Uber, for example, drivers with high ratings and low cancellation rates are part of a special program that allows them to see where a fare is going before they accept it, and that gives them “premium” support—a perk for drivers who say they struggle to reach gig economy companies when they need them.