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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Uber and Lyft Drivers Must Now Set Their Own Mask Rules

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.

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Both Uber and Lyft say drivers won’t be penalized for mask-related cancellations. On the Uber app, drivers can select “not safe to pick up,” which Andrew Hasbun, a spokesperson for the company, says won’t affect a driver’s overall cancellation rate. Gabriela Condarco-Quesada, a spokesperson for Lyft, says drivers must reach out to the company’s safety team to make sure that their health safety-related cancellation doesn’t affect their overall cancellation rate. The spokesperson declined to clarify how many rides a driver can cancel before they are threatened with deactivation.

The shifting politics of masking could have other, more subtle effects on drivers. Their work on the companies’ apps is dependent on their ratings, which passengers can submit during or at the end of each ride. If drivers’ ratings are too low, they can get kicked off an app. A handful of bad ratings from riders who take a different approach to masking than their driver could lead to deactivation. It could also “downrank” drivers within the companies’ black-box algorithms that assign rides. “If I ask riders to wear a mask and [they] give me a bad rating because of that—it’s not fair,” says Gantt.

“If the drivers don’t keep a very high customer rating, the lack of clarity from Uber puts a huge burden on the drivers,” says Shannon Liss-Riordan, an attorney who has been involved with driver-related litigation and is a candidate for attorney general in Massachusetts. "By doing this Uber is once again pushing off the burdens of running this business to its drivers."

For some drivers, the change in masking policy has been clarifying. The mask mandate “created so much friction between the passengers and the drivers,” says Sergio Avedian, who has been driving for ride-hailing apps in Los Angeles since 2016 and writes about the experience on The Rideshare Guy, a driver-focused blog. The new policy means many drivers don’t feel they need to enforce rules. But he’s keeping his mask on—LA County is one of a handful of cities in the US still requiring ride-hailing drivers and passengers to wear masks right now. He expects older or immunocompromised drivers all over the country to do the same. Or to stop driving altogether. “Look, this [virus] has not gone away yet,” he says. “Is it worth dying for 60 cents a mile? I don’t think so.”

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