More than 50 American gig workers killed on the job in five years

By: Dara Kerr

When the St. Louis police arrived on the scene last April, Lyft driver Elijah Newman was already dead. Officers found him in the driver’s seat of his car with a gunshot wound to his upper body. In a probable cause statement provided to The Markup by the Circuit Attorney’s office, detectives say they found a bullet casing next to Newman’s body and a Lyft light on the front dashboard.

“It was like a fist in the stomach,” said Elizabeth Hylton, Newman’s longtime friend and roommate, when she heard the news.

Newman, an immigrant from Ghana, was one of more than 50 gig workers killed on the job in the US in the past five years, according to a new study published by the advocacy group Gig Workers Rising.

The study pulls data from The Markup’s report on 124 taxi driver carjackings, as well as news articles, police records, legal documents, GoFundMe fundraisers and other online searches. Gig Workers Rising said the study fills the void in corporate or government data about the dangers of gig work. The Markup independently verified the incidents mentioned in the report.

“These are not one-off incidents,” said Lauren Jacobs, executive director of a coalition of nonprofits focused on inequality, PowerSwitch Action, who contributed to the report. The companies don’t seem to be concerned enough about worker safety, she added.

“This is a pattern.”

According to a spreadsheet Gig Workers Rising provided to The Markup, 22 of the workers drove to: Uber when they were killed, and four were couriers for Uber Eats. Seventeen worked for Lyft, eight for DoorDash, two for Instacart, one for Grubhub and one for Postmates (which is owned by Uber). The Markup also independently verified the incidents in the spreadsheet, a handful of which, according to the companies, happened after the employee logged out of the app.

It is estimated that more than a million people in the US work for one or more of these gig companies. The attacks took place across the country, from Arizona to Kentucky to Pennsylvania, with the majority taking place in 2021, with 28 murders reported. Seven murders followed in the first two months of this year alone, followed by Gig Workers Rising.

Some workers were caught accidentally in drive-by shootings, others in traffic incidents or botched carjackings and robberies. While cities across the country have seen an increase in car thefts and related crimes in recent years, these incidents seem to be happening at a particularly high rate with handymen.

“Gigwork is getting more and more dangerous,” said Bryant Greening, a lawyer and co-founder of Chicago-based law firm LegalRideshare, who says he gets calls from gig workers who are carjacked weekly. “Criminals see drivers and deliverymen as sitting ducks, prone to carjacking, robbery and assault.”

Uber spokesperson Andrew Hasbun said: “Given the scale at which Uber and other platforms like ours operate, we are not immune to society’s challenges, including spikes in crime and violence.” He added that “we continue to invest heavily in new technologies to improve driver safety”, and “each of these incidents is a horrific tragedy that no family should have to endure.”

Lyft spokesperson Gabriela Condarco-Quesada said, “Since day one, we’ve built security into every part of the Lyft experience. We are committed to helping protect drivers from crime, and we will continue to invest in technology, policies and partnerships to make Lyft as safe as possible.”

DoorDash spokesperson Julian Crowley, Instacart’s senior director of shopper engagement Natalia Montalvo, and Grubhub spokesperson Jenna DeMarco made similar comments, saying the companies take safety seriously and have protocols in place for emergencies.

Gig Workers Rising said the number of more than 50 employees “is not exhaustive and likely excludes many employees.” The Bureau of Labor Statistics and most law enforcement agencies do not collect specific data on gig worker deaths. None of the gig companies The Markup has contacted are saying how many of their employees have died on the job. Uber’s Hasbun and Lyft’s Condarco-Quesada pointed out to The Markup safety reports from the company, both of which include some data on deadly physical assaults to riders and drivers. The most recent data was from Lyft in 2019.

Gig Workers Rising said his spreadsheet only includes reported homicides, not traffic accidents or other causes of death. Most of the dead – 63 percent – were people of color, according to the group, which also reported several families say they received little support from the companies after the incidents.

Gig workers are treated as independent contractors by the companies, so they do not receive employee benefits such as workers’ compensation, full company health insurance, or death benefits. When things go wrong during rides or deliveries, employees and their families are often the ones to bear medical expenses, car payments and funeral expenses.

Two drivers told The Markup that after they were carjacked, Uber and Lyft only offered to help with some of their expenses if they agreed to sign non-disclosure agreements.

Uber’s Hasbun did not respond to questions about non-disclosure agreements, but said that “every situation is unique, we have programs to support families, including with insurance.” Likewise, Lyft’s Condarco-Quesada said, “While every situation is unique, our specialist group of trained safety attorneys work with the driver’s family to determine their specific needs and provide them with meaningful support directly.” Crowley, Montalvo and DeMarco also said DoorDash, Instacart and Grubhub are reaching out to support the families of employees in these cases, and both DoorDash and Instacart offer free injury protection insurance to eligible employees.

Along with the report, Gig Workers Rising demanded reforms from the companies, including workers’ compensation for all drivers and couriers, the end of forced arbitration clauses in contracts so that employees can publicly file legal claims in court, and a requirement that action companies report employee deaths every year.

“No one showing up for work should be killed,” Cherri Murphy, a former Lyft driver and organizer at Gig Workers Rising, said in a statement. “The lack of concern for these workers is a direct result of a business model designed to give as much milk as possible to executives.”

Some families have brought wrongful death lawsuits against the companies. They include the relatives of Uber driver Cherno Ceesay, a 28-year-old immigrant from The Gambia who was reportedly fatally stabbed by two passengers while driving in Issaquah, Wash., and the family of Beaudouin Tchakounte, a 46-year-old Cameroonian immigrant. who also drove for Uber and was reportedly shot and killed by a passenger in Oxon Hill, Md.

A federal court in Maryland dismissed Tchakounte’s case in February, but the family is appealing. Ceesay’s case is pending trial in a federal court in Washington later this year.

Uber’s Hasbun did not respond to requests for comment on the lawsuits.

Isabella Lewis was 26 years old when she was reportedly killed by a passenger in August 2021 near Dallas, Texas. According to Gig Workers Rising, Lyft failed to help the family, who started a GoFundMe page to raise money for Lewis’ funeral. Lewis’ sister, Alyssa Lewis, told Gig Workers Rising, “My sister lost her life on a Lyft trip that totaled…$15.”

Lyft’s Condarco-Quesada did not respond to a request for comment about whether the company supported Lewis’s family.

The Markup previously found that many drivers who were victims of carjacking were elderly, immigrants and women. In addition to the 124 carjackings we first collected, we also found that in Minneapolis alone, nearly 50 Uber and Lyft drivers were carjacked over a two-month period from August to October 2021.

Some of the carjackings were random incidents, we found, but most of the attacks happened after drivers were matched with their would-be attackers by the Uber or Lyft app — often with the passengers using fake names and fake profile pictures. Neither company requires passengers to use valid ID to sign up for the service, so passengers can be anonymous. The suspect in the case of Elijah Newman is said to have used a false name. Gig Workers Rising said this has happened in some cases.

Uber’s Hasbun said the company now requires new riders to sign up for the app and use anonymous payment methods, such as a gift card, to provide valid identification. Lyft also has this requirement in a few US cities. Neither Hasbun nor Lyft’s Condarco-Quesada responded to questions about why the companies don’t require all passengers to upload valid ID.

“As the companies publicly tout their commitment to safety, employees are quickly discovering an alternate reality,” said Greening of LegalRideshare. “Put simply, gig workers and their families are left to their own devices.”

This article was originally published on The Markup and has been republished under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license.

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