‘I use a lot of Febreze to mask the stench of Lysol:’ California Lyft driver can't afford to NOT to work during coronavirus outbreak

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Edan Alva will be off to work Tuesday, while millions across California’s Bay Area are supposed to stay indoors under strict orders to leave only for food, medicine and essential outings in order to slow the coronavirus’ spread.

Alva doesn’t fear being out there. He fears what his life would be like if he couldn’t get out there.

‘For me the fear is getting sick at all, not because I will die, but because I can’t afford to stop working. My other fear is if I keep working, I will not have income. That appears to be the situation now.’

Edan Alva, Lyft driver

“I am not all that scared of the coronavirus,” Alva, 49, told MarketWatch. “However if it requires some measures to mitigate, and if quarantine or social isolation is the best way, by all means. But I think people can take it down a not in terms of anxiety. For me, the fear is getting sick at all, not because I will die, but because I can’t afford to stop working. My other fear is if I keep working, I will not have income. That appears to be the situation now.”

The Alemeda resident makes between $35,000 and $45,000 a year, living in a studio in the costly Bay Area with no sick days, no vacation days and a health-insurance plan that offers a $100 copay and an $8,000 deductible.

He tried working through the flu in January and ended up in bed for a week after driving several days. Alva missed out on $900 during that time, he figures.

“I was miserable physically, because I felt sick and miserable mentally, thinking every day I stay home how much more in debt it puts me,” Alva said.

The Moneyist: They’re exposing themselves to the risk of coronavirus — so how much do you tip the delivery person and Uber driver?

So he will be out Tuesday in his 2013 Toyota TM, +8.30%  Prius, roaming the Bay Area for fares that have dwindled. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, Alva could earn up to $22 an hour driving passengers here and there. Now it’s $10 to $15 — “if I’m lucky.”

He also drives kids to and from school and does occasional security work. Both income sources dried up for now because schools are closed and events are cancelled.

While white-collar workers telecommute to nearby tech jobs at companies like Google GOOG, +1.27%, Twitter TWTR, +3.79%   and Apple AAPL, +4.51%, Alva cannot do the same. There are four million drivers in America, according to Deutsche Bank DB, +5.02%   estimates. Around one quarter of America’s civilian workforce, 33.6 million, does not have access to paid sick leave, according to the Pew Research Center.

On Sunday, Alva had seven passengers. On Monday, the same day the “shelter in place” order came down — to seek shelter in your home — he had three riders. One was a visibly scared elderly woman who needed ride to her CVS CVS, +11.38% pharmacy for a shot to avoid pneumonia. Another rider called San Francisco a “ghost town,” he recalled.

Tipping seems to have dropped off too, Alva said. “When people are miserable they just don’t tip. They just don’t think of it.”

‘Essential infrastructure’

Monday’s shelter in place order covers a region with 7 million people. It says residents may leave their house for reasons like groceries, medical necessities, care for pets and family in other houses.

People providing work or services related to “essential infrastructure,” such as public transportation, may leave for work, the order says.

Alva notes he’s had to buy his own cleaning supplies, and he’s around halfway through his Lysol spray RB, +2.70%.

‘We are providing an essential service for other people to help deal with the situation, but we are not being provided with basic protections to defend ourselves from the situation.’

Edan Alva

“We are providing an essential service for other people to help deal with the situation, but we are not being provided with basic protections to defend ourselves from the situation,” he said.

Alva developed a disinfecting routine: Buckles, belts, doors, buttons. Everything people touch. It’s more or less as close to safe as I can get it,” he said. “I use a lot of Febreze PG, +8.32%   to mask the stench of Lysol.” He uses hand sanitizer every 30 minutes. “I got right before it disappeared completely from stores, then I couldn’t get it anymore.”

Alva visited a Lyft LYFT, -1.36%  hub in Oakland on Friday and asked for more supplies. The people there told him they didn’t have any to give him. He was already angry he had to foot the bill on supplies. “Now I’m double pissed off because I simply can’t get them,” he said.

“This is an unprecedented situation for all industries and communities, and our focus is on helping keep our riders, drivers, and team members safe

Lyft spokeswoman Dana Davis

“This is an unprecedented situation for all industries and communities, and our focus is on helping keep our riders, drivers, and team members safe,” said Lyft spokeswoman Dana Davis. “We are working hard to support those who drive with Lyft and are coordinating with government officials on additional solutions.”

Lyft said it has distributed over 200,000 bottles of hand sanitizer and other cleaning supplies at no cost to drivers and it will continue to alert drivers when supplies are available. If the company learns a driver contracts coronavirus, they will be need medical clearance before using Lyft again. The company said it will give money to sickened drivers to cover their expenses, based on the amount of rides they provided in the last month.

Both Lyft and Uber said this week they’re suspending their pool service.

Uber said it will keep its regular rides and Uber Eats services going, a spokeswoman said. The company is working to give disinfectants to drivers. “Supplies are very limited, but we’re partnering with manufacturers and distributors to source as much as possible,” she said. Drivers and delivery people with coronavirus or in quarantine “will receive financial assistance for a period of up to 14 days,” she added.

Alva is an activist with Gig Workers Rising, an advocacy organization pushing for more pay and benefits from companies like Lyft and Uber UBER, -4.12%. California is implementing a new law that makes it tougher for companies to deem someone an independent contractor instead of an employee who is entitled to benefits like minimum hourly wages and workers’ compensation.

Uber, Lyft and other companies are planning a November 2020 ballot measure that would exempt them from the law create a different designation for drivers.

‘Absolute panic’ versus ‘complete denial’

Some drivers are in an “absolute panic” while others “are in complete denial, there’s no risk, let’s shake hands, let’s hug,” Alva said.

Alva witnessed a heated debate Friday between drivers on both sides, as they waited for potential pick-ups.

Airports arrivals can be lucrative fares, ranging between $15 and $40, he said. But they could possibly be worrisome if travelers are bringing COVID-19 from their origin, Alva said. “You’d think drivers would be hesitant to go to the airport, because supposedly that’s where a risk come from. But drivers are looking for any type of work anywhere and there’s simply no work.”

While drivers debate the coronavirus’ threat, federal lawmakers are debating a COVID-19 relief package in Washington D.C. to expand paid sick leave during the outbreak.

For Alva, that’s just another reminder of his own situation. “I’m fully aware I don’t have the slightest safety net. That affects my thinking and my priorities every hour, every day.”

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