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Deliveroo riders can't access coronavirus hardship fund, warns union

Natasha Lomas

UK on-demand food delivery startup Deliveroo has been accused of setting up an inaccessible hardship fund for couriers in the midst of the coronavirus crisis that leaves gig economy workers on its platform unable to access claimed financial support if they become ill or are self isolating.

Gig economy delivery workers are one of the groups who face increased exposure to the coronavirus on account of the work bringing them into contact with many people, even as demand for meal delivery is likely to increase with people being encouraged or required to stay at home.

At the same time gig workers don't have standard benefits and protections afforded to people who are legally classed as workers -- such as sick pay. So, as we reported earlier this week, the coronavirus crisis has shone a lurid spotlight on 'sharing economy' business models that offer little or no safety net for platform workers who fall ill or otherwise cannot work.

Some of these companies have responded by announcing support measures for the core workers they define as independent contractors -- people who are now on the front line, delivering food to others who may not be able to leave their house and/or may be infected with the highly contagious virus.

In the majority of cases this sums to switching on a contactless delivery option in a bid to reduce human contact between couriers and customers. Although so far it tends to rely on the paying customer being proactive about locating and activating the feature.

A few -- including Deliveroo, Glovo and Uber -- have also offered some financial support to plug lost earnings for gig workers who can't work because they're infected with COVID-19 or have been placed in quarantine.

UK-based Deliveroo was fast out of the gate with an announcement of a "multi-million" pound hardship fund it said it would use to support gig workers who fell ill or needed to go into quarantine -- claiming it would pay impacted riders in excess of the equivalent statutory sick pay for 14-days. (Meanwhile UK government support for gig workers needing to self-isolate during the coronavirus crisis has been limited to telling them to claim an unemployment benefit that can take weeks to come through and offers a very low level of earnings compensation; the government has so far rejected calls to extend sick pay to gig workers.)

When we asked about this last week Deliveroo stipulated the fund will only pay impacted riders who are diagnosed with coronavirus or told to isolate themselves by a medical authority.

It's those conditions that a UK union is objecting to. Today the IWGB, a union that represents gig workers, accused Deliveroo of operating an unworkable fund -- saying riders have told it they're unable to access the claimed support because it requires a doctor's note. (Including in cases where Deliveroo has deactivated a rider's account because it suspects they have contracted COVID-19.) 

With many GPs surgeries in the UK switching to telephone-only triage as they scramble to cope with the coronavirus crisis, telling people who are sick with flu-like symptoms not to come to the surgery and instead self isolate to avoid the risk of spreading potential contagion -- it's unclear how couriers would be able to obtain the required documentation to access any financial help from the gig economy giant.

Access to coronavirus testing in the UK is also severely limited at this point of high demand.  

The union also points out that Deliveroo has provided no information on how much the hardship fund will pay out -- even in cases where a rider has been able to procure a doctor's note.

It's called for Deliveroo to implement full sick pay without preconditions, as well as for a guaranteed floor in earnings for riders (of the living wage plus costs) to protect them through any periods of low demand during the public health crisis, as well as safety equipment (such as hand sanitizer and face masks); regular testing for COVID-19; and enhanced pay for those who do put themselves at risk by continuing to work.

Commenting in a statement, IWGB couriers and logistics branch chair Alex Marshall said: “Once we pull the curtains on Deliveroo’s announcement on assistance for workers that are sick or self-isolating, it is obvious that behind the PR spin it is more of the same old deceitful tactics. Deliveroo and other so-called gig economy employers have to stop blocking their workers’ access to these funds and immediately introduce full contractual sick pay, without pre-conditions. Increasingly, these workers are being expected to play a huge role in feeding people during this time of crisis, so it is time for their employers and the government to give them the basic rights we expect in any decent and just society."

We reached out to Deliveroo for a response to the criticism of its requirement that riders produce a doctor's note to access he hardship fund. We also asked whether it has paid anything out so far -- and if so how much it's paying individual riders. At the time of writing the company had not responded to our questions.

Last May the company closed a $575M Series G, with ecommerce giant Amazon leading a funding injection that brought its total investment raised to in excess of $1.5BN.

Update: The company has now sent us this statement:

Deliveroo is committed to providing financial support for riders across the world who are diagnosed with the virus or who are told to be in isolation by a medical authority. We are providing riders with continuous advice on how to stay safe, based on expert guidance. We will continue to explore other ways in which riders can be supported.

It did not address any of our questions directly -- and directly declined to confirm whether or not anything has been paid out from the fund so far -- but told us the requirement for a sick note is based on government guidance delivered in the chancellor's budget speech earlier this month, when Rishi Sunak said people would be able to obtain this documentation via the NHS 111 telephone service.

We understand Deliveroo has since sought information from the government on when the provision will be available -- so far without such info being forthcoming.