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Worker with a mask in a restaurant
The Worker Institute brings together researchers, educators and students with practitioners in labor, business and policymaking to address issues related to confronting systemic inequality and building a fair economy, robust democracy and just society. We will share opinion, analysis, research, data, insights and training from our faculty and staff.

Speaking with an Uber Driver about the COVID-19 Crisis

Amara Sanogo

t was with some hesitation, in late 2017, that Amara Sanogo finally gave up the keys to his yellow cab. Toward the end, “I could barely pay for my cab rent. Uber had just come into the airport and started taking customers,” he recalled. “So I had to switch. ‘If you cannot fight them, you have to join them.’ I followed that rule.”

Sanogo began to drive for Uber and Lyft, mostly in the Bronx, where he lives with his wife and three young children. He also joined the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, which helped him deal with traffic tickets and advocated for drivers’ rights. On the apps, each fare was so cheap that he had to work long hours nearly every day. He earned enough to cover his bills, but saving was impossible.

Everything changed in mid-March, when the coronavirus came to town. Business slowed, then froze, and word of sick colleagues began to circulate on WhatsApp. “I know a lot of drivers who’ve passed away in the African community,” Sanogo, an immigrant from Côte d’Ivoire, said. “Two drivers I know very well, they passed away. One from Ghana, one from Guinea. I still have their pictures on my iPhone.” Sanogo stopped working on March 27. “I decided to stay home. My wife was very scared.”

He applied for unemployment benefits in early April, joining tens of millions of jobless Americans seeking help. But Uber and Lyft withheld their drivers’ records from state authorities, and Sanogo heard nothing about his case well into May. Meanwhile, the New York Taxi Workers Alliance fielded thousands of calls and tried to sort out a shifting landscape of state benefits and federal pandemic unemployment assistance.

“I want to tell the state to think about the families. We’re talking about lives at stake. They have to expedite the process,” Sanogo said. As for Uber and Lyft, “They have to think about the people who work for them, who make their money. The companies came to the city so fast, and now they’re billionaires.”

Story by  E. Tammy Kim

Amara Sanogo driving Lyft/Uber with mask on.

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