By: Dara Kerr
When St. Louis police arrived at 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 the torso. In a statement of probable cause provided to The Markup by prosecutors, detectives say they found a bullet casing next to Newman’s body and a Lyft light attached to the front dashboard.
“It was like a punch in the stomach,” said Elizabeth Hylton, Newman’s longtime friend and roommate, upon hearing the news.
Newman, an immigrant from Ghana, was one of more than 50 gig workers murdered while working in the United States in the past five years, according to a new study published by workers’ group Gig Workers Rising.
The study draws on data from The Markup’s report of 124 car thefts by hail riders, as well as news articles, police documents, legal documents, GoFundMe fundraisers, and other online searches. Gig Workers Rising said the study fills the gap in any company or government data on the dangers of gig work. The markup has independently verified the incidents listed in the report.
“These are not unique incidents,” said Lauren Jacobs, executive director of a coalition of nonprofits focused on inequality, PowerSwitch Action, which contributed to the report. Companies don’t seem to care enough about workplace safety, she added.
“It’s a pattern.”
According to a chart provided by Gig Workers Rising The Markup, 22 of the workers drove there above 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 the company says 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 happened across the country, from Arizona to Kentucky to Pennsylvania, and most occurred in 2021, with 28 reported homicides. Seven murders tracked by Gig Workers Rising occurred in just the first two months of this year.
Some of the workers were accidentally involved in drive-by shootings, others in street rage incidents, or botched auto thefts and robberies. While cities across the country have seen a rise in carjacking and related crimes in recent years, these incidents appear to be particularly prevalent among gig workers.
“Gig work is becoming increasingly dangerous,” said Bryant Greening, attorney and co-founder of Chicago-based law firm LegalRideshare. “Criminals view ridesharing and delivery workers as easy prey, vulnerable to carjacking, robberies and assaults.”
Uber spokesman Andrew Hasbun said, “Given the scale at which Uber and other platforms like ours operate, we are not immune to society’s challenges, including increases in crime and violence.” He added that “we continue investing heavily in new technology to improve driver safety,” and “each of these incidents is a terrible tragedy that no family should endure.”
Lyft spokeswoman Gabriela Condarco-Quesada said, “Since day one, we’ve built security into every part of the Lyft experience. We are committed to doing everything we can to protect drivers from crime and 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 security seriously and have protocols in place for emergency situations.
Gig Workers Rising said the tally of more than 50 workers was “not comprehensive and likely excludes many workers.” The Bureau of Labor Statistics and most police departments do not compile data specifically on gig worker deaths. None of the gig companies contacted by The Markup would say how many of their workers were killed on the job. Uber’s Hasbun and Lyft’s Condarco-Quesada referred The Markup to company safety reports, both of which included some data on fatal physical assaults on passengers and drivers. The latest data is from Lyft in 2019.
Gig Workers Rising said its table included only reported homicides, not traffic accidents or other causes of death. Most of those killed – 63 percent – were people of color, according to the group, which also reported several families said they received little support from businesses after the incidents.
Gig workers are treated by the companies as independent contractors, so they don’t receive benefits such as workers’ compensation, full company health insurance, or death benefits. When trips or deliveries go wrong, workers and their families are often the ones shouldering medical expenses, car payments, and funeral expenses.
Two drivers told The Markup that after their carjacking, Uber and Lyft offered to help with some of their expenses only if they agreed to sign non-disclosure agreements.
Uber’s Hasbun didn’t respond to questions about non-disclosure agreements, but said that “every situation is unique, we have family support programs, including insurance.” Similarly, Lyft’s Condarco-Quesada said, “although every situation is unique, works our specialized group of trained safety advocates work with the driver’s family to determine their specific needs and provide them with meaningful support directly.” Crowley, Montalvo and DeMarco also said that DoorDash, Instacart and Grubhub make efforts to support workers’ families in these cases, and both DoorDash and Instacart offer free accident insurance to eligible workers.
Along with its report, Gig Workers Rising called for reforms from the companies, including worker compensation for all drivers and couriers, the end of enforced arbitration clauses in contracts to allow workers to publicly pursue legal claims in court, and a requirement that gig companies report annually death of workers.
“No one should be killed coming to work,” Cherri Murphy, a former Lyft rider and organizer at Gig Workers Rising, said in a statement. “The lack of care for these workers is a direct result of a business model designed to milk as much as possible for executives.”
Some families have filed wrongful death lawsuits against the companies. Among them are the relatives of Uber driver Cherno Ceesay, a 28-year-old Gambian immigrant who was allegedly fatally stabbed by two passengers while driving in Issaquah, Washington, and the family of Beaudouin Tchakounte, a 46-year-old Cameroonian immigrant , who also drove for Uber and was allegedly shot by a passenger in Oxon Hill, MD.
A federal district court judge in Maryland dismissed Tchakounte’s case in February, but the family appealed. Ceesay’s case will be heard in a federal district court in Washington later this year.
Uber’s Hasbun did not respond to requests for comment on the lawsuits.
Isabella Lewis was 26 when she was allegedly killed by a passenger in August 2021 near Dallas, Texas. According to Gig Workers Rising, Lyft has not supported the family, which 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 on whether the company supports Lewis’ family.
The markup previously noted that many gig drivers who were victims of carjacking were elderly, immigrants and women. In addition to the 124 carjackings we first compiled, we also found that in Minneapolis alone, nearly 50 Uber and Lyft drivers were carjacked over a two-month period from August through October 2021.
Some of the car thefts were random incidents, we found, but most attacks happened after Uber’s or Lyft’s app drivers were matched with their would-be attackers — often using false names and false profile pictures of the passengers. Neither company requires drivers to use valid ID to sign up for the service, allowing passengers to remain anonymous. The suspect in the Elijah Newman case is said to have used a fake name. Gig Workers Rising said this has also happened in some of the cases it has been prosecuting.
Uber’s Hasbun said the company now requires valid ID from new drivers who sign up for the app and use anonymous payment methods like a gift card. Lyft also has this requirement in some US cities. Neither Hasbun nor Lyft’s Condarco-Quesada responded to questions about why the companies don’t require all passengers to upload a valid ID.
“As companies publicly tout their safety commitments, workers are quickly discovering an alternate reality,” said LegalRideshare’s Greening. “Put simply, gigworkers and their families are left to their own devices.”
This article was originally published on The Markup and republished under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license.