Gig work is transforming our global economy and public health as workers weigh risks every day in precarious, low-wage jobs to deliver us food and parcels

By Beth Gallagher
University Relations

Ellen MacEachen

When the pandemic hit and workers retreated to the safety of their homes, Ellen MacEachen knew the risks of being infected with COVID-19 and transmitting it to others would be high for the gig workers delivering our food and parcels and for the drivers helping us avoid public transportation.

Ellen MacEachen
Professor, Faculty of Health
> School of Public Health and Health Systems

“There are some interesting opportunities out there and it all works great until you have an illness or an injury or a pandemic,” says MacEachen, a professor in Waterloo’s School of Public Health and Health Systems. “All of a sudden, you start to appreciate even more strongly the work and health protection differences between a gig and a more traditional job.”

A few months after Canada went into lockdown, MacEachen and her research teams began exploring how to reduce the risk of gig workers getting and transmitting the coronavirus, and how sick leave policies and practices can protect workers and the community. MacEachen is hoping the research will help protect gig workers and others in low-income, precarious jobs who are helping to keep the rest of us safe in our homes.

Consequences for workers and community

“We want to know what risks these workers take when they don’t have paid sick leave and what are the consequences for public health,” MacEachen says.

Through in-depth interviews, her research teams are hearing from personal shoppers who are delivering groceries to people with COVID-19 who refuse to wear masks. They may refuse to finish a grocery order because a store employee is coughing, but that work refusal increases their “cancellation rate,” which could get them kicked off the app for which they work.

MacEachen’s research teams are finding there are unique dilemmas for workers employed through app-mediated online platforms such as Uber Eats, Amazon Flex and Lyft. While each app works differently, gig workers can wake up one morning to discover they’ve been kicked off the app by an algorithm because their customer score went too low. It’s why drivers are anxious about asking passengers to wear a mask and risk a poor review.

“They are very insecure workers and anxious about wanting to maintain their jobs,” MacEachen says. “They don’t really have a manager. These companies see themselves as technological interfaces so workers don’t really have a manager to go to.”

There are ride-hail drivers, says MacEachen, who buy disposable masks for passengers with their own money. While some drivers may worry about getting infected by passengers, they continue to work and often can’t even afford to take time away from driving to get tested for COVID-19. “They may say, ‘I have a sore throat but I need to pay the rent, so I’m going to work,’” MacEachen says.

Gig work before the pandemic

Before the pandemic, MacEachen says there had already been a significant shift around the world and in Canada, with about 30 per cent of workers are engaged in low-wage, temporary work. This global shift has impacts that go beyond the health and wellness of individual workers.

“These gig firms don’t pay employment insurance. They don’t pay into a pension plan. They don’t pay payroll taxes,” MacEachen says. “They don’t contribute to our national well-being in the same way that other employers do … so they are free riders in a way.”

The costs, however, impact all Canadians: “If these workers do get ill, if they can afford to be ill, instead of a workers compensation claim — it will be a hospital visit,” MacEachen says. “Workers aren’t signed up for employment insurance, so they end up on social assistance.”

MacEachen says the pandemic has highlighted the critical importance of supporting vulnerable workers and may force society to make changes for those who currently have almost no workplace health support or guidance. She hopes her research team’s findings will guide workplace interventions that combat misinformation and fear while reducing illness and disease transmission.

The Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) is one example of a government intervention that has supported gig workers during the pandemic. “It’s really exciting to see this change on the part of the government, MacEachen says. “This is the time when we are re-evaluating our society and the types of supports we want.”

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The work landscape is rapidly evolving in response to changes in our technological, social and economic environments. Professor Ellen MacEachen examines work and health systems and how they can be adapted to meet the changing needs of the workforce.