Rittenhouse stabbing exposes how gig workers take safety into their own hands

When news broke last week that a bike courier had stabbed a prominent real estate developer, longtime bike messenger Michael Sanders said he could almost picture how it went down.

He, too, sometimes carries a knife for protection.

That’s after a nearly 20-year career and countless experiences with confrontational drivers. One time a man got out of his car and punched Sanders in the face. Another pulled a gun on him.

“You name it, I’ve probably seen it,” said Sanders, 44.

While details remain unclear as to how an argument between Sean Schellenger and Michael White, a 20-year-old poet working for Uber’s online ordering platform, became deadly, the incident opened a window on the dangers on-demand workers face.

Those who find work through online platforms like Uber or Caviar or Care.com often take safety into their own hands.

How on-demand workers keep safe

As a precaution, Sanders, whose work for Caviar is his primary form of income, doesn’t work late at night.  He says he’s seen how situations tend to escalate then because there aren’t as many witnesses. He’s learned to wear bright clothes and make a commotion if he gets into a potentially unsafe situation. But he knows that not everyone can choose to only work during the day — some people use the apps as part-time work to supplement another job.

>> READ MORE: After Caviar courier’s death, what about gig workers’ rights?

But such precautions aren’t specific to bike couriers. Some drivers for Uber and Lyft carry Mace. Others install dash cams. Home cleaners who find work on platforms like Handy and Care.com send addresses and client contact information to loved ones and tell them to be on alert if they don’t hear back, said Julia Ticona, who’s researched care work and online platforms. The more experienced cleaners know how to spot red flags when they’re texting with new clients and use burner phones when communicating with clients instead of their personal numbers.

Online platforms have safety precautions baked into their apps, like GPS tracking, and with Uber, the ability to “share” a ride in real time with loved ones. Customer reviews make the platforms seem safer than Craigslist. Uber also notes that it encourages its riders and workers to report any issues they experience. (Uber said White had only been on the UberEats platform for one week. It’s unclear if he was also working for other delivery platforms at the time.)

Is this problem specific to the gig economy?

In some ways, the on-demand model, which employs independent contractors, lends itself to workers taking safety into their own hands. Companies like Uber and Lyft don’t offer formal safety training (though Uber says it does provide tips, videos, and resources on the topic) because that would expose them to legal arguments that their workers aren’t independent contractors, but employees. And the independent contractor classification is crucial for on-demand companies because it keeps labor costs low and, they say, the business nimble.

>> READ MORE: How incentives in the gig economy put workers at risk

Independent contractors also don’t receive protections like worker’s compensation, paid leave, or reimbursement for expenses, so they are vulnerable should they get in an accident or fall sick. Even federal Occupation Safety and Health Administration regulations do not cover the self-employed.

These conditions are part of an economic trend coined by Yale political science professor Jacob Hacker as “risk shift,” where risk is being displaced from the employer onto the employee. Risk shift, Oxford University professor Jeremias Prassl said in his gig economy book, Humans as a Service, fits in with a larger narrative pushed by the tech scene: Do it yourself, pull yourself up by the bootstraps, take responsibility. Recall the viral video that showed former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick in an Uber yelling at his driver in 2017: “You know what, some people don’t like to take responsibility. … They blame everything in their life on somebody else.”

But Sanders, the veteran courier, said he wouldn’t feel safer if he was an employee instead of an independent contractor. The big difference, in his opinion, is that traditional courier work is done during the day, which he believes is safer. Any job you do at night, he said, is going to be risky.

“You kind of have to have your wits about you,” he said, adding that couriers are part of a tight-knit community that looks out for one another and alerts others to incidents and potentially dangerous situations.

>> READ MORE: Why Philly employers should pay attention to this California Supreme Court ruling on independent contractors

Ticona, the care worker researcher, said this feeling — that you’re on your own on the job — seems to have become more prevalent  among workers in general, especially those working low-wage jobs.

Temp workers, who are also considered part of the gig economy, face similar situations, said Louis Kimmel of New Brunswick, N.J.-based worker center New Labor. Workers often don’t know to whom they should report unsafe conditions — the temp agency or the work site. Sometimes, the temp agency and the work site pass the buck to each other, he said.

Barbara Rahke, executive director of the Philadelphia Area Project on Occupational Safety and Health (PhilaPOSH), agreed that it’s not just a gig economy problem. But, she said, the gig economy does mean more workers are in vulnerable situations.

And in the case of platforms like Uber and Caviar, these workers can be more visible than ever.