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Who is responsible when a gig worker, such as an Uber driver, is killed on the job?


Hundreds of thousands of people make money by working for platforms like Lyft or Uber, but driving strangers, it can be dangerous. NPR's Bobby Allyn looks into who should be responsible when drivers are killed on the job.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Allyssa Lewis of Dallas, Texas, was catching up with her older sister, Bella. It was the summer, back in August, and they were talking about meeting up.

ALLYSSA LEWIS: I was like, hey, it's the weekend. Can you do my hair? She was like, well, I'm going to do Lyft today. Depending on how I feel after that, then I'll let you know.

ALLYN: But soon after, she got a call from a friend saying something bad had happened.

LEWIS: He's like, hey, I need you to get here - over here on his address or whatever. You need to come right now. And I'm like, OK, what's going on? He was like, don't worry about it. Just get here. I need you to get here.

ALLYN: When she arrived, she saw police vehicles had surrounded her sister's body. A random passenger had shot and killed Bella. She was 26.

LEWIS: She was just a loving, kind soul, kind of lighting up the room with a smile - you know, that type of person. Didn't realize how much she kind of, like, held our family together until losing her.

ALLYN: Bella Lewis was one of more than 50 gig workers killed on the job since 2017, according to a new report from the advocacy group Gig Workers Rising. And while it's hard to say what companies like Lyft, Uber and DoorDash could have done to prevent the deaths, the worker advocates say there was a lack of support in the aftermath of the killings. Unlike regular employees, gig workers don't receive survivor benefits. Catherine Fisk, who teaches labor law at Berkeley, says here's something else that makes gig workers different.

CATHERINE FISK: All independent contractors are in a vulnerable spot when they get hurt, but many of them would have a civil claim that they could assert in court.

ALLYN: In plain English, companies like Lyft make drivers sign what's known as forced arbitration agreements, meaning they aren't allowed to sue. For the Lewis family, that meant they were on the hook for expensive funeral and burial bills.

LEWIS: They weren't going to pay for anything. The driver's window somehow was shot out. They weren't repairing that.

ALLYN: In a statement, Lyft says it tries to make sure all of its drivers are safe at all times, and they have access to an in-app tool that they can use if they feel at risk. Lyft did not respond to questions about why it did not help the Lewis family cover their funeral expenses. Instead, a Lyft spokesperson says the company tried to contact the Lewis family after the death but was not able to. Allyssa Lewis says she never heard from them.

LEWIS: I think, like, the least they could have did was came out of pocket for funeral expenses, kind of keep that burden off of the family because my family isn't necessary a family that comes from money. My sister out here, you know, doing Lyft to get that extra money.

ALLYN: It's hard to know exactly how dangerous being a gig worker is compared to other industries. For instance, federal statistics show that there were about 20 taxi driver deaths in 2020, but that number includes traffic accidents. The gig worker report only focuses on drivers killed by passengers. In addition to more help, the report asks gig-worker companies to publicly disclose how many drivers are getting killed every year. Berkeley law professor Fisk agrees.

FISK: Information is good because it enables everybody to operate more safely.

ALLYN: Meanwhile in Texas, Allyssa Lewis says she's in between jobs and considering doing gig work. But then her mom intervened and said, no way.

LEWIS: Yeah, I'm thinking about going to do DoorDash today, this and that. She's like, no, I don't really feel comfortable with you doing that. I don't want you doing that. I'd rather give you money out of my pocket before you do that.

ALLYN: Lewis says she's promised her mom she wouldn't do it.

Bobby Allyn, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.