Weighing the risks: ridesharing during a pandemic

Written By Andrew Otts

When Brighton Heights native Ben Marmarosa got up for work on March 16, he learned that Governor Tom Wolf ordered the closing of all non-essential businesses in response to the coronavirus pandemic the night prior, so he immediately began to plan for the worst.

“I can’t be out of work, I have a mortgage, bills, car payments… even a month out would sink me financially,” Marmarosa, who throughout the closures does continue to work his sales job, said. “I drove for Uber and Uber Eats on the side, part-time, so that became my new source [of income].”

With the work from home mandate in place, Marmarosa began driving for Uber’s ridesharing and delivery services more frequently with the hope that it would be enough to supplement his income.

“I’ve been doing pretty well with Uber Eats, the other day I made almost $100 for a few hours of work… you don’t even have to see anyone, you just leave the order at the door now,” Marmarosa, who conveyed a very different attitude about the ridesharing, said. “I’ve barely picked people up. There’s not many, especially in the evening… there’s a risk too, because you don’t know if someone in your car could be sick.”

This story is one that’s been playing out all across the country. As more Americans are shut indoors or laid off due to the pandemic – with the U.S Department of Labor reporting around 10 million people filing for unemployment in the last few weeks alone – rideshare drivers must take daily risks to earn a paycheck or lose a source of income, with some choosing the latter.

“The risk of associated exposure is too high,” Matt Pribis, a former Uber driver who recently stopped working in the wake of the pandemic, said. “I’ve decided that driving during this time, for me personally, isn’t worth it.”

Pribis isn’t alone. 27-year-old Ben Pace, who drove for Uber part-time, was also having anxieties about working during the pandemic and came to a similar decision.

“I personally have stopped, my last day was the Saturday of the St. Patrick’s Day celebration,” Pace, who felt the health hazard was too great to continue driving, said. “As much as I want to continue, I don’t want to risk it. I Uber mainly for extra cash to pay down credit cards and to save for a trip I had planned to Spain this summer. I’m still working my day job, so financially I’m okay.”

Pace, a resident of Mt. Washington, has been more fortunate than some around the county and state, with the governor’s office deeming his workplace essential, providing a steady stream of income for him during the crisis.

“I’m a freight broker for a trucking company, we deal with mostly steel, so that’s essential right now… other than working from home full-time at the moment, not too much has changed,” Pace said.

Although some drivers have halted rides indefinitely, others, like Marmarosa, feel you just need to take the proper precautions.

“I’ve been offering hand sanitizer to everyone and wiping down my car,” Marmarosa said. “I have gloves and change them frequently, more for my passengers’ comfort than for me. I’m still taking all the precautions and I’m covering my face when I’m riding [with] someone. It’s close quarters in my car, but luckily I haven’t had any coughing customers yet.”

The risk is still high, and like many others, Marmarosa has been seeking alternatives that require less human interaction. As a Washington Post article from March 19 pointed out, passenger trips on Uber have declined by upwards of 70-percent in cities hardest hit by the pandemic. This has resulted in a tidal wave of new workers looking for a gig to supplement their income, with many turning to services as Uber Eats for work. With such a saturated market, it may become increasingly difficult to find work at all.

“I think a lot of [drivers] have started to look for a different job. I’m just worried that it’ll be harder to make the money I need,” Marmarosa said. “Let’s hope that this all blows over soon and we can get back to some normalcy.”