On a Sunday afternoon in August 2021, the Lyft driver Isabella Lewis was shot in the head by a passenger she had just picked up and left for dead as the man sped off in what appeared to be a fatal carjacking.
Lyft released a statement to the press at the time saying it was “heartbroken by this incident” – but Allyssa Lewis, Isabella’s sister, said her family had never received direct communication from the company, nor any financial compensation.
Instead, in the days following the killing, Lyft sent an insurance representative to Isabella’s abandoned, bullet-riddled vehicle before the family could collect her remaining belongings, Allyssa said.
“There is nothing that could bring my sister back, but it would have meant a lot just being able to get Lyft to acknowledge that she died while working for them,” Allyssa said.
Isabella was one of at least 50 US gig workers killed on the job since 2017, a new study from the advocacy organization Gig Workers Rising reports. The group found dozens of workers for firms such as Lyft, Uber and Postmates have been fatally assaulted on the job – including six in the first two months of 2022. The report charges the companies don’t do enough to mitigate “an urgent safety crisis ”, or help victims’ families following assaults.
“This is a systemic and sickening practice in which these corporations – which do not do enough to protect their workers – try to protect their bottom line by offloading risk on to them,” said Cherri Murphy, a co-author of the report.
Victims were identified through publicly available resources including news reports, police documents, legal filings and GoFundMe fundraising campaigns, the organization said. Most gig firms do not publicly share data on the number of deaths, meaning the figures were likely to be “much greater” than what was listed in the report, it added.
Of the more than 50 workers killed on the job, 63% were workers of color, the study found, though they comprised less than 39% of the overall US workforce. While most gig economy firms do not release diversity figures for their workforces, independent surveys indicate more than 78% of gig workers are people of color.
Other studies echo those findings: a recent Pew Research Center report showed gig workers of color are more likely than those who are white to say they have at least sometimes felt unsafe or been sexually harassed on the job.
Murphy herself used to drive for Lyft and completed more than 12,000 rides before she became disillusioned with the lack of support from the company and financial instability of the job. She said in most cases, families of workers receive no compensation for deaths that occur while working on the apps.
Such was the case for Allyssa, who said the grievance she felt about her sister’s death was compounded by Lyft’s response.
“To have someone working for your company to give her life while on the job, and her family cannot even get a pat on the back, or any personal outreach,” Allyssa said. “It makes it feel like she didn’t matter to them.”
A Lyft spokesperson, Gabriela Condarco-Quesada, said the company was “committed to doing everything we can to help protect drivers from crime” and had invested in safety technology, policies and partnerships.
“Since day one, we’ve built safety into every part of the Lyft experience,” she said. Lyft has a partnership with the security company ADT that allows drivers to connect with professionals if they feel unsafe. Lyft also proactively monitors wrinkles and reaches out to drivers if it notices irregularities to connect them with emergency services.
Condarco-Quesada said Lyft had attempted to contact Isabella Lewis’s family on the day it learned of the incident to offer support. “Unfortunately, we were unable to make contact with them,” she said.
But Veena Dubal, a labor law professor at the University of California, Hastings, said responses like the one the Lewis family received were endemic to the business model of gig economy companies, which have for years battled to classify workers as independent contractors rather than employees entitled to compensation.
“These companies do not follow best practice principles because those would make them look like an actual employer,” she said.
Dubal noted that while traditional driving jobs like driving taxis had always come with risk, such dangers were exacerbated by the algorithms and expectations of ride-hailing apps.
“These platforms are designed to punish drivers for not picking up passengers,” she said. “This means you are constantly worried about ratings and are incentivized not to trust your gut feeling if it is telling you to end or cancel a ride.”
Gig firms have in the past acknowledged the issue of violent attacks on their workers. Uber moved to keep drivers safer in 2016 after 16 drivers had been killed in Brazil.
But workers and officials have called on companies to do more. Gig Workers Rising set out a number of demands, including calling for workers’ compensation for injuries and deaths that occur on the job and the right of workers to unionize.
The group called for the end of forced arbitration, which requires workers to settle these matters out of court and away from public scrutiny. Such demands have grown in popularity as politicians increasingly take gig economy firms to task.
It also called on companies to increase transparency about how many injuries and deaths occur yearly.
Condarco-Quesada, the Lyft spokesperson, said the company released data in its yearly Community Safety Report, which includes data about fatalities that occur on the platform.
Uber, which owns Postmates, releases a similar report but did not immediately respond to request for comment.
“Every worker deserves to feel safe in their workplace,” said congresswoman Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts in a statement. “We must stand with workers and demand that these corporations take responsibility and pay a living wage, provide good benefits, and, crucially, guarantee workplace protections that effectively and equitably shield workers from violence.”
In response to the study’s publishing on Wednesday, workers in five US cities are holding a national day of action for those lost on the job, including sending a motor caravan to the San Francisco home of the Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi.
“The lack of care for these workers is a direct outcome of a business model set up to milk as much as possible for executives,” said Murphy. “No one when they show up to work should be killed.”