photo of man receiving vaccination

How South King County Rideshare Drivers Weathered the Pandemic

by Ardo Hersi

Back in May, more than 500 rideshare drivers received COVID-19 vaccinations at a pop-up clinic sponsored by the Drivers Union at the Teamsters office in Tukwila. The event was one of four pop-up vaccination events organized by the Drivers Union in partnership with the Somali Health Board. The community-organized event highlighted the concerns of rideshare drivers during the pandemic and beyond.

The International Workers Day event came at a time when drivers in Seattle are celebrating the implementation of the strongest labor standards for Uber and Lyft drivers in the nation, including a minimum wage, paid sick leave during the COVID-19 pandemic, and new legal protections against unfair terminations. But the pandemic dramatically altered the lives of rideshare drivers, many of whom live in South King County.

Nurayne Fofana, a driver with Uber and Lyft, and a leader in the Drivers Union, said of the May Day vaccination effort, “So this is like almost 1,000 people who are getting vaccinated. It means the economy is coming back.”

Fofana, a driver for Lyft and Uber for six years, hasn’t been working since March of last year due to the pandemic. He, like millions of Americans, tried to make his way in the pandemic and the resulting economic downturn. He told the Emerald why he now advocates for rideshare drivers’ rights: “We are encouraging drivers to support the Drivers Union, you have drivers who are driving right now or who are paying attention. They have seen the changes drivers’ unions have done. The fair share pay is a very big example. It increased the pay for drivers in the city of Seattle, and then the sick and safe time, which has never happened anywhere in the country, only in Seattle. And it was a big win. It was done by drivers. So I encourage drivers out there to join the fight and make it a big one. And it’s going to be a big one.”

Peter Keal, a longtime driver for Lyft and Uber, as well as the president of the Drivers Union, agrees. Keal, like Fofana, has been out of work since March 2020 as the number of riders dropped dramatically during the pandemic. “You don’t have people to pick up,” he said. “But even if you do have people, it is very scary. Because you don’t know the person you’re picking up may have Corona, and if they don’t the next one will. It was tough, very hard for people to live through, and thank god we got vaccinated right now.”

Fofana has been the president of the Drivers Union and in the union’s leadership since 2014. He stresses the importance of union workers because many drivers have been taken advantage of. In his experience, Uber and Lyft did very little to help drivers beyond giving out hand sanitizer and masks. 

Though unemployment is currently at 5.5% in the United States, it peaked at 14.8% in April 2020. After Fofana and Keal made the decision not to drive, they turned their attention to advocating for workers’ rights. Other members of their community decided to weather the storm and work when they felt it was safe. 

One driver who continued working through much of the pandemic is Kalimah Hunt.

At five a.m. Hunt picks up her first Lyft ride of the day. Hunt lives in Tacoma, and much of her work involves driving people who live in Tacoma to Seattle in the early hours of the morning. Like many Americans, Hunt needs multiple income avenues to afford a decent lifestyle for herself and her daughter. Hunt is a dental assistant, drives for Lyft, delivers for Postmates, and runs a mobile teeth whitening business. On top of all that, she’s in school to become a dental hygienist and is co-parenting her young daughter. She has been driving for Lyft and delivering for Postmates since 2018.

Hunt always followed COVID-19 protocols, such as wearing her mask, disinfecting and sanitizing the seats after every customer, and not allowing customers to use the trunk. Before the pandemic, she used to have snacks and water readily available for her customers, but no longer. What hasn’t changed is this essential job’s nature — picking up strangers in her vehicle. At the start of the pandemic the dentist’s office she used to work at closed. Hunt had to go on unemployment for a while because not enough people were using Lyft. In a time of uncertainty, unemployment was the only option.

Now that vaccines are becoming widespread more people are returning to using Lyft and Postmates, especially since the end of last year. But Hunt has noticed some changes in her customers. “People are a lot quieter … there is a lot more disconnect since the pandemic.”  She mentions customers before were going to events or parties and just lived a more carefree life. “Whereas now you can’t speak, you have to be six feet apart; people are just more, I don’t know, scared … just more to themselves.”

As a Black woman, Hunt has gone to extra measures to protect herself, such as installing a camera and asking men not to sit directly behind her when she drives. She especially remembers one incident that happened prior to the pandemic, when a drunk man put his hands on her. Hunt realized Lyft didn’t have ways to ensure her safety, so she took extra measures. Kalimah explains, “A lot of men give off eerie vibes sometimes. And I just try not to feed into it; When I pick up a female passenger, it’s a relief.”

Despite these challenges, and fear of the pandemic, Hunt did what needed to be done and credits her daughter as her motivation. 

“I don’t partake in extra activities like a man — if I robbed and stole like a lot of these scammers out here, I can be rich too,” she says. “But at the same time, I have to lead by example for my daughter, my daughter looks up to me and everything that I do. So working hard is something I’ve always done. And I get it from my mom. My mom showed me you don’t have to depend on anyone, you’ll make a way, you make a way, not an excuse.”

“So that’s why I work so many jobs and then I have a hard time asking people for things so it’s like, ‘man, I need XYZ amount.’ So instead of making excuses, I’ll just go out and work so I can have all the things that I want and provide for her. You know, Alhamdulillah, I’m blessed with the basics, a roof over my head, clothes on my back, and food in my stomach — which are the main things. But really I’m just trying to save up so I can pay for school and not go into debt.”

Ardo Hersi is the Emerald’s first impact reporter, focused on covering South King County, immigrant/refugee, and Muslim communities. Hersi attended Seattle Central College. She works full-time in education with youth. Her passion is storytelling and writing poetry. She has done work with KUOW since 2014 as an advanced producer. Currently, she helps facilitate workshops and was the co-host  “Snapshots” series for RadioActive. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, she started an online Somali-centric clothing and jewelry business. She was a creative director for a two-part series highlighting the achievements of Somali women in the Seattle community. She participated in and helped with a short documentary on mental health in the African Diaspora with community organizers. She is a community organizer for Black social justice and Muslim immigration rights. She has conducted anti-racist trainings for all age groups. She is the daughter of refugees who fled Somalia via Kenya, has seven siblings, and is fluent in Somali.

The Emerald Impact Reporter position is funded by a Neighbor to Neighbor grant from the Seattle Foundation. 

📸 Featured Image: Rideshare drivers receive COVID-19 vaccinations at a pop-up clinic in Tukwila in May. Photo by Ardo Hersi.

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