Waymo, the self-driving unit of Alphabet, says it will keep operating its fleet of roughly 600 self-driving taxis in Arizona during the novel coronavirus outbreak. But the safety drivers who monitor the autonomous taxis are concerned that they are being put in harm’s way.
Waymo is “strongly encouraging” its full-time employees without “business critical” tasks to work from home. Its safety drivers, who are employed by a French transit company called Transdev North America that has a multiyear contract with Waymo, are still mostly required to come into work, The Verge has learned. Transdev appears to be following guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) by stepping up the frequency of its cleanings and disinfections. But drivers tell The Verge that the Waymo vendor is ignoring recommendations about social distancing.
“It feels like the drivers are treated like second class citizens, having to report to work and serve ‘hails’ while the full-time employees are required to work from home to stay safe,” said a Waymo driver who requested anonymity in order to speak freely. “Safety for some.”
On Wednesday, a Waymo safety driver declined to pick up a rider at Intel’s campus in Chandler, Arizona, after hearing news reports that an employee of the microchip giant had tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Chandler is a town to the southeast of Phoenix where the bulk of Waymo’s commercial ride-hailing is located.
Hours later, Transdev sent an email to all drivers mentioning the Intel incident and noting that Waymo and Transdev “are committed to responding quickly to ensure the health and safety of our employees.”
“Our area of service is not considered an epidemic center at this time,” wrote Katrina Heineking, COO of Transdev Alternative Services. She noted that there had only been nine reported cases of COVID-19 in Arizona, including three in Maricopa County. And the Intel worker who had tested positive was no longer in Arizona and has been put in quarantine.
“The current situation does not justify suspending the public-hailing service,” Heineking wrote. “As part of the driving team, your role is customer facing and critical for business continuity… Please understand you are expected to provide service to the general public as a core part of your job duties. If you cannot meet this obligation, you should meet with your AVOS and/or Human Resources.” (AVOS are supervisors at Waymo’s Chandler-based operations center.)
Two Waymo safety drivers told The Verge that the email took them by surprise, especially considering the day before, they had received an email that seemed to strike the exact opposite tone. “In the event you don’t feel comfortable approaching a hail/passenger, you can cancel the hail, this is much better than putting yourself at risk,” the March 9th email from a safety manager read. The email did not specifically reference the novel coronavirus, but two drivers said they took it include safety concerns related to the outbreak.
“Your work comes 2nd to your personal safety!” the manager added.
One Waymo safety driver, who requested anonymity in order to speak freely about the situation, said, in retrospect, the safety manager’s email felt like “hot air.” Another driver said Heineking’s email felt like “a threat.”
COVID-19 is not known to transmit through the air or casual contact, such as riding in the same car. But some drivers said they still feel like they need to take extra precautions.
Waymo and Transdev declined to comment on the specific situation The Verge has learned about and sent over the following statements. A Waymo spokesperson said:
We’re carefully monitoring COVID-19 developments and taking extra precautions to ensure the health and safety of our riders, vehicle operators, and entire team. We’ve shared that if you feel sick, you should stay home, and specified that employees of our staffing partners will be paid sick leave if they have symptoms or can’t come into work because of quarantine. At this time, we’ve indicated to our global employees and staffing partners that if a role requires you to come into the office, you should come in as our offices remain open. This includes vehicle operators who play a business-critical role as we advance the Waymo Driver and continue to serve our riders.
Transdev also provided a statement:
Ensuring the safety of our employees and the communities we serve is our top priority, and we regularly communicate with our employees regarding their health and wellbeing, especially at this time as we actively monitor the COVID-19 situation. We have taken the strategic stance to provide employees who may request time off, sufficient leave to self-quarantine or to stay out of work if they are in a high-risk group or are unwell. We are following all CDC guidelines with regard to workplace and vehicle cleanliness and we appreciate all our employees’ efforts to help keep our work environments safe.
Tension is already high between Waymo and its third-party safety drivers since the company signed a contract with Transdev last year. Vacation time was cut, health insurance didn’t improve, and issues of workplace safety went unaddressed, according to a half-dozen workers who spoke to The Verge for a story last month. One worker described the health plan as “literally the worst benefits I have ever had in my life for a full-time job.”
Those complaints have been exacerbated by the novel coronavirus pandemic, the safety driver said. The current health plan is “terribly expensive to use,” the person said, “which in turn makes me fearful my coworkers might be discouraged to use it and not seek treatment” if they are infected.
Waymo isn’t alone in continuing operations during the pandemic. As daily life across the US more or less shuts down, self-driving car companies are continuing to test their vehicles in cities across the country. But Waymo is unique insofar as it operates one of the few commercial ride-hailing services, giving rides to around 1,500 monthly active users in the towns outside Phoenix.
Likewise, ride-hailing services continue to pick up and drop off passengers. Uber and Lyft have both said that they will offer their workforces of freelance drivers 14 days of paid medical leave if they are infected with the novel coronavirus or are quarantined because of the pandemic. Drivers’ accounts may also be suspended if they have been found to come into contact with someone who has the illness.
Waymo says it’s encouraging both its employees and vendors to work from home if their job allows it. The company has agreed to provide funding to Transdev and other vendors to compensate staff who have symptoms of COVID-19 or can’t come into work because they’re quarantined. Safety drivers who don’t feel comfortable making ride-hailing pickups can stay home without taking sick leave. Waymo says it is following guidance from the CDC and local health authorities in Arizona in keeping its ride-hailing service in operation. It also sent a notice about the novel coronavirus to its customers.
But drivers say there is a disconnect between Waymo’s mission, which is about safety, and Transdev’s.
“Waymo wants to create a safer means of transportation, while Transdev wants to create a nice paycheck for themselves,” one driver said. “While I’m not concerned overly about COVID, it’s still clear that drivers keep getting pushed farther back in the line of priorities.”