City Curfews Are Leaving Essential Workers Stranded

When Uber and Lyft stop running, essential workers are hit the hardest — forced to risk their safety to get to their jobs and back

On Mondays and Tuesdays, Glen Livingston, 34, works the graveyard shift at a Bowery Residents Committee mental health center and homeless shelter in East Harlem near 125th Street. The Bronx resident walks to work over the Willis Avenue Bridge, leaving at 10:30 p.m. each night to arrive for his 11 p.m. start.

When Mayor Bill de Blasio implemented New York City’s curfew, an attempt to subdue protests and looting after the death of George Floyd, Livingston’s five sisters begged their only brother to be safe and take an Uber to work. However, on Monday, as he was set to leave, Livingston couldn’t call a car. No Ubers were available. Neither were any Lyfts. Rideshare companies had suspended service in New York City.

Livingston is considered an essential worker — one of few groups allowed to continue traveling after curfew in New York. Livingston is also a 34-year-old Black man, and he didn’t want to be caught outside. Still, against his family’s wishes, Livingston went to work. He felt a responsibility to show up. “The homeless still need somebody to take care of them,” he tells me.

So he walked to work like he always does, except this time he didn’t wear headphones. He watched his back and his peripherals and kept his fully charged phone at the ready in case he was approached by police and needed to go live on Twitter. He tweeted a screenshot of the empty Uber map and an announcement that he was walking to work in case anything happened to him.

“Last night was the first night that I felt unsafe in my neighborhood and in my country,” Livingston tells me. “My biggest fear was getting pulled over, trying to explain who I am, why I’m out and [the police] wouldn’t listen to me.”

The curfew comes as more people depend on rideshare companies in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. In mid-March, travel by train became a health hazard, and cities like New York City and Chicago scaled back subways services. For essential workers, rideshare companies — and scooter and bike subsidiaries like Citi Bike, Divvy and Bird — are necessary daily services to commute to their jobs. In the first quarter of 2020, just before the pandemic swept across the country, Lyft reported 21.2 million active riders.

But now, in cities across the country, including Minneapolis, New York and parts of California, both major rideshare companies have sporadically ceased operations after curfew. Workers who once depended on city transit were forced to pay out-of-pocket for rideshares. Now, though, abiding by increasingly restrictive city rules has made their life even harder and unsafe.

Tyrone Walker owns the newly opened restaurant Lady’s Seafood & Soul Food in East Harlem. To follow the new 8 p.m. curfew laws, he started closing up at 7:30 p.m. to allow employees a safe travel home. Still, six employees were unable to secure a ride before Lyft and Uber stopped all car requests.

Walker drove all six employees home himself. He couldn’t fit everyone in one car, so he took two trips between Harlem and the outer boroughs. In total, Walker spent two hours driving his stranded employees. “The trains in New York City haven’t had the best standards right now with everything going on, and I want my employees to make it home safe every day,” he tells me.

Walker’s restaurant is only three months old. For the first six weeks, he couldn’t operate after the city shut down restaurants to limit the spread of the pandemic. Now, finally back up and running, he’s forced to close two hours earlier than usual to abide by the curfew. Walker is frustrated with the city repeatedly hindering his operations without aid. “This is really inconveniencing essential workers. This is a 24-hour city. If you cut off rides and transportation, people are going to be stranded,” he says.

Uber did not return our repeated requests for comment. Lyft responded with an emailed statement: “We care deeply about the safety of drivers and riders. We’ll be following local guidance around the operation of our services. In some areas, we have been asked to temporarily pause operations while curfews are in place.” Lyft did not answer why it hasn’t provided service or alternative means of transportation to essential workers past curfew. A representative for Lyft reiterated, “We are following local guidance.”

Local guidance, however, has not put a total halt on for-hire vehicles. For instance, the taxi service company Curb has continued operations in New York City, picking up passengers as recently as Monday night. Curb’s vice president of mobile, Jason Gross, says the app’s usership is up in nearly all 65 markets and has more than doubled since the start of curfew in New York.

Though yellow and green taxis, as well as buses, continue to run in New York City, they can be hard to come by as city officials have also limited travel between boroughs. On Monday night, both cars and protesters were stopped from crossing the Manhattan Bridge from Brooklyn into the city, effectively stranding about 5,000 people until 11:45 p.m.

Moira Muntz, spokesperson for the Independent Drivers Guild — a union of Uber, Lyft and Via workers affiliated with the Machinists Union — tells MEL the guild is concerned about the safety of drivers working after curfew.

“The safety of our community is paramount, but let’s give workers the notice they need to comply. Moreover, it’s hard to see why they would halt app-based trips, which can be scheduled and require credit cards, while continuing to allow anonymous, cash-based taxi trips and street hails. Don’t they want to minimize people on the street?” Muntz says. The New York City Mayor’s Office did not return our request for comment.

Outside of New York, protesters also found themselves stuck without rides this week. In Washington, D.C., Amari Barfield, 21, was stranded after the 11 p.m. curfew on Monday night. She and her group of protesters repeatedly tried calling a Lyft or Uber. “Everyone walking the streets at 2 a.m. couldn’t get home because they had cut off our transportation,” she tells MEL. Barfield was eventually picked up by a friend about two hours later.

In Los Angeles County, getting home safely has proven difficult as each city is operating under different curfews. While county officials ended a week of curfews on Thursday, individual cities like Beverly Hills and Santa Clarita are still prohibiting residents from being on the street beginning at 6 p.m. tonight and ending at 6 a.m. Friday.

Warsame Warsame, a talent manager in Los Angeles, was stuck Sunday night in West Hollywood, unable to call a Lyft home to his Atwater Village home on L.A.’s east side. His friend let him spend the night, and Warsame took a car home Monday morning. ”There’s all these people on the streets who can’t get where they need to go. There’s police out there trapping them physically with these streets they’re blocking. It just feels like a setup,” he tells me.

Still, essential workers are hit hardest by the curfews. “I will find myself in this position again, but I can’t do nothing different but continue to pray and protect myself,” Livingston says. As New York’s curfew will be in place through the morning of Monday, June 8th, Livingston will be forced to walk alone at 10:30 p.m. to work at the homeless shelter.