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Over 50 gig workers were killed on the job. Their families are footing the bills

Portrait of Allyssa Lewis in her kitchen in Richardson, Texas, on April 4, 2022.

Back in August, Allyssa Lewis was on the phone catching up with her older sister, Bella, chatting about meeting up later in the day.

"I was like, 'hey, it's the weekend, can you do my hair?' She was like, well, I'm going to do Lyft today, so depending on how I feel after that, I'll let you know,'" said Lewis, 23, who lives in the Dallas, Tex. area.

But not long after, Lewis received a call from a friend informing her that something bad had happened. She needed to meet family and loved ones right away. She arrived in a panic and was met with an unsettling scene: police vehicles surrounding her sister's body.

A random passenger had shot and killed Bella Lewis. She was 26.

"She was just a loving kind soul, kind of lit up the room with a smile. That kind of person," Allyssa Lewis said. "Didn't realize how much she kind of held our family together until losing her."

Lewis was one of more than 50 gig workers killed while driving for companies like Lyft, Uber and DoorDash since 2017, according to a new report from the advocacy group Gig Workers Rising.

And while it is hard to know what companies could have done to prevent the deaths, the worker advocates say there was a lack of support in the aftermath of the killings.

No death compensation and no right to sue

Unlike regular employees, gig workers' families do not receive compensation, like survivor benefits, even if they have been killed while on the job.

Catherine Fisk, an expert on labor law at the University of California, Berkeley, points out that gig workers families also cannot access the court system to file something like a wrongful death lawsuit.

Companies like Lyft make drivers sign what is known as forced arbitration agreements, meaning they cannot sue if drivers get injured or something goes wrong while working.

"The companies have structured their relationships so they're not responsible for the injuries their drivers experience over the course of employment," Fisk said.

So even though Bella Lewis died while doing her job, her family paid for everything — from the funeral to burial bills.

"They weren't going to pay for anything," her sister Allyssa Lewis said. "The drivers' window somehow was shot out. They weren't repairing that."

Lyft sent its insurance company, Liberty Mutual, to see if it could provide any compensation, both Lewis and Lyft confirm. However, it didn't pay for anything, including clean the blood from the car in which she was killed. That's because it amounted to less than the $2,500 deductible drivers pay out of pocket before the company's insurance policy kicks in.

In a statement, Lyft said it tries to make sure all of its drivers are safe at all times and have access to in-app tools that they can use if they feel at risk.

Lyft did not respond to questions about why it did not help the Lewis family cover their funeral expenses.

A Lyft spokesperson said the company tried to contact the Lewis family after the death but was not able to, yet Allyssa Lewis says she never heard from the company.

"So I think the least they could've did was come out of pocket for funeral expenses, kinda keep that burden off the family," she said. "My family isn't necessary a family that comes from money," she said. "My sister out here doing Lyft to get that extra money."

Just how dangerous is gig work?

While some data suggests gig workers are more at-risk of fatal injuries on the job than other types of workers, it is difficult to know exactly how dangerous being a gig worker is, in part because the companies do not publicly disclose the figures regularly.

Lyft and Uber do publish safety reports that reveal how many sexual assaults and other types of violence, including murders, occur over the course of a ride-hailing trip, but worker advocates say the reports should be more frequent and better detailed.

If traditional taxi driving is any guide, inviting strangers into a vehicle does lead to harm.

Driving a cab is one of the most deadly jobs in the country when it comes to chance of workplace homicide, according to federal statistics. Taxi drivers are behind only retail sales workers, cashiers and police officers when it comes to likelihood of being murdered while working. Most taxi drivers, however, are employees who enjoy employer-provided compensation in the event of a workplace injury or death.

Federal statistics show that there were 21 taxi driver deaths in 2020. But that number includes traffic accidents. The gig worker report — which relied on news reports and GoFundMe campaigns — only focused on drivers killed by passengers or passers-by.

Meanwhile, Allyssa Lewis said she was recently considering doing gig work to earn some extra income. But then her mom intervened.

"I said, 'Yeah, I'm thinking about doing DoorDash today,'" she said. "And she said, 'no I don't really feel comfortable with you doing that. I don't want you doing that. I'd rather give you money out of my pocket before you do that.'"

Lewis decided she was going to heed her mother's wish. Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.