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Uber drivers in Sydney’s Covid hotspots being offered jobs that breach restrictions

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<span>Photograph: Laura Dale/PA</span>
Photograph: Laura Dale/PA

Uber drivers who live in the most heavily locked-down areas of western and south-western Sydney are still being offered work outside of their local government areas, with drivers asking for more clarity from the app about what they can and can’t do.

Under the current Sydney lockdown restrictions, rideshare drivers are still allowed to work in certain conditions, such as driving essential workers to their workplaces. But a driver who lives in a locked-down LGA generally cannot leave their LGA to work.

Uber drivers have told Guardian Australia that the Uber app is still offering them jobs that breach these restrictions – and do not distinguish between trips that are allowed and those that are not.

Newer Uber drivers, who have not earned enough points to unlock special benefits on the app, are also unable to see a trip’s final destination until they accept it.

An Uber driver who lives in Blacktown and spoke to Guardian Australia on the condition of anonymity said the rules were confusing and had not been helped by the Uber app.

According to the website of the New South Wales transport commissioner, rideshare drivers can’t leave their LGA to work unless they are transporting a person “solely for the specified healthcare and social assistance activities”.

“For example, if I am in Blacktown, I am able to drive someone with me out of Blacktown LGA if they are a healthcare worker. But I have heard of other drivers doing that and getting fined,” the Uber driver said.

“It is complicated by the Uber app because it doesn’t distinguish between a trip inside or outside of an LGA. Once you are outside of an LGA, it will still give you trips to try and pick people up, irrespective if it is legal or not.”

He said he was turning down work and cancelling trips to abide by the restrictions.

“The other day I had a 45-minute trip that was leaving the Blacktown area going south-west to Campbelltown. I declined that trip, even though a 45-minute trip, that is a good chunk of change for me. But I didn’t want to take the risk of going outside my LGA.

“It’s difficult. You are struggling financially, but you have that big carrot dangling above of you.”

Related: Uber Eats riders earning as little as $5 for deliveries crossing multiple NSW suburbs

An Uber spokeswoman said that during the lockdown, drivers would not be punished for rejecting trips “to or from high-risk LGAs”, for “cancelling trips on safety grounds” or for rejecting trips that took them out of their LGA.

However, when asked whether the app could be updated to stop drivers being offered jobs that breach the lockdown, Uber said “changing the app is not something that can be done overnight”.

The driver also said many fellow Uber drivers were worried about losing their ratings for cancelling trips.

“Uber has performance tier levels based on the trips you do and it gives you access to in-app advantages, such knowing where a trip is heading and the duration of the trip,” he said. “For me, it only takes cancelling two or three trips, because there are so few trips, to lose access to that feature.”

However, he said that Uber had recently changed this, meaning those who had already unlocked these benefits would not lose them during the lockdown.

Uber drivers who have reached the Gold, Platinum and Diamond levels are able to see where a trip’s destination and duration are ahead of accepting the trip. Uber drivers on the lower Blue level cannot.

The Uber spokeswoman said that under the lockdown, Blue-level drivers could still cancel after the destination was revealed without consequences.

“If a Blue-status driver-partner accepts a trip and its destination is in an LGA of concern, there is no consequence for rejecting the trip. In light of the NSW lockdowns, we have removed the Uber Pro minimum cancellation rate requirements for local driver-partners.”

Uber has also called on the government to prioritise vaccinations for its drivers and other delivery people.

Related: Diego v Deliveroo: are workers winning more rights in Australia’s gig economy?

The driver agreed and said Uber drivers should be vaccinated as a priority.

“It doesn’t make me nervous [to be working in these LGAs],” he said, “but I am a single man, living by myself. My parents live in the UK and are vaccinated over there. If I catch Covid, I won’t be able to spread it to anyone else.”

Uber said in a statement that “the wellbeing of all those who use the Uber platform is a key priority for us, and we have a dedicated team working around the clock to support them the very best we can”.

The national secretary of the Transport Workers’ Union, Michael Kaine, said the NSW government should have included rideshare drivers as authorised workers.

“Drivers have been excluded when there is clearly a need for their services in and out of hotspot areas,” he said. Kaine also called for rideshare drivers to be vaccinated.

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