On the Clock
On the Clock is Motherboard's reporting on the organized labor movement, gig work, automation, and the future of work.See More →
You may have noticed recently that an Uber ride is more expensive than it used to be. As ride-hail companies Uber and Lyft hike prices to record heights during the COVID-19 pandemic, much commentary has settled on explaining this as a consequence of a "labor shortage" largely motivated by a lack of proper financial incentives.
Drivers, the story goes, saw the new cash bonuses offered by companies to lure workers back as insufficient. Some, perhaps, decided they were not worth the risk of getting infected with COVID-19 or one of its budding variants, while other analyses suggested drivers were content with living on stimulus funds rather than money from driving. At the same time, the firms began curtailing subsidies that kept prices low enough to attract riders and work towards monopoly. Together, this has left us with a sudden and massive spike in ride-hail prices; Gridwise, a ride-hail driver assistance app, estimated that Uber has increased its prices by 79 percent since the second quarter of 2019.
While Uber and Lyft are reportedly thinking about offering new perks such as education, career, and expense programs, analysts admit these don’t strike at core problems with the gig economy that were driving workers away before COVID-19 hit and are making it difficult to attract them now. In conversations with Motherboard, former and current ride-hail drivers pointed to a major factor for not returning: how horrible it is to work for Uber and Lyft.
For some workers, this realization came long before the pandemic reared its head, and for others, the crisis hammered it home. Motherboard has changed some drivers' names or granted them anonymity out of their fear of retaliation.
“If I kept driving, something was going to break,” said Maurice, a former driver in New York who spent four years working for Uber and Lyft before the pandemic. “I already go nights without eating or sleeping. My back hurt, my joints hurt, my neck hurt, I felt like a donkey. Like a slave driving all the time.”
For Maurice, the early months of the pandemic were the worst since Uber and Lyft had first introduced their quota system in 2019. At that time, in response to regulations passed by New York City that introduced a vehicle license cap, wage floor, and required companies to reduce the time spent by drivers without passengers, Uber and Lyft began a “lockout.” While lockouts are usually a type of work stoppage carried out by employers to force employees to agree to outrageous concessions, the lockout here was used to effectively fire tens of thousands of drivers who were now being paid a livable wage.
"Stuff like the lockout is why I left," said Curtis, a former Uber driver who left a few months after the quotas were introduced. "Sometimes I made less than when I was working half the hours before all that ‘cause I wouldn't make enough trips, so I would get scheduled for shitty hours and get even less trips. I felt trapped like I couldn't leave until my family snapped me out of it. I was looking like shit, felt like shit, but I had just put that aside and kept working."
One concern drivers had early in the pandemic was that ride-hail companies were unable or unwilling to keep them safe from infection, or provide for them if they did get infected. In March, Uber rolled out a paid sick leave policy that became a perpetually moving goal post as its exclusionary guidelines changed so often that by April only 1,400 drivers had been paid paltry sums.
“I’ve been driving for six years. Uber has taken at least £10,000 in commission from me each year! They take 20 percent of my earnings, then offer me £200,” Ramana Prai, a London-based Uber driver, told Motherboard at the time. “I don’t understand how they can take £60,000 from me, then offer nothing when I’m in need. How can I provide for my partner and two kids with this? My employer has let me down.”
Maurice said that he felt similarly abandoned by the gig companies he worked for as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold.
“Everyday I was telling myself I shouldn't drive, especially when people started dying," he said. "I hated it, but what could you do? Even when the government programs began, I felt like I couldn't leave for some reason. But when it was obvious they wouldn't protect us, that's when I quit."
On top of the ride-hail firms’ resistance to sick pay and paid sick leave programs, Maurice pointed to bumbling attempts by Uber and Lyft to provide PPE that took too long, were inadequate, or seemed poorly thought-out. At one point, Uber closed its Greenlight hubs, the main place drivers could go to get hand sanitizer or guidance, then later announced 40 percent of them were permanently staying closed.
Maurice is far from the only driver to have made a similar calculation during the pandemic. In its May earnings report, Uber said it had 3.5 million active drivers and couriers in the first quarter of the year, down 22 percent from the previous year.
Other drivers were turned off by gig companies’ ever-shifting pricing experiments and how they affect workers. In California, the Washington Post looked at how Uber and Lyft made a long series of changes to driver pay structures since the passage of Proposition 22, a ballot initiative written by gig companies to preserve the misclassification of their workforces, and during the pandemic. The Post found that in recent months the companies—Uber in particular—were keeping the lion’s share of fare hikes for themselves as part of a long-developing uncoupling of driver pay from passenger fares.
“I woke up every day asking how long I could keep it up, I just didn’t feel like a person,” Yona, who worked for Lyft in California for the past six years until the pandemic, told Motherboard. “I got two kids, my mother, my sister, I couldn’t see them. And I was doing all this for them but I could barely support them, barely supported myself.”
Yona’s sister, Destiny, started driving in her stead just in time to enjoy some of the changes Uber and Lyft rolled out in California to rally support for Prop 22, she said. For example, ride hail companies began to allow drivers to set their own prices and preview destinations. Her sister also got to watch as Prop 22 passed, those new changes were rolled back, and pay rates began to slip.
"I was making even less than my sister and I was probably less safe too," Destiny told Motherboard. "She got out back in the spring, I hopped on and was coming back negative some days. I tried UberEats and DoorDash to see if that was any better, but stopped after a friend was almost robbed on a delivery. Okay, so the options are get covid or get robbed, then guess what: I'm doing none of them."
Drivers like Yona, her sister Destiny, Curtis, and Maurice, who drove in California and New York—the largest markets for Uber and Lyft—are often most directly exposed to the gig economy’s predations and various experiments. Ultimately, many drivers are refusing to join the platform for the same reasons that drivers left the platform: it’s demeaning, dehumanizing work that doesn’t pay well for the vast majority of drivers who then go on to quit.
“Earlier this spring, as vaccines rolled out and people started moving again, we began to see the demand for rides outpace the number of available drivers,” Lyft said in a statement. “We’ve added thousands of drivers in the past few weeks and it’s already leading to a better rider experience with wait times down more than 15% nationwide, and down 35% in some major markets. For drivers, it continues to be a great time to drive with drivers in top markets earning significantly more than they were pre-pandemic.”
Uber did not respond to Motherboard’s request for comment.
"I've been with them for five years and I'm not coming back," said Mahad, a former driver based in Washington, D.C. "All the drivers I know either stopped and don't plan on coming back, stopped and are waiting for things to really change before they come back, or are asking every moment why they are still driving. It's not just the money."
The degrading working conditions, however, as well as the poor pay, are structurally necessary for ride-hail companies. They were necessary to attract and retain customers with artificially low prices, to burn through drivers at high rates that frustrate labor organizing, and bolster the narrative of gig work as temporary, transient, and convenient. It’s no wonder, then, that drivers aren’t coming back.
"You'll never see me drive again, never," Yona told Motherboard. "I need the money, but what good is that if I’m dead? Even if the job doesn’t kill me now, it will later. People aren’t made to work like that, all day, all night, no real contact with other people besides customers and some stupid program.”
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