Roses are red, violets are blue, Uber drivers deserve fair pay too (2024)

Roses are red, violets are blue, Uber drivers deserve fair pay too (1)

Thousands of Uber and Lyft drivers are striking across the country today to demand higher pay. Between 11 am and 1 pm, drivers will stop giving rides to and from airports in 10 major cities, including Chicago, Philadelphia, and Newark, and instead participate in protests outside the designated airports.

The Justice for App Workers coalition, which represents “more than 130,000 drivers and delivery workers” on the East Coast and in the Midwest, announced plans to strike last week. Rideshare Drivers United, an independent union based in California with over 20,000 members, is also organizing a protest at Uber’s Greenlight Hub in Los Angeles. The groups scheduled the strike for Valentine’s Day due to it usually being a high traffic day for ride-sharing apps. Drivers for the food delivery app DoorDash will also be striking.

The drivers are protesting the low wages offered by the ride-sharing apps, the lack of safety measures provided to drivers, and the fact that the apps can deactivate a driver’s account without explanation.

Last Thursday, Justice for App Workers released a statement saying that drivers are “TIRED of being mistreated by the app companies.” The group said that drivers are “sick of working 80 hours/week just to make ends meet, being constantly scared for our safety, and worrying about being deactivated with the click of a button.” Justice for App Workers encourages people to join the protests outside the participating airports from 11 am to 1 pm.

Workers in the gig economy are not provided with the same protections as most employees, as they are classified as independent contractors. Because of this, they are not eligible for “employment-based health insurance or retirement benefits,” “paid sick or family leave,” or “other worker protection laws.” According to CNN, Flex, a trade association that represents popular online platforms including Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash, estimated that “more than 23 million Americans… earned money through an online platform” between July 2022 and July 2023.

A report by the Economic Policy Institute found that “14% of surveyed gig workers [in May 2020] earned less than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.” Gig workers are also disproportionately people of color, with 30% of Hispanic adults, 20% of Black adults, and 19% of Asian adults having “earned money through an online gig platform,” compared to 12% of white adults, according to a 2021 report by Pew Research Center.

According to Uber’s profit report published last week, Uber’s revenue grew 17% last year to over $37 billion. But in the same time period, “Uber drivers’ monthly average gross earnings fell 17.1%,” according to Gridwise.

What app workers want

Drivers for ride-sharing apps argue that they are not offered a living wage and that the companies take most of the drivers’ commissions. The Justice for App Workers’ website states that they are demanding an “[e]nd [to] poverty-level wages for drivers and delivery workers.” The group is asking for app company commissions to be capped and for workers to be compensated for the cost of vehicle maintenance and other “necessary out-of-pocket expenses.”

According to Business Insider, drivers are finding apps like Uber and Lyft “less profitable” than in the past, pointing to the addition of “up-front fares” and more drivers on the apps. In 2022, Uber began using an algorithm to determine a driver's pay for a trip instead of basing the pay solely on time and distance. According to the president of Rideshare Drivers United, algorithmic pricing has led to an “incredible decrease” in pay for drivers.

Justice for App Workers is also fighting for an “end to unfair deactivation,” stating that workers should have the right to “due process in all app deactivation cases.” It is not uncommon for drivers for apps like Uber and Lyft to have their accounts deactivated without explanation. In a statement to the Hill, Lyft said that the company has worked to “improve[] its own deactivation process” by adding the option to “appeal a deactivation decision.” Uber also announced “a pathway to review deactivation decisions” last year.

Drivers are also demanding more safety protections, including additional safety features and for customer information to be tracked. According to the Action Center on Race and the Economy, “roughly forty percent of all app drivers have experienced some form of violence at the hands of passengers.” Between 2017 and 2022, “52 app workers… were murdered on the job.” A 2022 investigation by the Markup also “found that Uber is slow to respond to law enforcement requests, leaving drivers vulnerable to repeated attacks.”

Justice For App Workers is also fighting for “access to free and low-cost health care plans that cover workers and their families,” “access to basic safety and hygiene protections” including bathrooms, and for “the right to form a union.” Due to being classified as independent contractors, drivers for ride-sharing apps are not rewarded the same protections for starting a union as they would if they were full-time employees.

The difference between an hour and a "utilized hour"

In response to the strike, Lyft issued a statement saying that it is “constantly working to improve the driver experience.” The rideshare company cited its recent decision to guarantee that drivers will make at least 70% of what riders pay as evidence of its commitment to “increasing driver pay.” A spokesperson for the company told Fast Company that this new change, among others, is “all part of our new customer-obsessed focus on drivers.” In a company release this month, Lyft also shared that drivers in the U.S. make a median wage of $30.68 per engaged – or utilized – hour. This rate is based on the time from when a driver accepts a ride to when the ride is completed and includes tips and bonuses.

Meanwhile, Uber has minimized the significance of the strike, claiming that “[t]hese types of events have rarely had any impact on trips, prices or driver availability.” An Uber spokesperson said that the reason was “because the vast majority of drivers are satisfied — earnings remain strong, and as of last quarter, drivers in the U.S. were making about $33 per utilized hour.”

But some critics question the validity of calculating driver pay based on “earnings per utilized hour.” While rideshare companies argue this metric is used because “drivers are free to do as they please in the time between trips,” the reality is much different. For one, when a driver turns on their Uber or Lyft app, they’re expected to accept rides within 15 seconds. Rideshare companies are also tracking the number of rides a driver accepts. Drivers who fail to maintain an appropriate “acceptance rate” risk getting disciplined or even dismissed from the app. These two factors, experts argue, pressure drivers to be highly engaged when they turn on their apps, making it unrealistic for them “to do as they please.” It’s currently estimated that drivers spend up to 40% of their time on the job waiting on the apps. Yet, rideshare companies refuse to compensate drivers for this time, as it is deemed “non-engaged time.”

Notably, time spent waiting on the apps “is not purely a factor of demand or driver quality or quantity,” writes Veena Dubal, a professor at the University of California Hastings College of the Law. According to Dubal, “[Uber]’s goal is to keep as many drivers on the road in order to quickly address fluctuations in rider demand; thus, they are motivated to elongate the time between sending fares to any one driver, so long as that wait time does not lead the driver to end their shift.”

The “earning per utilized hour” measure also doesn’t take into account expenses like gas and car maintenance, as well as the time it takes to navigate complex places like airports. At San Francisco International Airport (SFO), for instance, drivers “vie for one of 180 or so spots in the airport’s ride-hailing parking lots,” at times circling the lot for hours until they secure a spot. Once they secure a spot, they can join a virtual queue to receive trip requests.

But, even then, they face stringent restrictions. Uber regulation for SFO stipulates that “[w]hen on airport property, the Driver app must be open at all times,” or else the driver risks losing their place in line. Those who drive off the lot to use the bathroom or grab lunch can also lose their spot in the line. Given the hassle of airport pick-ups, some drivers will turn down small rides in favor of bigger ones, local news outlet Mission Local explains. But according to Uber, “not accept[ing] multiple incoming trip requests in a row” and “cancel[ing] multiple rides” can also result in a driver losing their place in line. Despite all this, drivers are not paid for their time in the queue – their pay only begins after they’ve received and accepted a ride.

A history of stealing wages

In November 2023, Uber and Lyft agreed to pay a combined $328 million for stealing “hundreds of millions” from drivers in New York between 2014 and 2017. The New York Attorney General’s office found that both companies deducted charges from drivers’ payments that were meant to be paid by passengers. Both companies ”also failed to provide drivers with paid sick leave available to employees under New York City and New York state law,” the NY AG’s office said.

Under the settlement, Lyft and Uber also agreed to implement a minimum wage, paid sick leave of up to 56 hours per year, and “proper hiring and earnings notices” for drivers across the state. More than 100,000 drivers were eligible for settlement funds and the new benefits.

In other states, drivers have had mixed results holding rideshare companies accountable. In March 2023, a California court ruled that Uber and Lyft could continue treating drivers as independent contractors, as opposed to employees entitled to worker benefits and protection. The decision came three years after Uber, Lyft, and its peers spent $200 million lobbying to classify California gig economy workers as independent contractors. Uber drivers in the state, however, can still sue their employer thanks to a state court ruling last summer, which found that Uber cannot restrict the ability of drivers bringing “employment-related disputes to court.” Meanwhile, in Minnesota, Governor Tim Walz (D) vetoed a bill last year that would have “set minimum pay rates for Uber and Lyft drivers and provide them greater protection against being fired.” Walz created a task force to propose recommendations for addressing rideshare wages in the state, but so far, the panel has been unable to reach a consensus on how much to increase pay.

Roses are red, violets are blue, Uber drivers deserve fair pay too (2024)
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