Every time Uber changes the terms for drivers, Patrice Davis has a choice: Agree, or lose her only source of income.
Like many ride-share drivers throughout the country, Davis, who started driving in 2016 after multiple sclerosis made it impossible to continue in her longtime job as an office manager, says she’s noticed a steady whittling away of her income. She once was able to pay the bills working just Monday through Friday. Now she has to work Friday and Saturday nights, and sometimes Sundays, to stay afloat.
“You’re forced, if you want to work, to agree to their terms,” the Harleysville woman said.
According to some drivers, the good old days of ride-sharing are gone. Instead of the freedom and flexibility the industry pitched when it arrived in Philadelphia in late 2014, they speak of pay cuts, dwindling incentives, and the looming threat of getting kicked off the platform with barely any notice or reason. Contract changes come arbitrarily from many drivers’ perspectives, and the end result often seems to be more work for less money, even as Uber and Lyft’s revenue from ride-sharing in Philadelphia has steadily grown from $320 million in 2017 to $456 million in 2018, according to the Philadelphia Parking Authority. These drivers feel powerless, serving at the whims of a company they say they can barely contact.
“Nothing I ever read said that in three years or two years you were going to end up making whatever ... we allow you to make,” Davis said.
Ride-share drivers’ income varies widely depending on where, when, and how often they work, making it hard to calculate how their pay has changed over time. A number of studies have found drivers’ pay is close to minimum wage, though ride-share companies have taken issue with those reports’ methodologies.
A JPMorgan Chase report found gig-economy drivers were making 53 percent less in 2017 than they were in 2013, though Uber noted the change could be attributed to an increase in drivers working part-time, not a loss of income per driver. Another study from the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute last year found the average American driver earns $9.21 an hour after expenses such as gas, maintenance and insurance. A 2018 report from MIT found that between 4 percent and 8 percent of ride-share drivers were losing money working.
Uber and Lyft are experimenting with ways to make things better for drivers, spokespeople from the companies said, and insisted that recent rate changes haven’t hurt drivers’ income. Lyft even said driver income has grown since that company changed rates in December, but wouldn’t offer any numbers to demonstrate that.
“Uber would not be where or what it is today without drivers,” said Harry Hartfield, a company spokesperson. "When they do well, we do well, and we are committed to finding success together in the months and years to come.”
As much as Uber and Lyft have become integral to city transportation, neither company is profitable. Both companies reported losses in the range of $1 billion to $2 billion last year. Uber is expected to register for an initial public offering on the stock market as soon as this week, and Lyft went public at the end of March. Its stock value has dropped by almost $10 a share in the past two weeks, Bloomberg reported. Unless the industry can adopt self-driving vehicles, a technology that could still be years away, drivers remain the biggest expense on a car-for-hire business’ balance sheet, said David King, assistant professor of urban planning at Arizona State University.
“If they’re going to become profitable, it’s going to come at the expense of drivers or they’re going to raise prices,” King said.
How changes are cutting into pay
At the end of 2018, Uber changed how it paid drivers in 14 cities, increasing the per-minute rate and decreasing the per-mile rate. It was a change the company said would make driver earnings less beholden to traffic or other delays. In Philadelphia, UberX drivers saw their per-mile rate drop from 86 cents to 69 cents, while their per-minute rate rose from 14 cents to 24 cents. Lyft said its rates are similar.
A post on the blog the Rideshare Guy said that 2018 rate change would have little effect on most drivers’ income but would cut into pay for longer rides.
Uber also changed a number of incentives that drivers say boosted their pay.
Surge pricing, for example, was used as a way to accommodate fluctuating demand — in an area where there’s high demand but not enough drivers, the price would go up for consumers, and drivers would see their earnings doubled or tripled. It was a lucrative incentive, even if it often meant driving in dangerous conditions like a blizzard.
But now, drivers just get a dollar amount — usually $2 or $3 — on top of their earnings when they drive through a designated surge zone. (Uber says this change is due to driver feedback that surge pricing felt like a gamble, because they would sometimes drive to a zone only to see the incentive disappear by the time they got there.)
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Uber recently began charging drivers to use a tool that allowed them to only receive ride requests from passengers heading in a certain direction, a useful way to get one last fare on the way home. Even the “quest” incentive, which encourages drivers to complete a set amount of rides throughout the week to get a bonus, has become increasingly hard to meet as the payouts get lower.
“You’re working harder, and you’re getting less," said Rasheedah Ahmad, an Uber and Lyft driver who said she used to be able to bring home $1,000 in a weekend when she started driving in 2016. Now she says she can’t make that in seven days.
Uber’s black car drivers, meanwhile, learned in February that vehicles made before 2013 would be ineligible for that luxury option, and that they had to maintain a specific customer rating, or else be “deactivated” at the end of April.
“Sometimes I get judged by my race, my color, my personality,” said Ali Razak, an Uber Black driver and leader of the Philadelphia Limousine Association. “My livelihood should not depend on this rating.”
Both Uber and Lyft spokespeople said the companies are trying to improve drivers’ experiences. Uber updated its app to allow drivers to track their earnings and provide data that would help them make more money. Lyft also has improvements for drivers on the horizon, a spokesperson said.
What could drivers do in Philly?
As independent contractors, Uber and Lyft drivers in the United States don’t have collective bargaining rights, but in some cities, they’ve found ways to hold the companies accountable.
Rideshare Drivers United, which organized a 25-hour strike in Los Angeles last month, is lobbying California Gov. Gavin Newsom for a driver’s bill of rights that would allow drivers to challenge deactivations and implement a cap on the commission that companies can take from drivers. In New York, ride-share drivers teamed up with taxi workers to win in 2018 the strongest regulations on Uber and Lyft in the country so far: a temporary cap on ride-share vehicles and a minimum wage, measures that Uber and Lyft are suing to overturn. And drivers in the United Kingdom have successfully sued the gig companies for classifying them as independent contractors. (Uber is appealing.)
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The key, these groups have said, is uniting drivers, which means overcoming divisions: between taxi workers and ride-share drivers, and among ride-share drivers themselves.
In Philadelphia, that prospect is still far afield.
“When you’re poor and you’re struggling just to pay rent, you don’t have the time, the emotional energy, or the access to resources to be able to organize,” said Angela Vogel, an UberBlack driver who runs a private Facebook group for ride-share drivers and is a member of the Philadelphia Drivers Union, which has a bargaining committee and has met with the PPA on behalf of members.
There’s also the fact that complaints about ride-share earnings are not universal. That Facebook page has many drivers who are happy with the pay structure.
Ron Blount, president of the Taxi Workers Alliance of Pennsylvania, echoed Vogel’s sentiment, saying it’s been hard to reach drivers when “everybody’s in their own silo.”
Meanwhile, some Philadelphia drivers continue to feel like they have no control over their fates. Whether it’s Uber or Lyft’s contract changes, the pressures of competition, or a seasonal drop in customers, they face the same bills each month with little alternative than to just work harder.
This week, Davis learned her 2015 Nissan Altima may need a new engine, which could cost her more than $1,000 — money she doesn’t have. She can’t go back to an office job. Her MS makes it difficult for her to concentrate on paperwork. Driving is one of the few things she still can do to pay the bills, including $400 a month for medication.
“It’s so stressful," she said. "And then my car issue... all I can do is laugh right now, or I’ll cry.”