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Uber and Lyft drivers protest low pay and opaque policies

As IPOs loom for both ride-share giants, workers are striking and protesting in L.A., San Francisco, and San Diego over declining pay and lack of transparency.

Uber and Lyft drivers protest low pay and opaque policies
[Photo: Thought Catalog/Unsplash]

As Lyft and Uber prepare to go public in the coming months, each ride-sharing giant is scrambling to present its best face to potential investors. But aggrieved drivers aim to give each company a black eye today with protests that claim the companies have consistently cut fees and kept drivers in the dark about how payment and other decisions are made.

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In San Francisco, an alliance of contract drivers called Gig Workers Rising aims to mobilize a few hundred drivers to picket outside Lyft’s presentation to potential IPO investors at a downtown hotel.

In Los Angeles County, the group Rideshare Drivers United estimates that thousands of drivers will strike by logging off the Uber and Lyft networks for 25 hours, with some also protesting outside Uber’s Greenlight Hub (a driver-assistance center) in the city of Redondo Beach from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. A group of San Diego driver activists is following Los Angeles’s model, aiming to get several hundred Lyft and Uber drivers to log off today and protest at the city’s airport.

Uber and Lyft have long faced protests and lawsuits over pay and labor practices. (In the latest case, Uber agreed to pay $20 million to settle driver claims that they should be classified as employees, not contractors.) But today’s protests were triggered by pay changes each company began in late 2018.

In December, for instance, Uber began to increase the fee it pays per minute to better compensate San Francisco drivers stuck in traffic. But it also lowered the per-mile rates, and thus pay for longer, zippier trips. On March 11, much of Los Angeles and Orange Counties also saw per-minute fee rises and per-mile fee drops.

The exact amount resulting from these changes is baffling to track, as it can vary by town and the seniority level of drivers. But one figure cited by Los Angeles activists is a decline in per-mile fees from roughly 80¢ to 60¢. Hence today’s so-called 25-25-25 protest: Striking drivers are logging off at 12:01 a.m. on March 25, for 25 hours, demanding a reversal of the 25% fee cut.

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Lyft instituted similar fee changes in Washington, D.C., in December. The net effect, say both Uber and Lyft, is to keep average pay the same overall. Some drivers disagree. “It didn’t take very long, a couple of trips in the day at most, for most drivers to realize, I’m not making the same money I was,” says Rebecca Stack-Martin, a San Francisco Uber and Lyft driver from Gig Workers Rising.

A steady decline

The latest changes follow years of declining driver fees. “When I first started driving, the per-mile rates were probably twice what they are now,” says Michael Bendorf, who’s been driving for Lyft in San Francisco for over five years and is not taking part in protests. And bonus pay–such as for peak traffic times or hitting a certain number of rides per week–has also gone down, say drivers.

“When I started driving for Uber almost four years ago, if you drove 20 to 25 hours a week, you could make [from] $2,000 to $2,500 [per week],” says a Bay Area driver who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation. “Now to make that much money, you have to drive from 75 hours up to 80 or 85 hours a week,” he says.

But lower fees don’t have to mean lower earnings, if volume goes up, says Bendorf, who served in a paid position on Lyft’s Driver Advisory Council.

“At the beginning, I spent about 50% of my time . . . just waiting for a request to come in, and another 25% of my time . . . going to pick up the passenger.” None of that time is compensated. As Lyft’s business has grown, Bendorf reckons he’s now driving customers 70% of the time he’s logged into the driver app.

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Bendorf knows he’s relatively fortunate: San Francisco has become a very busy market for Lyft, with the short, slower rides that the new fees favor. He also drives at the busiest times, such as morning and evening rush hours. “So if you’re hearing a lot lower numbers from other drivers, it’s not that they’re not telling the truth,” says Bendorf, “and it’s not that I’m not telling the truth.”

Bendorf reckons that he earns over $30 per hour spent online. Lyft says that median income–just for the time driving customers or going to pick them up–is $29.47 per hour nationally. Protesting drivers in Los Angeles and San Diego are demanding a base pay from Uber and Lyft of $28 for every hour they are logged in–whether on or between passenger trips. All those figures are before expenses.

Full-time Lyft and Uber drivers gave me estimates for a litany of weekly expenses they have to cover, such as $200 for gas, $50 for car washes, and $250 for car rental, with some estimating their mileage as up to 500 miles per day.

Ill communication

The math gets very complicated, and all the drivers I interviewed say that Uber and Lyft could be far more transparent in explaining how payments are calculated. Protesters are also demanding transparency in other aspects of the business, such as the star rating and comment systems that can get drivers “deactivated” from the platform.

Stack-Martin and others want workers to be able to negotiate directly with management on payments, expenses, and possible benefits, rather than rely on groups like Lyft’s unelected Driver Advisory Council.

“I would support that initiative,” says Bendorf. “Lyft has grown so fast in terms of number of drivers that their ability to effectively manage the communications and the relationship . . . hasn’t caught up with that growth.”

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About the author

Sean Captain is a Bay Area technology, science, and policy journalist. Follow him on Twitter @seancaptain.

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