When I miss my last bus home after a night out with friends, I don’t have to panic. Instead, it’s a no-brainer: I can just hazily flick through my smartphone and open my Uber app, through which I can summon a driver to pick me up. For car-less people like me, Uber and other smartphone app-based hailing services are often a cheap and convenient option to get around the city.
But what can my mindless app request mean for the mostly immigrant drivers on the other end of my smartphone?
For some, like Tekele Gobena, it can mean a dismal hourly wage. By the end of 2014, Gobena had put nearly 40,000 miles on his car after just seven months of driving for Uber. When it came time to do his taxes, he realized he was only making $2.64 an hour as an independent contractor for Uber after car maintenance, vehicle insurance, gas, and Uber’s commission from his rides.
Gobena was in shock. He left a job at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport — where he assigned agents to help passengers with disabilities and made $9.37 an hour — to drive for Uber. He had used up his savings and borrowed money from friends to buy a newer car to drive for the app-based service. Now, if he decided to leave Uber, he said he is unsure if he could get his job at the airport back.
Gobena’s story appears to echo other driver’s experiences, too.
“On Saturday night, I make a few hundred dollars — on a very good day. The rest of the time, I make around $100 for driving for 6 or 8 hours,” said another driver who did not wish to be named for fear of retaliation from the company. “[Uber takes] more than they should. I’m frustrated, but I have a huge car payment that I have to make, which I got through them. So I’m very frustrated and I’m not making any money.“
App-based ride sharing services have exploded in popularity around the country in the last few years, but the honeymoon may be over.
In its two years of operation in Seattle, Uber has become infamous for aggressive price cuts to compete with other driving services like Lyft and Sidecar. Most recently, current and former Uber drivers in California and New York sued the company for tip reimbursement and other payments. A San Francisco judge recently moved a lawsuit forward in U.S. district court to decide whether the drivers should still be classified as independent contractors or as employees eligible for benefits. Abroad, violent protests erupted in Paris when local taxi drivers rose up against Uber for taking up a chunk of their business.
In the last year, Seattle’s Uber services came under fire for cutting its per-mile rates and slashing down fare prices, both of which critics said came at the cost of the drivers. The second price cut was later reversed. Additionally, the company, which advertises its drivers making $25 to $30 an hour, has lured many drivers away from traditional cab companies. But according to Gobena, today’s drivers are lucky if they are making an $8 hourly wage.
Uber did not return calls for comment, but local politicians have noticed of the issue.
“On the one hand, you’ve got Uber, a company that’s been around just for a few years and is already worth $50 billion, and I have an immigrant driver, who borrowed money from his friends and family to buy a car, making $3 an hour. When that power imbalance is so great…those drivers are just not going to have a say,” said Seattle City Council Member Mike O’Brien.
At the beginning of September, O’Brien proposed legislation to help out drivers — and it could be a game changer.
If passed, his proposal would allow Uber drivers in Seattle, who are all independent contractors, to unionize and bargain over pay and working conditions with their employer. The legislation would allow drivers for app-based services like Uber and Lyft, as well as other contractors for taxi and for-hire companies, to choose a nonprofit organization which would represent them in negotiations with their employers.
Gobena, the Uber driver, supports a union.
“We are asking to get fair treatment and get paid a living wage. That’s why we believe getting a union is very important. Then we can have power and a chance to have a say. This really matters to us,” said Gobena.
But unionizing is still a fairly new concept in the app-based driving world. Plenty of people have called for Uber-serving cities to create unions for this new class of workers. But if O’Brien’s legislation passes, Seattle will become the first city to legally allow Uber drivers to organize under the National Labor Relations Act.
Another driver, who also wanted to go unnamed, said that rather than unionizing, he’d rather just become a full-time Uber employee so he can get benefits for himself and his family.
“A long time ago, I drove for Yellow Cab… It’s regulated by the city and it’s done that way for a reason… The meter is running, so every minute I spend, I’m getting paid for it. In the case of Uber, they lower the price just because they can. Of course customers prefer a lower rate, but that’s on the shoulders of drivers like me,” the driver said. “They use the word ‘partners’ but I don’t like that word because I have no say whatsoever. I have to have some kind of say in the process and I feel like I have none right now.”
O’Brien’s staff says the the issue will be taken to committee this week where a vote could be taken to advance the bill. In the meantime, however, drivers are still left up in the air. So while a decision is still to be reached, should riders like me continue using Uber?
The answer from Gobena and three other unnamed drivers was a resounding yes.
But their reasoning is telling: At the end of the day, said one driver, low wages are better than no wages.
Gobena says changing Uber isn’t a matter of choosing another driving service. “If drivers and riders work together, we can make it better… Riders can play their own role and share their concern for how the company treats us,” he said.
As for me, I’ll be opting for the bus more often in lieu of hailing late-night rides through my Uber app. While services like Uber and Lyft are the safest option to get home, I can’t justify using a service that doesn’t make their drivers’ livelihoods a priority, too.