Great Britain

Uber and Lyft: woo drivers with stable pay, not short-term honeypots

What are the real choices confronting gig workers as they consider their employment options in the post-pandemic world?

As the push to get America back to work begins, employers are lamenting that no one wants to work any more. Low-wage industries in particular are struggling to fill positions amid a record high number of job openings, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

To counter this, employers such as Uber and Lyft are trying to incentivize drivers with promises of bonuses, while more than 18 states are opting to cut extended unemployment benefits early, citing government relief as a disincentive to work.

Both strategies fundamentally miss the point.

We have been speaking to gig workers across the country for months as part of a project led by Dr Julia Ticona, at University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication.

One of our key learnings is that unemployment benefits have not disincentivized work but given gig workers the space to refuse the vagaries and indignities of the gig labor market. “We are less desperate,” one worker said, “but the companies need desperate people to work for them.”

Gig workers are now simply asking for a fair and equal system that does not separate worker needs from human needs.

One of these needs is fair compensation for their work. The flood of promotions that Uber and Lyft are sending out is doing little to convince drivers that a stable, well-paying job awaits. Some drivers recognize the bonuses as yet another example of the problem with gig work: short-term honeypots rather than long-term pay raises. Marco, an Uber driver, said he only drove now when there was a promo or streak bonus, since the base pay didn’t even cover gas and other driving expenses: “Without a promo, between driving and doing nothing, sometimes doing nothing is better. Maybe if they just increased our per-mile rate, drivers would go back on the road,” he said.

John, a driver from Kentucky, wants to work but the wildly varying promos are making it harder for him to calculate when to resume driving. On any given day, he’s unable to predict whether the bonus being offered will offset his operating costs. Fellow drivers are offered individualized promos; some are being paid $225 for 15 rides, while others are being offered $15 for 3 rides.

To add to the uncertainty, drivers feel they cannot fully trust Uber and Lyft’s messaging – the companies have a history of baiting drivers with wage guarantees. “How do I know they’re offering me a real bonus and not just giving me another bullshit offer with hidden terms I only find out about after I’ve already gone out and spent my gas and time?” asked John.

Not knowing the amount of money you’re likely to take home at the end of a full day’s work is also an unattractive proposition. “I know with unemployment that I will get $900 every week; the check will be in the mail,” said Andres, an Uber driver who pivoted to Instacart and Shipt during the height of the pandemic. Choosing that reliability over constantly playing “guess how many bananas it would take to make minimum wage” seems like a no-brainer to him. Who would want to willingly return to that, he asked?

Yet the impending cut-off from unemployment benefits has left some gig workers in a difficult position. Takarah, a house cleaner on Taskrabbit, depleted much of her savings at the start of the pandemic when cleaning gigs suddenly vanished and has been relying on unemployment checks. “I know nothing is going to go back to normal,” she noted, but she hoped she could find something stable now that she is worse off financially than when the pandemic started.

Treatment of workers during the pandemic has also made many workers wonder why they should work for companies that do not value their loyalty or effort. Workers report feeling left high and dry, “alone on the road with no support”, as one driver said. Uber closed its driver hubs and cut per-mile rates; Shipt and Instacart oversaturated the market without any notice. Some have justifiably expressed a sense of betrayal at their treatment: “We were doing the job for people because they didn’t want to put their health at risk; we were putting ours at risk for them. They returned the favor by giving us a pay cut,” said one delivery worker.

Elsewhere, gig workers are assessing the health risks of “a return to normal”. Omar, a ride-hail driver in Florida, said though he was vaccinated, he was nervous about Uber removing its mask requirements. .

He hopes Uber consults drivers before doing so but he does not have much hope given the company’s historical treatment of drivers. Reflecting on the last year, he realized that asking customers to wear a mask was perhaps the first time he remembered Uber advocating for driver welfare. That made us feel good, said another driver, as if for once Uber cared about our health too.

Our research further confirms that by not returning to work immediately, these workers are showing us they are fed up with the instability of cyclical layoffs and hires. With playing games to make a livable wage and exposing themselves to health risks. With being at the mercy of algorithmic changes as they shoulder all the risk without any say in the system’s design.

The pandemic magnified many aspects of gig work that have always been unsustainable. We can no longer be sending workers every day into such an adversarial workplace. Longer-term solutions are needed that respond to worker needs on their return: a wage that rewards their effort, a transparent and reliable pay scale, and company policies that don’t treat them as dispensable.

Reflecting on her experience of being constantly let down by the platform she risked her health for, Kai, a Shipt worker from North Carolina, mused: “I feel like it’s going to come back to me ... maybe in my next life.”

It’s time to repay workers for their essential service in this lifetime, not the next.

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