You may have noticed recently that an Uber ride is more expensive than it used to be. As ride-hail companies Uber and Lyft hike prices to record heights during the COVID-19 pandemic, much commentary has settled on explaining this as a consequence of a “labor shortage” largely motivated by a lack of proper financial incentives. Drivers, the story goes, saw the new cash bonuses offered by companies to lure workers back as insufficient. Some, perhaps, decided they were not worth the risk of getting infected with COVID-19 or one of its budding variants, while other analyses suggested drivers were content with living on stimulus funds rather than money from driving. At the same time, the firms began curtailing subsidies that kept prices low enough to attract riders and work towards monopoly. Together, this has left us with a sudden and massive spike in ride-hail prices; Gridwise, a ride-hail driver assistance app, estimated that Uber has increased its prices by 79 percent since the second quarter of 2019.
While Uber and Lyft are reportedly thinking about offering new perks such as education, career, and expense programs, analysts admit these don’t strike at core problems with the gig economy that were driving workers away before COVID-19 hit and are making it difficult to attract them now. In conversations with Motherboard, former and current ride-hail drivers pointed to a major factor for not returning: how horrible it is to work for Uber and Lyft. For some workers, this realization came long before the pandemic reared its head, and for others, the crisis hammered it home. Motherboard has changed some drivers’ names or granted them anonymity out of their fear of retaliation.
“If I kept driving, something was going to break,” said Maurice, a former driver in New York who spent four years working for Uber and Lyft before the pandemic. “I already go nights without eating or sleeping. My back hurt, my joints hurt, my neck hurt, I felt like a donkey. Like a slave driving all the time.”
“I’ve been driving for six years. Uber has taken at least 10,000 pounds in commission from me each year! They take 20 percent of my earnings, then offer me 200 pounds,” Ramana Prai, a London-based Uber driver, told Motherboard. “I don’t understand how they can take 60,000 pounds from me, then offer nothing when I’m in need. How can I provide for my partner and two kids with this? My employer has let me down.”
“I woke up every day asking how long I could keep it up, I just didn’t feel like a person,” Yona, who worked for Lyft in California for the past six years until the pandemic, told Motherboard. “I got two kids, my mother, my sister, I couldn’t see them. And I was doing all this for them but I could barely support them, barely supported myself.”
“I was making even less than my sister and I was probably less safe too,” Yona’s sister, Destiny, told Motherboard. “She got out back in the spring, I hopped on and was coming back negative some days. I tried UberEats and DoorDash to see if that was any better, but stopped after a friend was almost robbed on a delivery. Okay, so the options are get covid or get robbed, then guess what: I’m doing none of them.”
Motherboard argues that the degrading working conditions, as well as the poor pay, “are structurally necessary for ride-hail companies. They were necessary to attract and retain customers with artificially low prices, to burn through drivers at high rates that frustrate labor organizing, and bolster the narrative of gig work as temporary, transient, and convenient. It’s no wonder, then, that drivers aren’t coming back.”