Lyft Drivers Get a Party, but Still No Benefits

Serving the service economy, one hand massage
at a time

A few weeks ago, in an empty soundstage off of Santa Monica Blvd, in the flat expanse of Hollywood south of Sunset, Lyft threw a party for 300 of its drivers. The company wanted the drivers to enjoy themselves and feel a part of something big. Lyft employees had rented out a space that was both industrial and sort of cozy, like a really nice hangar for a single small aircraft. Lots of metal and wooden beams. It was cool. The drivers would like it.

On stage, one driver’s car, a Jetta, was spot-lit half a dozen ways. Stacks of free submarine sandwiches and $25 gas cards awaited the drivers. In one corner, they could receive a free hand massage. A deejay was playing LCD Soundsystem and other hip hits from the recent past. Standing in front of a giant chalkboard, a Lyft employee was writing out fill-in-the-blanks: My most interesting passenger was… I love being a Lyft driver becauseThis year I plan to… The Lyft employees would also be giving out plastic mustaches that emitted a purplish-pink glow and were meant to sit on the drivers’ dashboards. Lyft employees called these glowstaches.

The glowstaches gave off an aura, a vibe. Their designer, Jesse McMillin, had joined Lyft over the summer, after the company raised $250 million in venture capital in the spring. McMillin had previously worked as a creative director at Virgin America, where a similar hue illuminates its aircraft cabins.

Uber, Lyft’s primary competitor and foil in the ride-share business, had also recently raised a boatload — or several boatloads — of money: $1.2 billion, valuing the company at $40 billion. Uber was using some of that money to alter its image, too. It had hired President Obama’s former campaign manager and White House advisor, David Plouffe, as a “campaign manager.” It was also beginning to invest in driverless vehicle technology, to address its biggest problem, which is that the company’s entire business model, like Lyft’s, is built upon a workforce it cannot legally control.

Control, you see, is everything here. Consider, for example, the IRS’s definition of employment:

You are not an independent contractor if you perform services that can be controlled by an employer (what will be done and how it will be done). This applies even if you are given freedom of action. What matters is that the employer has the legal right to control the details of how the services are performed.

Part of Lyft’s strategy for quashing the issue of control is to try to lose the distinction between riders and drivers. Many of its initiatives are intended to make being a driver an ever-more casual thing, so that more passengers feel comfortable shifting to the front seat and enlisting their own cars. The murkier the boundary between driver and passenger, the more distance Lyft can put between itself and the question of control. But how to make its drivers feel more like customers?

A little before 4 pm, the drivers began to arrive, and by 4:20 the lit-up section of the soundstage surrounding the Jetta was packed with all variety of Angeleno, young and old, black and white, Latino and Asian, grabbing sandwiches and hand massages and sitting on benches and eating and chatting. A few were dressed up in suits or skirts. Many were wearing a splash of pink, the company’s color. One guy had on shiny gold MC Hammer pants and sunglasses that lit up neon along the frames.

At least half the drivers there were women. One, Stacey Newsome, a comedian, told a Lyft employee that she started driving for Lyft because, “to be honest, I needed extra money.” Then she added, jokingly, “You guys aren’t gonna fire me if I say the truth?” The employee, who was in fact John Zimmer, the company’s president and co-founder, shook his head and laughed. “That’s the reason everyone drives,” he said. The desire for extra cash was ubiquitous enough that the number of Lyft rides and revenue had grown fivefold in the previous year, according to the company.

Later on, Zimmer stood in front of the chalkboard and gave a speech. Some drivers had by now written in answers to the Most Interesting Passenger prompt. “A prostitute,” “A dog,” “A woman I met 20 years ago on a flight,” read a few responses. “I know it’s been a wild year,” Zimmer said, due to “all this crazy competition.” He added, “I take it seriously how many of you depend on this… Just remember where we’ve come from. And where we’re going to go, as a community.”

The word “community” was carefully considered. If he had said “company” he would have implied that the drivers were, like him, employees. They are not. Both Lyft and Uber are in the early stages of being sued by some drivers over their non-employee status. These drivers argue that based upon the hours they work, the money they bring in, and the risk they take on by driving strangers from place to place, they are deserving of employment status.

The degree to which Lyft (or Uber) disagrees with its drivers is debatable, because no Lyft employee will comment on the ongoing legal case. But if you believe in such things as retirement—and even more generally, any sort of social safety net—the gig economy is potentially catastrophic for the future of the American workforce.

“That’s it. Enjoy the party,” Zimmer said, wrapping up his speech. Many drivers raced to the door and lined up at the valet, waiting to collect their cars and work the rush hour. “Some bodies making money,” a man wearing a bright pink blazer said as he waited. Nearby, a cameraman hired by Lyft to cover the event asked Stacey Newsome about the craziest thing that’s happened to her while driving. “I don’t know about crazy…” she began. “I’ve had guys pinching my butt. And I had a guy in my car who had the smelliest feet ever.”

Over one of those free sandwiches, Zimmer spoke about the “driver community” and its importance to Lyft’s success. Part of maintaining a good community is throwing parties like this one, he said, but the real work is in the cars and on the rides.

“A lot of our passengers are drivers, and our drivers are passengers,” Zimmer said. Most drivers begin as riders before moving up the ranks to become drivers, then mentors to other drivers, and potentially even recruiters or event coordinators who plan meet-ups for drivers in their area. A mentor and a driver in San Francisco had met through Lyft and were getting married soon. Another driver, in Boston, hired everyone for her wedding (the deejay, the caterers) through Lyft. Drivers post online at Lyft community hubs about where to find the cheapest gas, or how long someone should drive before taking a break. The ultimate goal, Zimmer said, is to make Lyft passengers feel so comfortable that they decide to become drivers, too.

The company’s new chief marketing officer had said recently that Lyft’s vision would be “achieved” when “the mom in the minivan is Lyft enabled.” A huge step in this direction, Zimmer said, was to give drivers more control through a feature they’d recently added called “Driver Destination,” wherein a driver has a say in whom he or she picks up along a given route. Features such as this one weren’t just savvy legal maneuvers that returned some feeling of independence to independent contractors, but made it easier to casually drive for Lyft, and to recruit new drivers. Lyft’s tagline — “Driving You Happy” — stood in stark contrast to Uber’s, “Everyone’s Private Driver,” in that it spoke to both its customer pools: passengers and drivers.

Lyft’s focus on casual drivers was already paying off in subtle ways. Though it isn’t growing nearly as fast as Uber, Lyft claims its customer base is more diverse. More are women — 30 percent of drivers and 60 percent of passengers — and more identify themselves as being in “creative fields.” When I’d first moved to Los Angeles, I used Lyft fairly often, and was surprised at how often I found myself chatting with my drivers, sometimes even in the front seat. In what seemed like a parody of L.A., my first three drivers all said they were screenwriters, and gave me unsolicited advice on how to get work and break in. One told me to watch out for how time passes in this city, because without the seasons, years can fly by in a sun-bleached blur.

The Lyft ethos is clearly influenced by Zimmer’s background in hospitality, which he studied at Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration. He quotes E.M. Statler, a famous hotelier and the namesake of the school. “Life is service,” he says. “And we’re at the service of our drivers.” I wondered aloud just how best to weigh this expanding part-time labor force that keeps rides cheap and has in many ways transformed how one can move around L.A. Is it better for the city, as a whole, to have a lot of people sharing rides, while drivers enjoy less money and security than they would in a conventional full-time job? Zimmer didn’t know the answer. Instead, he listed off all the things Lyft had recently announced it was doing to help its drivers — partnerships with Intuit for taxes, eHealth for insurance, and AutoNation, to find cars. None of these things are actual, you know, employee benefits.

Just then a middle-age women in a white blouse sat down next to us, on the table-bench where we were hunched in conversation.

“Do you guys drive for Lyft?” she asked.

“I do,” Zimmer said. “The last time I drove was New Year’s. I drove New Year’s the year before, too.”

“Did you see the difference?” she said.

“It was random. I did about 10 rides both times, stayed out until 3am. The first time, I had a couple really drunk people…”

“I worked the earlier evening, and expected it to be a lot busier,” she said. “It was slow, and I live in Silverlake, and that’s a good spot for New Years.” She said she hasn’t driven in a few weeks because she’d been really sick. “I had to cancel all my clients. I’m a manicurist by trade.” Then she introduced herself. “Yvette Delgado.”

“He’s the president of the company,” I said.

“One of the co-founders,” Zimmer said, extending his hand.

“Oh, nice to meet you.”

“Are you excited to get one of these?” Zimmer picked up a glowstache.

“Yeah! Very cool. Yeah, definitely. Now they can’t miss us.”

“And it’s a lot more clean. It looks better.”

“Yeah. It’s nice. It’s sharp.”

“And it’s magnetic, so…”

“Very cool. And, can we still use the side sticker? As well?”

“Whatever makes you happy,” Zimmer said, then explained how the logo on the app had changed, too, so it matched that logo on the side of her car. Then he asked her how she came to drive for Lyft.

“I heard about it through a friend of mine. She was driving for the other one. I was too.” By “the other one” she meant Uber. “I’m done. Look, I remember, not a month driving for Lyft I got a call from someone at Lyft. They left a message, ‘Oh, we’re just seeing how it’s going.’ At least I knew that there was a person on the other end. When you work in an industry that is all service-related, like mine is, it’s nice to know there are people there that care about the drivers, because without the drivers, you know…”

She paused, and Zimmer said: “You have nothing.”

Illustrations by Marina Muun
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