COVID-19 vs The Gig Economy

You can’t just work from home when you drive an Uber

Mar 10, 2020 · 8 min read
Text message from Uber to the author

Would you work overtime for up to $6.50 extra?

That was the incentive that Uber texted me on Sunday night if I drove three consecutive trips between 6 am and 8 am the next morning.

Around the time that Sunday Scaries are setting it for the Monday-Friday workforce, the gig economy is ramping up for its own start to the workweek. I get push notifications, texts and emails that promise me bonuses of anywhere from $4.50 to $6.50 for working peak hours. Up to $6.50 — what a payday!

The catch is you can’t take a break and can’t turn down any rides, for any reason. If someone wants a 45-minute one-way ride to the airport, you have to take it. If you decline a long ride, or need gas, or pause to take an important phone call, or have to stop to go to the bathroom, or have any other interruption, you’re out the bonus.

And we’re talking about working for like $5 extra.

I just signed up for Uber and Lyft a few weeks ago, and this is the first time I’ve seen these promotional alerts. So I can’t say if this is a normal promotional rate, or if Uber is upping the ante to coax me with a few bucks to provide more rides as fear of spreading COVID-19 roll in.

Uber and Lyft drivers go to these lengths because that’s how you make money. You work peak hours like early mornings or late weekend evenings, and hope for a promotion or a tip every now and then to increase your narrow margins.

God forbid you get sick, your car breaks down or you get a flat tire. Or you become the victim of a global virus that requires 14 days of “self-quarantine.” What happens then?

I live in a north inner-ring suburb of Milwaukee. This summer, Milwaukee is hosting the Democratic National Convention and planning on welcoming some 65,000+ people to our city.

When this was announced, my immediate thought was to rent our house out on AirBnB. Listings in our area jumped more than 700% — pushing it to №1 on AirBnB for growth — and could command $1,000 or more a night.

I could cash in on a gig economy windfall! Maybe this means we can pay down some debt or fix some things around the house!

But my wife was not keen on the idea of renting out our family home. And I am probably needed at work during that time, anyway. Sorry, AirBnb.

So I decided to sign up for Uber and Lyft instead. I thought it would be fun to drive around and talk to DNC attendees for a week. Plus, I figured, the surge pricing payday couldn’t hurt.

I signed up, downloaded the apps, got a background check and was approved. That’s all it took — I was officially driving for Uber and Lyft.

I decided I should probably test out the app before tens of thousands of people descended on our city. So one weekend, with my wife and daughter out of town, I gave it a try. I turned on the app… and immediately started getting requests pinging my phone to get picked up.

Ping! Pick up 1.4 minutes away.

Ping! Pick up 2.6 miles away.

Ping! Pick up 3.2 miles away.

My first few requests made me so nervous that I declined them all. Did I know what I was doing? How was I supposed to navigate this thing? Would I know where to stop?

I found out only later that you get dinged by Uber every ride request you decline. If your acceptance rate falls below 85%, you lose all sorts of privileges including seeing the length of the ride you’re requesting before you accept it. And it’s especially hard to decide when you get the next request while you’re navigating your current ride and trying to figure out where to go.

But soon I got the hang of it. And it was actually fun!

It was a Friday night, so I was making all sorts of trips to restaurants, a costume party at the art museum and the bars. People were asking me for my recommendations of where to go, what to see. I felt like I could put my thumb on the pulse of the city’s night life and see what was happening everywhere. That night, I stayed out until almost 1 am providing short trips to the mostly 20-something crowd.

It was addicting. The constant ping of a ride request went from a source of uncertainty and anxiety, to uncertainty and a burst of endorphins. I didn’t take this job for money, but I certainly got a rush as I approached $100 the first night and wanted to keep going to watch my earnings reach a new milestone. I started to chase that next ride over and over again.

The next morning was very different.

It was like the clean-up crew was out in full force. Instead of short trips from one bar to another, now it was from apartments to work. I gave rides to someone to work as a custodian at a casino. I also drove a woman from a run-down motel to a hospital, where she met her friend who just had a double mastectomy for breast cancer.

Where the night before seemed like escapism on Friday night, it seemed like I (or someone like me) was the only decent option for transportation for people who requested long rides on Saturday morning.

Then a Monday morning came around. I had some time to drive on the way to work. Why not keep going and try to improve my acceptance rate? I got a request for a pick-up out of my way, but I took it anyway. It turned out to be an older woman on her way to a school, where she worked as a reading specialist. It was raining, and I drove her the 10 minutes or so to her side door entrance.

I got $8 for the ride and no bonus, but a nice conversation and a sweet goodbye from her telling me to stay safe.

One day last summer, I was leisurely biking to work when I got a flat tire. I found myself a few miles away from home but still a few miles away from work. I texted my wife, who had just dropped off our kids at summer day camp. She swung by, I threw the bike in the back of our Atlas, and she dropped me off at work.

I had one meeting that morning, and I simply emailed to reschedule after I helplessly watched my tire deflate.

I showed up to work a little later and a little sweatier than normal, but it didn’t really impact my day. As a secure and salaried white-collar worker, I still made the same amount of money at work. I didn’t clock out when I went to the bathroom. I left at my normal time. The whole experience was a mild annoyance but not a huge deal.

The only reason I remember it now is because my car just got a second flat tire in a month. I wrote this from the comfort of my dealership as I get the spare swapped out with a new tire.

It sucks that I have to shell out another $294 to fix my tire. But it would be way worse if my car was my livelihood, and a flat tire took me out of commission. Goodbye $6.50 bonus. Maybe goodbye a whole day’s worth of wages.

You can’t just work from home when you drive an Uber.

Now multiply that effect by people not requesting rides for weeks out of fear, or a quarantine that keeps you out of work, or a whole city goes under lock-down. Or you have your own list of medical conditions and you can’t take the risk of driving around potentially sick people. Suddenly, your paycheck disappears.

On the other side of the equation, if you’re a rider who uses Lyft or Uber to get to work, what happens if you suddenly can’t rely on this transportation?

For years now, people have pointed out the potential perils of the gig economy, and the gaping holes it can leave in the social safety net. Back in 2014, Sarah Kessler channeled Barbara Ehrenreich in Fast Company and warned of getting “pixel and dimed.”

But since then, the gig economy has continued to chug along in fits and starts. It became a de facto part of life — because who among us could we live without an on-demand ride from the bars or fast food delivered to our door?

Now the gig economy is facing its real first crisis as fears of the Coronavirus pummels its stock. According to The Motley Fool:

Uber, which operates around most of the world, has been particularly sensitive to coronavirus fears, with investors believing that riders will be less likely to use shared vehicles if the outbreak gets worse. Uber shares closed down 11.1% while rival Lyft was down 8.9%.

Of the two companies, Lyft is the only one so far that has emailed drivers about what they’re doing for the Coronavirus. In an email, they said “we’ve set up a fund to support drivers should they be diagnosed with COVID-19, or put under individual quarantine by a public health agency.”

But the link to their “online resources” is mostly about keeping your car clean. There is no link for more information about that fund, and no clear way to apply for it. I can’t find anymore information on their website.

And that’s only for those “diagnosed” with COVID-19, not those who may have symptoms. Will they stop driving if their livelihood depends on it?

So yes, investors and owners of the ridesharing stock are going to take a hit. But in my short, privileged and non-immersive foray into driving for Uber and Lyft, I wonder about the drivers and the people they drive. What’s going to happen to them?

As cities start to slowly shut down, the secondary victims are going to be those who rely on the gig economy for their main source of income or for their transportation. And it’s going to take a lot more than an extra $6.50 to fix that.

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Educator. Podcast addict. Wrote a book about creativity:

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