Uber is charging drivers to work

Fig 1 A screenshot posted to a forum by an Uber driver. I added the red highlights (arrow and oval).

Uber has selected some drivers to receive a “promotion” whereby they are invited to pay up front now to work at a premium rate later. In the example above, a driver is invited to pay $115 one week on the promise that they receive a 33% increase on their pay rates in the following week. While charging for work opportunities is reminiscent of multi-level marketing, like Mary Kay or Amway, this is different because Uber controls so much of the labor process, like dispatch, and competing promotional pay, in addition to setting the base rates at which drivers earn their income. In other words, drivers can use their labor as collateral on their down payment now in exchange for earning a premium on their labor later, but Uber ultimately controls whether or not the promotion is worthwhile.

One strange, adjacent piece of this story is that Uber has characterized drivers as consumers of its technology, like passengers, in response to legal challenges over whether drivers are misclassified as independent contractors, rather than as employees. If drivers are consumers, then this may become an FTC issue over potentially deceptive advertising. Under Section 5 of the FTC Act, companies are prohibited from engaging in deceptive advertising. In this case, the text of Uber’s offer, “Celebrate Halloween early by earning 33% more” is larger and bolder than the “gotcha” — “$115 will be deducted from your pay,” as several of my colleagues have observed. That type of dark UX is similar to the phantom cars I wrote about a few years ago.

Fig 2 Sample promotional Quest pay

The design of this pay-to-play incentive looks very similar to Uber’s other promotional pay incentives (see Fig 2), as well as their policy changes (see Fig 3), in its design and fonts. Uber experiments with driver pay incentives all the time (as does its main competitor, Lyft), but this pay-to-play version is part of an academic research study, according to Uber.

Fig 3 Sample Uber policy notification to a driver in LA

After I tweeted out the pay-to-play screenshot (Fig 1), Uber wrote to me to explain that the screenshot refers to a study in Houston that is part of a research collaboration between Uber and two MIT economists. They added that, “Further, drivers have to opt-in to the offer and there is a disclaimer explaining that if they opt-in they will be part of an academic research project.” What I see in the promotion is text that reads “Claim your offer”. I’m curious to see what the disclaimer and opt-in language of informed consent is, and I asked Uber to share it shortly before writing this quick blogpost. (I’ll update this post accordingly when I receive their response).

**Update: Uber sent the following italicized opt-in terms, though not the forms. The data generated by driver-partners participating in the Earnings Accelerator may be used by Uber and its academic partners for statistical analyses and academic research. Driver-partners who opt in to this promotion may be eligible for additional opportunities offered in collaboration with our academic partners through December 31. No personally identifiable information will be shared with Uber’s academic partners.

I’m mulling over how odd it is to distinguish this particular pay-to-play incentive from the range of comparable incentives that Uber deploys in a non-academic context to cajole drivers into working at particular places at particular times, or away from its competitors. In forum comments, drivers observed that this pay-to-play promotion is like purchasing Boost, or that it could undermine surge pricing. In other words, drivers make sense of this incentive within the range of incentives that shape their earning opportunities. When Uber leverages its ongoing employment relationship with its drivers to experiment with their livelihoods for academic research purposes, it also raises a few questions and concerns regarding Uber’s power over these research subjects. If drivers became ill during the week where their promotion was implemented, for example, they’d lose that $115 down payment. At that point, could they “opt-out” of the study?

I followed the link Uber sent me to the working paper they published on this research related to the city of Boston, where I was prompted to purchase it for $5. I paid up, and I have a few thoughts on it. More to follow.

*Follow up: I wrote about “The Network Uber Drivers Built” for Fast Company to show us how companies like Uber lose control over information when drivers band together to share information in forums