Alex* arrived at Page and Masonic at 2:50 pm, the perfume of the old woman he had just dropped off at Whole Foods lingering in his black Toyota Camry, to pick up his next client: me. Instead of commencing an awkward silence, Alex became the first of several Uber/Lyft drivers to be interviewed on my journey to understand the workers of the gig economy.
The inspiration for my expedition arose on April 30, 2018, when the California Supreme Court ruled that gig economy workers (including, but not limited to, Uber and Lyft drivers) as workers as opposed to independent contractors. The verdict has been met with a buzz in various media outlets that gig-workers could potentially see higher wages, overtime pay, and even compensation for damages, none of which a company is obligated to give to contractors. Although the ruling has the potential to upend the business model for gig-economy jobs, it also serves as a reminder that these drivers put a lot of time and effort into their jobs and deserve basic rights. Alex and the other drivers I interviewed either had not heard of the case or did not know enough to form an opinion on it, but their experiences shed light on the inner workings of this ubiquitous industry.
En route to our destination (the Tpumps in the Sunset District), Alex explained a benefit of Uber and Lyft that subsequent drivers would echo: “[I joined Uber/Lyft because] I wanted to be my own boss. It’s easy money, and I can pick my hours whenever I want … In terms of benefits, there [are] none. But just to make enough to live in the city is enough.”
Alex explained that three years ago, before he started working with Uber and Lyft, he worked at a telecommunications company here in San Francisco. “Living in the city, driving Lyft and Uber, is easier to make money than an ordinary job. If I work with a company with an hourly job, I don’t have that kind of flexibility which is hard. They don’t pay as well. So in terms of making money, Lyft is good, Uber is good,” Alex said.
We arrived at the destination, and the first leg of the journey ended. A couple of minutes later, I stood on the curb of Irving Street, green apple flavored green tea in hand, as Mike* arrived in his beige Kia Optima.
Mike explained that, unlike Alex, Uber and Lyft was not his only job. Mike only started working as a driver a year ago, and he still works at his family’s food goods store in Chinatown.
“I never make enough money from [driving] alone, but I like driving, it’s more fun, meeting other people,” Mike said.
Already that day, Mike had worked a shift at the family business, before starting to drive at 11:30 am. On our way to the next destination (the Castro), Mike echoed some of Alex’s points about flexibility, but with a caveat: “It’s just extra money.”
After Mike dropped me off, I explored a nearby Farmers Market (I forgot lunch that day) before Jack* arrived in his red Nissan Rogue to take me to the Mission, armed with answers aplenty.
Jack explained that Uber/Lyft had been his only job for almost five years; he works Monday to Friday, 6:00 am to 8:00 pm (with breaks), and has roughly 30 drives on any given day. Before he picked me up, Jack had already been to Berkeley, the Presidio, the airport, downtown, Mission Dolores, and the Inner Richmond.
“[Working for Uber and Lyft] is alright. It’s not a dream job, but it’s good for survival,” Jack said. While he also had not heard about the court case, that didn’t mean he was devoid of opinions regarding his rights as a driver: “Uber and Lyft should pay us more. We are using our own cars; we have to pay for the maintenance, insurance and any damage out of our pockets. They don’t support us at all. Sometimes we have to work more hours because the demand for drivers is so high. If we just work average hours, we’re not gonna make enough.”
Jack mentioned the recurring theme of flexibility, but also proffered an additional bonus of being able to explore the city while he works: “I can find different places in the city, I can have a good experience. I can find a nice restaurant when I drop off a customer that I would never have found,” Jack said.
Before Jack dropped me off at La Taqueria, we had an off-the-record philosophical discussion about the likely downsides that self-driving cars would soon present. Once I finished my chorizo taco, and the empty boba tea was replaced with horchata, I embarked on the final stretch of my expedition (back home) with *Cole.
Cole used to be a security guard at an apartment complex, but for the past year, Cole had worked full-time for Uber and Lyft, working from 11:30 am until he met his daily quota of 25 rides. Already that day, he had been all over Diamond Heights, the Castro, and the Mission, but he routinely traveled to Sausalito, San Jose, Napa and Campbell.
Cole expanded upon the point of flexibility: “If a person takes me near the bank, I will have an opportunity to do whatever I need to do at the bank. My daughter is coming home today, so after this I’ll turn off the app and head to the airport. But if I was a traditional nine to five employee, I would have to ask a supervisor for permission.”
“If you treat it like a job, you’ll get paid like an employee. If you treat it like a business, you’ll get paid like a boss. I try to treat it like a business … I set a daily goal of 25 rides … I do not stop short of the goal unless something makes me, and then I make up for it the next day. That is not an employee mindset, it’s a business mindset,” Cole said.
Cole elaborated with an analogy for his business mindset: “If this gig was a restaurant, then I sweep the floor and cook the food. I wash the dishes and I wait the tables. I’m the maître d’ and the receipt collector. I run every aspect of the business because the buck stops with me. If I don’t get in the car, the car won’t pick people up on its own.”
“I engage [with] dozens of people every day … So I have to ask myself, am I leaving something positive or something negative with them, do they grow or decline, do they have a good taste in their mouth or a bitter taste. I want to walk away from a ride knowing that I did the best I could,” Cole said.
So, next time you take an Uber of Lyft, remember that your driver is a real person who is driving you out of a need to survive. They are not contractors, they are workers striving to make ends meet.
*The names in this article are fake to protect the anonymity of drivers