Gig workers in Chicago make below minimum wage. Amid the Biden administration’s push to expand labor rights through bills like the PRO Act, gig workers are raising concerns about their pay, safety and job security. The Daily sat down with gig workers and organizers to discuss these issues and whether unionization is the right path to addressing them.
LORI SIMMONS: The companies have dropped their minimum delivery amounts consistently throughout the entire pandemic, it’s insane how low it is now. So, what you’ll see is workers out there who are actually losing money because they’re not making enough to cover their expenses.
WILL CLARK: In the last ten years, more and more people have started doing gig work through apps like Uber, Lyft, Instacart and DoorDash. However, gig jobs often don’t have the same kinds of protections that traditional jobs do, like a guaranteed minimum wage, overtime pay or the right to collectively bargain. Some argue that this is because gig jobs aren’t “real jobs,” but in fact, full-time gig workers make up 10-13 percent of the American workforce, and many of them are working thirty hours or more per week. Gig workers are disproportionately younger, lower-income and people of color. Many of them opt for gig work to supplement income from other jobs, or because they have family situations that require flexible work schedules. On the local, state and national levels, lawmakers are looking at legislation that could make gig work safer, more stable and better-paying. Today, we’re asking gig workers and organizers what issues they’re concerned about, and whether collective bargaining could be a path to addressing them. From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Will Clark. Welcome to The Ripple, a podcast exploring the effects of state and national politics on the Evanston and Northwestern communities.
WILL CLARK: A 2021 study from the Illinois Economic Policy Institute found that gig drivers in Chicago only earn about $13.62 per hour on average, after vehicle expenses. That’s less than Chicago’s minimum wage, which is $14.00 per hour. Another study, this one looking at gig workers across the nation, found that a majority of Uber drivers make less than $10 per hour after vehicle expenses. So, why are gig workers getting paid below minimum wage for essential, sometimes dangerous work? Well, some of that has to do with their classification as independent contractors, rather than employees. Under labor laws, an independent contractor is basically someone who is self-employed, like a freelance writer or a plumber. Independent contractors don’t get certain labor protections that employees do, like the right to a minimum wage, overtime pay, workers’ compensation, unemployment benefits or the right to collectively bargain. And under current law, that’s how gig workers are classified. But some advocates are pushing to change that. The Protecting the Right to Organize Act, a bill the Democratic House passed on March 11, would do just that: reclassifying gig workers as employees and securing their right to unionize. The Biden administration has voiced support for the bill, but it will likely face an uphill battle in the Senate. To start us off, I sat down with Lori Simmons, a gig worker and an organizer with the People’s Lobby, a grassroots social justice organization focusing on labor rights, racial justice and environmental issues in the Chicago area. I asked Lori to walk me through the way wages are determined for drivers, because the whole process is a bit confusing.
LORI SIMMONS: It is, and they’ve made it that way intentionally so that nobody can identify whether or not they’re stealing our wages. Basically the way that it started — you know, you’ll remember when rideshare first began — how the big deal was about surge pricing.
WILL CLARK: Surge pricing is a really important feature of rideshare apps’ pricing algorithms. It basically charges passengers more for rides in busy or high-density areas, like right after a concert. However, some passengers felt like the gig companies were charging overly-high rates for short rides.
LORI SIMMONS: The whole idea was that it was dynamic pricing. So basically, in a quote-unquote busy area, the price would go up and that would incentivize us, the gig workers, to go to that busy area, which may be dangerous as well, because whatever is going on over there, there’s a lot of people who need a ride. Sometimes you would see things like the train would stop running here in Chicago and suddenly a surge would pop up, crazy, and everybody would run over there and get it. But it’s a madhouse, right? I mean, finding your person, all this stuff, it’s a pain, so people wouldn’t want to do it unless they were getting paid more money.
WILL CLARK: Uber and Lyft drivers make a base-level per-mile and per-minute rate that varies from city to city, although those rates have suffered several cuts in the past couple of years. When there’s a surge, as much as passengers don’t like the inflated prices, drivers have historically been able to boost their incomes. However, that’s no longer the case.
LORI SIMMONS: So a lot of drivers would wait for a long ride with a big surge, because the longer the ride was, the more money you would get, and it would multiply and multiply and the ride would become quite lucrative. It doesn’t work like that anymore. So basically the way it works now is, no matter how far you’re taking them, you only get a flat dollar amount part of the surge that they’re charging. So they’re still charging two or three or sometimes even four or five times, you know, of what they would normally charge. However the driver’s getting probably five to ten dollars of that and all the rest of it is going to the company.
WILL CLARK: So basically, if I ordered an Uber ride from a high-traffic area when rideshare apps first launched, I would pay more and that additional cost would go toward paying my driver for the hassle of having to navigate a busy, potentially dangerous area. But now, if I ordered that same ride from that same high-traffic area, I would pay the same additional cost, but it would go to Uber or Lyft rather than my driver. Some workers and advocates feel like this change defeats surge pricing’s original purpose. Others are concerned that a lack of transparency about pricing and pay is being used to manipulate drivers.
KIM ZIYAVO: It seems like there’s no consistency. You could be like two different drivers, sitting in cars next to each other and turn on the app, and, like, have two different surge levels for the same place, and it’s like, “Why am I getting one amount and the person next to me is getting another amount?”
WILL CLARK: That’s Kim Ziyavo, a former driver and an organizer with the Independent Drivers Guild, a union-backed organization focused on rideshare workers’ rights. According to the New York Times, Uber has hired social scientists and data scientists to help them design algorithms that use video game techniques and low-value rewards to push drivers to work longer. For example, when a driver is logging off for the end of the night, the app might send them a message saying “you’re only $15 away from making $400, are you sure you want to log off?” Messages like this are designed to tap into the psychological drive for goal-achieving. Kim said using tactics like this to keep drivers on the road is unethical.
KIM ZIYAVO: It’s very much like behavior modifications. If we do this, this and that, maybe this driver will stay out for two or three hours longer. You can’t prove it, but you know you’re being manipulated.
WILL CLARK: Ride-share companies’ pricing algorithms are also dependent on the amount of drivers in an area at a given time. If there’s more drivers than passengers, drivers are forced to compete for passengers. That means that they’ll be more willing to accept lower wages or shorter, less-profitable rides. That’s one reason why, on April 7, Uber announced a plan to spend $250 million to persuade more drivers to start working amid the pandemic. But drivers say they haven’t seen increased wages as part of that plan.
FACERLYN WHEELER: Right at the end of March, I got an alert, and apparently some other people did too, that they would be lowering my rates to make them equal with other newer drivers in the market.
WILL CLARK: That’s Facerlyn Wheeler, an Uber and Lyft driver from Rockford, Illinois.
FACERLYN WHEELER: So here I am putting my health at risk being on the road, you lower my pay, and then you say you’re going to offer incentives to people who aren’t driving that are going to come back? Like, wow, just another one of those times where they remind me that I’m not important.
WILL CLARK: Facerlyn isn’t alone in feeling devalued by the gig company she works for.
XANTHE BROWN: I think at the end of the day, what was really frustrating for me was not feeling like a person.
WILL CLARK: That’s Xanthe Brown, a sophomore at the School of Communication who worked for Instacart in her hometown of Champaign, Illinois this past summer.
XANTHE BROWN: They time you, like, really hard when you shop. You get like a 10 minute break every four hours. When you take your ten-minute break, there’s like a running timer with like the minutes you have left in red.
WILL CLARK: Xanthe said that high-pressure atmosphere was also combined with a lack of in-person support. If Instacart shoppers had problems, they were left to call or message a support line. Xanthe said the support line was painfully slow at responding.
XANTHE BROWN: So I shopped this order that I thought was a repeat order, and I messaged the customer service people and was like, “This feels like a repeat order, I don’t know what to do.” And I waited on them for probably 45 minutes, and then I got a message back that was like, “Nope, this isn’t a repeat order, go ahead and finish it up,” which means I had spent 45 minutes on this, like, three-item order, which would wreck my stats.
WILL CLARK: Instacart shoppers are meticulously timed for all their orders, which is why Xanthe was so concerned about spending 45 minutes on such a small cart. Instacart technically only hired her for a two-month period, and she was concerned that they would let her go at the end of those two months if her times weren’t good enough. She said that pay was also an area of concern.
XANTHE BROWN: I know there was a scandal for a long time where Instacart had a tipping function in its app but was pocketing the tips.
WILL CLARK: In 2019, Instacart was found to be using tip money to subsidize worker pay. So basically, if an Instacart worker got a $10 tip from a customer, the app would decrease their Instacart pay by $10. In 2019, Instacart’s CEO, Apoorva Mehta, apologized for the policy, saying it was “misguided.” But gig companies continue to face allegations of tip theft. I spoke to one driver who had been driving with Uber and Lyft for two years. In that time, he had five or six rides where passengers said they were going to tip him, but the tips never appeared on his end. He said this even occurred after showing passengers how to pull up the tip section of the app himself.
ANONYMOUS DRIVER: They gave me a tip on the app but I just didn’t get it.
WILL CLARK: That driver, who I spoke to over the phone, wanted to remain anonymous over concerns of retaliation from Uber and Lyft. He said that after multiple rides where he didn’t receive tips, he contacted Uber and Lyft support. They told him he didn’t receive his tips because of a glitch in the app. But then he joined Facebook groups where other Uber and Lyft drivers said they had the same experiences as him.
ANONYMOUS DRIVER: People like me, like they just immigrated to this country and they don’t have any work experience or they have a language barrier. People on Lyft know exactly what kind of people are doing this, they know that this is their only income, so they can push, like it as much as they want it.
WILL CLARK: This driver’s concerns, that Uber and Lyft are able to exploit many of their drivers for being lower-income or first-generation immigrants who lack access to other work opportunities, reflect national statistics. One 2018 study found that, in some cities, 9 out of 10 Uber drivers are immigrants. Other studies have found that a disproportionate amount of rideshare drivers are living near the poverty line. Despite the testimonies of many drivers, both Uber and Lyft deny all allegations of tip theft. Uber’s website says that “there are zero service fees applied to your tips.” Lyft’s says, “100% of tips go to drivers.”
WILL CLARK: But gig workers’ concerns don’t begin and end at wage theft and low pay rates. Those issues only feed into other problems, like driver safety.
LORI SIMMONS: That makes for a very dangerous atmosphere in terms of, like car repairs not getting done. I mean, there’s a lot of stuff that falls by the wayside when people are making poverty wages.
WILL CLARK: That’s Lori again. On top of vehicle maintenance, an increase in carjackings is a major safety concern for drivers.
LORI SIMMONS: The passengers are not required to use their real names, so people who have a stolen credit card, they can put a fake name on there, use the stolen credit card, request a ride, rob that person, steal their car and then erase the account and nobody can find them. Because Uber and Lyft don’t actually track who’s using their app at all.
WILL CLARK: What Lori is describing happened on March 23, when a Chicago-area driver named Javier Ramos was shot to death by a passenger during a carjacking. His death sparked anger and fear among gig workers, some of whom feel that companies like Uber and Lyft aren’t prioritizing their safety. Omar Cendejaz, a Lyft driver, said he would like to see ride-hail apps require passengers to use their real name and photograph.
OMAR CENDEJAZ: With us, we’re supposed to have a clear picture in our app, but they have the option to, so they opt out. I don’t know who’s getting in my car.
WILL CLARK: Passengers also can order rides for other people without saying that’s what they’re doing, leaving drivers completely in the dark about who or how many people to expect when they pull up to pick up a passenger.
LORENZO WASHINGTON: If you order a ride for somebody else and you’re not the one using it, I think it should be an option where you have to pick it — where if you’re going to order a ride for someone, okay. It’s not you getting in the car, okay — you’ve got to pay an extra three dollars.
WILL CLARK: That’s Lorenzo Washington, also an Uber and Lyft driver. He said he’s had uncomfortable experiences where the passenger who showed up was different from the passenger he was told he would be picking up. He said he’s begun taking lots of precautions because he’s concerned about being carjacked. Omar has also taken extra precautions to ensure his safety.
OMAR CENDEJAZ: I carry pepper spray and I do have a pepper ball gun. And hopefully that helps, but I do wish they would do something.
WILL CLARK: On April 9, Uber did announce that in response to the increase in carjackings, riders will be required to upload some form of identification if they’re using an anonymous payment method, like gift cards or prepaid debit cards. Lyft has yet to follow suit. But when it comes to requiring passengers to post photos of themselves, advocates have mixed feelings. Some support it, while others are concerned that it could lead to increased discrimination. A 2019 study found that Black and LGBTQ+ passengers face disproportionate ride cancellations, and amid the pandemic, The LA Times reported that Asian-American and Pacific Islander passengers also experienced racist cancellations. Lorenzo thinks that gig companies need to step up to address racism among drivers.
LORENZO WASHINGTON: One thing that I think Lyft and Uber can do is make sure all of us watch a video on cultural diversity. Because you should be aware of these types of things. You should not be biased towards someone else because of color or creed.
WILL CLARK: On top of wages and driver safety, advocates say they’re concerned about what they call random deactivations. These happen when Uber or Lyft deactivates a driver’s account, sometimes without even telling them why. It usually happens because of an unverified accusation or complaint a passenger made against them.
LORI SIMMONS: The problem is these accusations don’t require any sort of burden of proof whatsoever, so basically customers are rewarded for lying because if they say that the driver was intoxicated, they get a free ride.
WILL CLARK: That was Lori again.
LORI SIMMONS: Once you have somebody who has used the app for so long, they’ve got 20,000 rides on the app, statistically, yeah, that’s going to happen a couple times. So what you’ll see is the older drivers who have more of these accusations being deactivated with no appeals process.
WILL CLARK: Omar said he bought a dashcam so that he can send Lyft footage if a passenger ever falsely accuses him of improper behavior.
OMAR CENDEJAZ: I was accused of driving under the influence right in the smack middle of the day. So it was like, ride number ten or eleven or something like that. So I submitted the video over to Lyft and they reactivated me right away.
WILL CLARK: And although Omar was able to message Lyft and get reactivated, other drivers have had trouble getting reactivated. Chicago-area rideshare forums are full of posts from deactivated drivers asking for help and support. Lori said if a deactivated driver is able to get a lawyer to contact Uber or Lyft, they can usually get reactivated right away. But gig workers are disproportionately younger, low-income people, and lawyers may not be financially accessible to them.
WILL CLARK: These concerns about wages, algorithmic manipulation, driver safety and unfair deactivations are the things organizers would likely use collective bargaining to pressure companies into addressing if legislation like the PRO Act passed.
OMAR CENDEJAZ: I think, unionize. As far as just the drivers and the gig workers getting together and demanding something to happen, I think it would get really fast results.
WILL CLARK: Xanthe also said that unionization for gig workers would be a step in the right direction.
XANTHE BROWN: I think these conglomerates have gotten really, really powerful in recent years because they’re utilizing tools of the Internet and technology that are really convenient for people, and they’re great ideas, but definitely I think, you know, there need to be regulations put on that, and I think workers absolutely should have a shot of communicating. It’s a service job, like other service jobs, and there should be a union to go along with that.
WILL CLARK: But not all gig workers are entirely comfortable with the idea of unionization. Facerlyn has some concerns about whether a union structure would work well for rideshare apps where not everyone is a full-time worker.
FACERLYN WHEELER: When you talk about unionizing, it’s too big and too fluid of a corporation to really look at it like that. Because you have drivers who are part-time, you have drivers who are full-time, you have drivers who are three-fourths time, you have drivers who are doing it all and then you have drivers who may just be doing one thing. I think it would be difficult because anytime you have union you have union fees and you have union expectations. Like I wouldn’t want to have to pay into a union when I’m very part-time with it.
WILL CLARK: Facerlyn said she would like to see some sort of board or regulatory body to oversee gig work companies and represent workers, but not in the form of a union. Lorenzo wasn’t totally sure what he thought about unionization, but he didn’t want his ability to work flexible hours to be affected by any legal changes to gig workers’ status.
LORENZO WASHINGTON: I’d like to hear more about what they want to try. When it comes to, you know, stuff like that, if it takes away from the freedom of being your own boss, I’m not for it.
WILL CLARK: Lorenzo’s not alone in his concerns. Some gig workers are worried that reclassifying them from independent contractors to employees could lead rideshare companies to implement restrictive schedules or switch to having shifts for drivers, removing the flexibility that makes gig work so accessible. Kim is one of those people.
KIM ZIYAVO: A lot of people have family, kids, elderly people that they’re taking care of, or other projects, other jobs. So to have that flexibility to just get in your car and turn the app on, that’s very important.
WILL CLARK: However, some organizers, like Lori, say that fears about flexibility are misplaced.
LORI SIMMONS: There is no law that says that an employee can’t have a flexible schedule. There’s no reason somebody doing Uber or Lyft wouldn’t be able to continue that. If they stop it, it’s because they are actively retaliating against workers for organizing.
WILL CLARK: Lori said that retaliation from Uber and Lyft could be a real possibility if the PRO Act passes and gig workers decide to unionize. In 2019, California passed a bill that reclassified gig workers as employees. In response, Uber and Lyft launched a $205 million campaign to overturn it. That campaign succeeded last year when California voters approved a ballot measure that created an exemption to the 2019 bill for rideshare drivers. Gig workers’ status is an issue playing out on the global stage as well. In March, the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom ruled that Uber must reclassify its drivers, guaranteeing them minimum wage, holiday pay and pension plans. So, as Senate lawmakers gear up to debate the PRO Act, the future of American gig workers’ fight for safety, independence and good wages hangs in the balance.
LORI SIMMONS: This is an extremely dangerous job, and to do it without protections, you’re setting yourself up for a bad, bad situation to occur.
WILL CLARK: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Will Clark. Thanks for listening to another episode of The Ripple. This episode was reported and produced by myself, Will Clark. The audio editor of the Daily is Madison Smith. The digital managing editor is Haley Fuller. The editor in chief is Sneha Dey.
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