"I like it,” says a Duluth Uber driver about his job. The Zenith is not identifying the driver because we did not disclose to him that he was talking to reporters. “You can choose your own hours and choose what area you want to work in. It’s a pretty good job, for part-time.”
The job he goes on to describe, however, sounds more like a cross between Scientology and sharecropping.
He spends 20 to 40 hours a week sitting in his personal vehicle, logged in to Uber’s online app, waiting for someone who needs a ride to log in and request one.
When that happens, Uber sends a notice to the closest driver who’s logged in. That driver has only seconds to accept before Uber moves on to the next closest driver. “They don’t recommend that you decline too often.”
Once the driver accepts, Uber sends a message to the passenger that you’re on your way. Passengers pay online by credit card, eliminating the need for cash—a convenience that’s proven quite popular with Uber passengers.
The driver doesn’t find out the passenger’s destination until after accepting the job. If the passenger hasn’t entered their destination into the app, the driver doesn’t find out where they’re going until the passenger is in their car. Drivers can cancel the call up until pickup, but, naturally, Uber doesn’t recommend that drivers cancel calls either.
In fact, Uber is just bursting with recommendations for its drivers. They recommend keeping chewing gum and bottled water on hand—free of charge for passengers.
Uber recommends their drivers carry a variety of cell phone chargers for their passengers’ use.
The company recommends that drivers install a dashboard mount for their smartphone (a bluetooth will not suffice because the driver needs to be able to view their screen to get a map of their pickup and drop-off locations). Thirty-six states have laws against the use of hand-held devices while driving, and 16 have laws against any cell phone use while driving including hands-free devices.
Uber recommends that drivers install a dashcam because...well, you just can’t be too careful, and the company disclaims all liability in the event that a driver or passenger alleges misconduct.
Drivers are responsible for carrying their own insurance, in compliance with the laws of each state pertaining to commercial use of personal vehicles.
This is because Uber drivers are, each one of them, a little business unto themselves. They are not employees of Uber Technologies, Inc.; they are “independent contractors”—freelancers who work for themselves, not for the companies with whom they contract.
As such, Uber drivers pay out of their own pockets for the gum and bottled water and cell phone chargers. They can write off most of these expenses as tax deductions, assuming they know how, or even know that they can.
As independent contractors, they owe the IRS both the employer and employee payroll taxes. Independent contractors are exempt from minimum wage laws, unemployment insurance, overtime pay, retirement benefits, workers’ compensation, and the right to unionize.
Uber drivers receive 80 percent of each fare, plus mileage during the time the passenger is in their car, but not for mileage incurred to pick up the passenger nor for the return trip after drop-off—not even if the destination leaves them in Two Harbors, or Cloquet, or somewhere on the Iron Range, which the driver has no way of knowing until after accepting the call.
And, of course, Uber “doesn’t recommend” that you reject calls—which is less a recommendation than a threat, considering the company can “deactivate” drivers at any time, without explanation, leaving them unable to log in to the Uber app and, thus, unable to work.
Reasons for deactivation include refusing calls, canceling calls, not logging in for 90 days, transporting unpaid passengers, picking up “hails” (i.e., passengers who didn’t use Uber’s app to request the ride), or falling below an average 4.6 approval rating from passengers.
After each drop-off, passengers are asked to rate their driver on a scale of one to five. It’s a simple star rating, with no opportunity for the passenger to elaborate, so a one-star rating might mean the driver blew through stop signs and sexually harassed them, or it might just mean the driver ran out of gum and bottled water.
With the cutoff for deactivation as high as 4.6—an average that would put you on the Dean’s List at most universities—the passenger rating becomes an all-consuming focus for drivers, who may wait long periods of unpaid time for unprepared passengers (passengers are supposed to be completely ready to go at the time they request a ride); provide additional unpaid services, such as carrying luggage, or even performing completely unrelated tasks (one driver reported helping a passenger box up her home to move); forgoing tips in exchange for a five-star rating, or just plain begging for one.
Passengers aren’t informed of the meaning assigned to each rating, so a passenger might reasonably assume that four stars indicates a job well done, unaware that they’ve actually just cast the vote that will get their driver fired.
In theory, the rating system goes both ways. Drivers also have the option of rating their passengers. But because the driver has only seconds to accept a call, in practice, there’s no time to check a passenger’s rating.
“The primary concern I have with companies like Uber is their use of independent contractors to lower their labor costs,” says Second District City Councilor Joel Sipress. “Their entire business model involves shifting their overhead onto what are, essentially, employees.”
This is a common feature of the “gig economy”—a labor market characterized by short-term contracts brokered by an online company for a cut of the fee, in which workers are classified as freelancers and often monetize their personal possessions, such as car or home. AirBnb, for example, is an app that matches travelers in need of lodging with locals renting out space in their homes.
Sipress has been a consistent critic of the gig economy, demanding that the City regulate, first AirBnb, and now Uber, to the point of earning himself a reputation as hostile to these brave, new tech start-ups.
But Sipress says he’s not opposed to them...not exactly... “The main focus was making sure, before we took steps to legalize this business, that we were regulating it on a level playing field with taxis. It’s essentially the same service...AirBnb is an advertising company; Uber is a taxi company.”
Uber could not be reached for comment for this story, because Uber can’t be reached at all—not even by its own drivers. In the event of an accident or other emergency, drivers are instructed to email the company and await a reply, which can take several days.
Customer complaints are handled the same way, with an immediate computer-generated response to acknowledge receipt, if not always clarity.
Washington Post reporter Amy Brittain attempted to contact Uber to report that her driver had dodged oncoming traffic while barreling down the wrong side of the road. The company’s auto-response read, in part:
Hi, Amy! Thanks for writing to Uber and happy to help you! We understand your reason for emailing today regarding the trip in which drove on the wrong side of the road [sic]...What really happened here is that sometimes driver-partner has their own way of getting around the city.
Even if Uber had a public telephone number, the company has been exceedingly hostile to the press. At a 2014 event in Manhattan, Uber Vice President Emil Michael remarked within earshot of reporters that the company should hire investigators to “dig up dirt” on journalists who portray Uber unfavorably.
Michael specifically named PandoDaily editor Sarah Lacy, saying Lacy should be held “personally responsible” for any woman who opts to take a taxicab and then gets raped by the driver.
Michael later apologized for the comment after it wound up in print.
Other reporters and public officials critical of Uber have received threatening calls or emails, and been “doxxed”—the practice of disseminating information about someone on the Internet, such as their home address, telephone number, or information about their children, in order to frighten or harass the victim.
Uber has fought proposals nationwide to subject its drivers to the same scrutiny as taxis. Uber (and its prime competitor, Lyft, which has branded itself as the more progressive “ride-share company,” but employs a virtually identical business model) conducts private background checks and drug testing, but they don’t fingerprint drivers and they only check publicly available information—not FBI records or the National Crime Information Center.
This is no different in Duluth, according to At-Large City Councilor Noah Hobbs, who introduced the ordinance that now regulates Duluth Ubers and other TNCs (or “transportation network companies”). While cab drivers must submit to a background check by the Duluth Police Department, TNCs may continue to use their own background checks and the City will conduct random audits to make sure those checks are being done.
“Their [business] model is intriguing,” says Hobbs. “I don’t have any concerns about it.”
Hobbs says he was approached in early 2016 by Uber’s lobbyists. “They were moving into their second-tier cities and asked if we were interested in having this service. I thought it was a great service. I think people should be aware of [concerns], but it’s the driver’s choice whether to do it...We can’t regulate everything. There’s always risk.”
For taxi drivers, that level of risk is unconscionable, but their concerns have been dismissed as sour grapes, according to a driver at Custom Cab in Duluth who gave her name only as Lisa. “When you take Uber, you’re taking your life into your hands”—not to mention your wallet.
Lisa says that, since Uber began local operations in April, she’s seen how its booking app, combined with use of personal vehicles, “screws over” passengers. One night, she says she was parked outside Fond-du-Luth Casino, waiting to snap up the predictable late-night “hails.”
She saw a woman in front of the casino who seemed to be watching for someone. After some time had passed and the woman was still waiting, Lisa asked if she needed a cab. “She said no, because she had called an Uber. I said, ‘Ok, well, if you need me, I’m right over here.’”
Eventually the woman gave up on Uber and accepted the taxi. As it turns out, according to Lisa, the Uber was there all along, but since the private vehicle was unmarked, the woman never realized it had arrived. In the end, she had to pay not only the cab fare, but an Uber cancellation fee, in addition to the Uber fare that had already been charged to her credit card when she booked it online.
Lisa insists that, if the playing field were truly even, she would welcome the competition, pointing to how local cab drivers from competing companies frequently socialize together with no rancor whatsoever—but the City’s Uber ordinance, she says, does not level the playing field.
For example, cabs in Minnesota have geographic limitations on pickup, usually in and around the city where they’re licensed. A Duluth taxi can’t pull up stakes over Labor Day and head to St. Paul to work the State Fair.
The same can’t be said for TNCs. “Uber drivers from Rochester came up here during Grandma’s [Marathon in June] and took all our business. That’s some bullshit.”
Taylor Martin-Romme assisted with this story.