COVID-19 Isn’t Making Rideshare Drivers Sick. It’s Making Them Broke. Fast.
It’s not possible to make a living driving for Lyft or Uber in a coronavirus economy.
[This post was written on Wednesday, March 11, 2020.]
"Rideshare drivers who get sick won't be able to work, and they don't have any paid sick time or disability insurance."
That's a lazy narrative. It's unequivocally true, and it tells us nothing, because it's always been true. It's not just news that isn't fit to print—it's literally not news at all.
Here's what's actually happening to Lyft and Uber drivers right now:
They're all going broke, even if they don't get sick.
I drive full-time in the Bay Area and am familiar with demand, earnings, and ride patterns from San Jose through the Napa Valley. My best guess is that drivers' gross earnings in the entire Bay are down roughly 50% this week. It's certainly the case for me. Last week I made $22/hour from fares, and never less than $19/hour on any given day. This week I made $15/hour on Monday, $14/hour on Tuesday, and $10/hour today. The difference is simple: I'm not getting as many ride requests.
Yeah, yeah, small sample size. So maybe you'd like some narratives instead? Anyone who drives around here will recognize these events as deeply disconcerting:
- I drove from Vallejo to Berkeley on Monday at 3 PM and got zero ride requests for Lyft or Uber.
- I finally got a passenger going from Berkeley to SFO at 5:30 PM. There was practically no traffic the whole way.
- At SFO, there were four cars dropping off or picking up at Terminal 1. It's usually bumper to bumper at 6 PM on a Monday. There were also 218 Uber drivers waiting in the rideshare queue for pickups. It's usually fewer than 50.
- I drove from the Mission (in San Francisco) to Vallejo at 7:30 PM that day. It took me 30 minutes to drive 32 miles. I got zero ride requests. That stretch of road is normally the busiest in the Bay from 3:00 PM to 8:00 PM during the week.
- On Tuesday, I went to San Jose to rent a car for the week. I drove north at 3:30 PM and didn't get a ride until I hit Walnut Creek.
So what's going on?
Well, by and large, drivers aren't getting sick. Let's say 5% more incapacitating illnesses than usual. That seems like an extraordinarily high number, but let's run with it. (Notice that Lyft and Uber paying out a pittance in sick pay doesn't help the vast majority of their work force.)
But every major event and gathering of more than a few people in the Bay is canceled. Businesses are closed. No one is going to bars or restaurants. Flights are canceled or underbooked. And every person who has money or can work remotely isn't leaving the house. The people who are still going to work tend to have less money, so many of them are priced out of hailing a ride—they're taking mass transit. So the number of passengers is probably 50% of normal and trending down, fast.
Do the math.
What happens now?
Drivers find ways make ends meet. They neglect repairs, eat less nutritious food, don't buy medicine, don't get health conditions treated. All while driving longer hours. They get sick and drive anyway. Think about what that means for them, their passengers, and everyone else on the road. Hint: it ain't safer driving conditions.
What happens next?
Drivers miss health insurance premium payments and lose coverage. They miss rent and get evicted. They miss car payments and lose their income entirely.
Why aren't we hearing about this in the media?
No one in the media actually talks to or listens to drivers. I mean it. No one. Uber made huge, sweeping changes to their policies for California drivers in response to AB 5. They announced those changes at the beginning of December and rolled them out fully by mid-January. No one reported on them until February. No one covers these companies from the perspective of their lowest paid workers.
Secondly, do you really expect Lyft or Uber to issue statements about their ridership tanking? Their executives are likely in full-blown panic mode, but you're not going to see that in your news feeds. Check out their next couple quarters of earnings statements, though.
On the bright side, now capitalists will know exactly what to do when the next pandemic hits: short rideshare stocks in addition to airlines, hospitality, and oil.
Every crisis teaches us new things about the fragility of our socialism-for-billionaires economy. But the vast majority of us are too poor to take advantage of those lessons, or would rather die than intentionally invest further in the exploitation of our fellows.
"So what can I do?"
- The usual: tip your drivers (and everyone else!) extraordinarily well.
- The usual: unionize, get involved with your local anticapitalist organizations, fight for free and comprehensive public transportation, and primary the fuck out of any local politician who isn't squarely for the people.
Oh. And read your fucking Marx. Let this be the crisis that shocks you into permanent class solidarity.
There's definitely more to say, and I'm sure I'll have more data by the end of the week. But I doubt I'll write anything more on the topic. After all, I've gotta get back out there and max out my 12 allowed hours of driving each day. Nose to the grindstone until this weekly rental is up. Barring a miracle, I won't be renewing it for another week. I'll be leveraging my extremely fortunate living circumstances and my limited family privilege to sprint away from this industry as fast as possible. My parents never made much money, but they're extraordinarily supportive and my dad was in a union for 20 years, so I've got a better chance than most.