Professionalism/Driving for Uber
Uber is a mobile application that connects users in need of a ride with willing and able drivers. Riders pay fare for each trip, with the driver and the company each receiving a portion of the fare. The application was launched in 2009 after founders Travis Kalanick and Garret Camp had trouble hailing a cab in Paris. Since then, Uber’s growth has been monumental. Today, Uber operates in 600 cities within 78 countries, and over 5 billion rides have been given to 75 million riders by 7 million drivers. However, Uber has also developed a reputation for being less driver-friendly compared to other ridesharing services and has faced several public controversies regarding treatment of its drivers.
Uber drivers receive increased flexibility and autonomy compared to traditional working roles. In 2015, Uber released a study, which revealed that 91% of its drivers drive “to earn more income to better support myself or my family,” 85% drive “to have more flexibility in my schedule and balance work with my life and family,” and 87% drive “to be my own boss and set my own schedule." About half of Uber's drivers previously worked in the for-hire transportation industry, but the other half of drivers did not previously drive for a living and became drivers because Uber provided a new, convenient type of job for them.
Drivers are considered contractors rather than employees. As contractors, federal and state employment laws do not entitle them to several benefits and services that employees must receive. The legal definition of an ‘employer’ is one who has the power to “control and direct” the employee on “how the work is to be performed.” However, drivers argue that Uber does just this. Drivers must follow Uber's code of performance and not fall below the minimum average rating set by Uber. Uber also sets the fare and requires drivers to accept assigned rides and drive routes plotted by the application.
Because Uber classifies its drivers as contractors, unlike other transportation companies, Uber does not have to own its own fleet of cars or pay to license and train its drivers. This has helped Uber maintain its profitability. Overall, the contractor status of Uber's drivers reduces costs by about 20-30%.
Driver Benefits and Protections
Uber drivers are independent contractors and thus receive few benefits or protections. While Uber offers its drivers supplemental car insurance, it does not cover medical, dental, or life insurance. Drivers bear the brunt of customer service issues, such as complaints when Uber increases its prices during high-demand “surge” periods. Riders can leave drivers any rating, and Uber provides no control against discriminatory ratings. In most cities, drivers cannot unionize. Several suits have been filed against Uber for its treatments of its drivers. The Chamber of Commerce v. City of Seattle case highlights the unique position of Uber drivers. The case concerns an ordinance passed in 2015 that allows rideshare drivers to unionize. The plaintiff argues that, since drivers are independent contractors, unionization would violate antitrust laws and allow drivers to illegally set prices. Yet many argue Uber drivers are in a unique position: somewhere between a traditional employee and an independent contractor. Supporters of unionization argue Seattle’s ordinance empowers riders to address key concerns such as low wages.
On April 2, 2017, the New York Times published an article titled "How Uber Uses Psychological Tricks to Push Its Drivers’ Buttons." The article detailed how "even as Uber talks up its determination to treat drivers more humanely, it is engaged in an extraordinary behind-the-scenes experiment in behavioral science to manipulate them in the service of its corporate growth." Within a day, several other news sources had republished the article's findings, and Uber was facing significant controversy.
The psychological tricks described in the article fall under the category of gamification. Gamification is the integration of game mechanics into an existing process or system to motivate participation, engagement, and loyalty. Uber's gamification techniques push its drivers to work longer hours, bringing in additional profit for Uber. Often, these techniques encourage drivers to work at times and locations that help Uber meet customer demand but earn the drivers less money.
One gamification feature Uber recently added is an "auto-queuing" function (similar to that of Netflix). With this feature, drivers are automatically assigned new passengers for the next ride before their current ride is over. Drivers can choose to temporarily pause the feature, but it cannot be permanently disabled. The feature resulted in many Uber drivers giving non-stop rides for hours on end and being unable to take bathroom breaks. An Uber official reported that drivers were saying, "I can never go offline. I’m on just continuous trips. This is a problem."
Other examples of Uber's gamification and psychological tricks include driving goals, achievement badges, "quests" that reward driving additional rides, prompts encouraging drivers to drive towards certain locations, and local Uber managers adopting "female personas to increase engagement with drivers." These gamification practices demonstrate Uber's prioritization of profit over the well-being of their drivers and call into question the morality of companies using technology to manipulate human behavior.
Some Uber drivers are concerned about pay; they feel that Uber's compensation policies detract from their ability to make money. The Financial Times interviewed one such driver who said, "if you compare all your costs, the gas you buy, the maintenance, the oil changes, you are not making money." Reductions in fare prices to compete with Lyft and the addition of UberPool (Uber's cheaper option for carpooled rides) have only increased tensions over pay.
Uber drivers receive only a fraction of the fare paid by riders. Uber takes a 20-30% commission fee and a $1-3 booking fee. In 2015, Uber received pushback from drivers after moving to a tiered commission system. When Uber first launched, its commission fees were 20%. In 2014, they increased to 25%. With Uber's new system, the commission taken depends on the number of rides the driver has completed that week. Uber now takes 30% commission on a driver's first 20 rides in a week, 25% commission on the driver's next 20 rides, and 20% commission on any additional rides. This effectively raised the commission rate for drivers not completing well over 40 rides per week.
Uber drivers' profits are reduced further by other factors. As suggested above, Uber drivers must also cover their own expenses (e.g. gas, maintenance, repairs), even if these expenses are incurred while driving for Uber. On average, these costs come out to about 20-30% of what Uber's make from fare. Uber drivers must also pay an additional 7.65% in taxes on their income since they are considered contractors, not employees. Uber drivers' status as contractors also means that Uber drivers do not have to be paid minimum wage and are not given benefits such as overtime or holiday pay.
One study found that the average median pay for Uber drivers in the US was only $8.55 and that 54% of Ubers make below the minimum wage for the states in which they drive. After expenses, 8% of Uber drivers see negative profit. While some drivers have great success driving for Uber, it is not financially stable for many.
Personal Safety and Liability
Uber’s legal terms and conditions limit Uber’s liability for driver and rider losses by stating that they are not responsible for “indirect, incidental, special, exemplary, punitive, or consequential damage, including lost profits, lost data, personal injury, or property damage.” It is unclear who should protect these individuals. While Uber declines to share numbers on incidents regarding assaulted drivers, the United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration reports that taxi drivers are 20 times more likely to be murdered on the job than other professionals. Harry Campbell, an Uber driver, contends that “when you get into a taxi, there’s a reason there’s plexiglass between you and the driver,” demonstrating that drivers recognize the danger that they face. 
Uber and its drivers disagree about the company’s safety situation. A former Uber driver spoke out and stated that “Uber does no training at all. I never felt safe driving for Uber.” Aside from concerns about inadequate training, others feel that Uber recognizes current events threatening driver safety but does not act. In 2017, taxi drivers in South Africa were attacking and protesting Uber drivers due to their loss of business. Uber drivers were helpless, and Zweli Ngwenya, a spokesperson for the drivers, argued that “Uber does not care about our safety, they are doing nothing even though they are aware of the criminality directed the drivers” This statement raises the question of whether Uber is responsible for the scrutiny and assault their drivers faced in South Africa; there is currently no party responsible for the safety of Uber drivers.
Meanwhile, Uber contends that its “commitment to drivers” is “safety and confidence behind the wheel” with features such as non-anonymous pickups, phone number substitution, in-application navigation, and constant GPS tracking of drivers. However, the web page with this statement reads more like an advertisement and is littered with prompts urging readers to sign up to drive for Uber themselves. Uber can improve protection for drivers in terms of training, safety features, and rider screening.
Safety Case Studies
The murder of Grant Nelson illustrates the absence of resources for drivers in dangerous situations. Nelson was picking up a passenger in Illinois when he was hacked to death with a machete and knife that the 16-year-old girl stole from Walmart earlier that day. After his death, Uber expressed condolences to the family but also asserted that drivers must report riders that appear to be under the age of eighteen. In a sense, Uber blamed Nelson and other drivers for the tragedy. Nelson’s family is suing Walmart for negligence, but is unable to pursue legal action against Uber due to their liability clauses. There needs to be a group that is responsible for the safety of drivers.
Another prevalent social issue, sexual assault, impacts drivers. Maggie Young, a female Uber driver who has faced abusive riders, contends that “during our ride, I am their hostage.” Young was sexually assaulted while driving for Uber. She was picking up a rider at a bar, when two men lifted their intoxicated friend into Young’s car, despite her protests. She began driving this man home. During the trip, he sexually assaulted her, and she had to call the police and watch her attacker be arrested. Young shares her story with media outlets and speaks out about the atrocities that female drivers face in hopes that change will be implemented.
Is Uber responsible to provide services and protections to its drivers? Legally, the answer depends on the employment status of the drivers. Uber presents itself as a platform, a neutral software that links riders and drivers. The company claims its drivers are independent contractors.
However, many argue that Uber is more than just a platform. In her article, "Uber had this coming- it was never just a ‘tech platform," journalist Kristy Major states that Uber was a “company with employees, who it should have been paying properly from the start, and customers, who it should have been protecting.” Despite opposition, Uber has legally retained its status as a platform.
Policy aside, the question persists of Uber's moral responsibility to its drivers. Uber may not need to provide the benefits it would to an employee, but there are steps it can take to improve the driver experience even while maintaining contractor status. For example, Uber's recent implementation of a panic button demonstrates some willingness to improve safety for their drivers. Uber's efforts should not stop with the panic button.
This moral dilemma doesn't only apply to Uber. With the emergence of the gig economy, more alternative forms of work and income are being created. Apps such as Airbnb, Lyft, Postmates, Wag, and Instacart share similar ethical dilemmas. These issues regarding the classification of gig economy workers and the benefits they receive will continue to be pressing issues in the future.
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- Smith, C. (2018, March 24). 90 Amazing Uber Statistics, Demographics, and Facts. https://expandedramblings.com/index.php/uber-statistics/
- Scheiber, N. (2017, April 02). How Uber Uses Psychological Tricks to Push Its Drivers' Buttons. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/04/02/technology/uber-drivers-psychological-tricks.html
- Hall. J. (2015, January 22). In the Driver's Seat: A Closer Look at the Uber Partner Experience. https://www.uber.com/newsroom/in-the-drivers-seat-understanding-the-uber-partner-experience/
- Muhl, C.J. (2002, January). What is an employee? The answer depends on the Federal law. https://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2002/01/art1full.pdf
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- Chamber of Commerce v. City of Seattle, No. 17–35371 and 17–35640 (September 8, 2017). http://www.chamberlitigation.com/cases/chamber-commerce-v-city-seattle-0
- Asher-Schapiro, A. (2018, March 26). Trump Administration Fights Effort to Unionize Uber Drivers. https://theintercept.com/2018/03/26/uber-drivers-union-seattle/
- What Is Gamification? (2017, November 06). https://www.bunchball.com/gamification
- Sulleyman, A. (2017, April 04). Uber manipulates drivers into working longer hours with psychological tricks. https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/news/uber-drivers-manipulate-netflix-working-longer-hours-psychological-tricks-video-games-forward-a7665876.html
- Hook, L. (2017, October 04). Uber: The uncomfortable view from the driving seat. https://www.ft.com/content/c9a8b592-a81d-11e7-ab55-27219df83c97
- Roberts, J. E. (2017, March 04). Uber drivers tell us Travis Kalanick is wrong: Uber *has* paid them less over time. http://www.businessinsider.com/uber-travis-kalanick-drivers-paid-less-2017-3
- Uber Fees: How Much Does Uber ACTUALLY Take From Drivers? (2018, April 15). https://www.ridester.com/uber-fees/
- Huet, E. (2015, May 19). Uber Tests Taking Even More From Its Drivers With 30% Commission. https://www.forbes.com/sites/ellenhuet/2015/05/18/uber-new-uberx-tiered-commission-30-percent/
- Wile, R. (2017, July 09). Uber Driver: How Much Money Do Uber Drivers Really Make?. http://time.com/money/4845407/uber-drivers-really-make-per-hour/
- Tracy, A. (2015, June 18). The Massive Costs Uber Faces If All Drivers Become Employees. https://www.forbes.com/sites/abigailtracy/2015/06/18/the-massive-costs-uber-faces-if-all-drivers-become-employees/
- Zoepf, S. (2018, March 5). Here is my statement regarding the recent CEEPR working paper "The Economics of Ride Hailing.". https://twitter.com/StephenZoepf/status/970754550968676352
- McHugh, M. (2016, March 10). Uber and Lyft Drivers Work Dangerous Jobs - But They're On Their Own. https://www.wired.com/2016/03/uber-lyft-can-much-keep-drivers-safe/
- Masweneng, K. (2017, June 13). Uber drivers say they don't feel safe. https://www.timeslive.co.za/news/south-africa/2017-06-13-uber-drivers-say-they-dont-feel-safe/
- Uber. (2018). Safety and confidence behind the wheel. https://www.uber.com/drive/safety/
- Collman, A. (2017, June 2). PICTURED IN HER MUGSHOT: The 16-year-old who 'hacked her Uber driver to death with a knife and machete she stole from Walmart.' http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4566648/PICTURED-Teen-16-hacked-Uber-driver-death.html
- Kravets, D. (2017, June 27). Walmart sued after teen steals machete and kills her Uber driver. https://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2017/06/walmart-sued-after-teen-steals-machete-then-kills-her-uber-driver/
- Young, M. (2016, January 15). I Was Sexually Assaulted By My Rideshare Passenger. http://womenyoushouldknow.net/i-was-sexually-assaulted-by-my-rideshare-passenger/
- Major, K. (2017, September 22). Uber had this coming – it was never just a ‘tech platform.' https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/uber-ban-london-ride-hailing-app-company-employees-taxi-drivers-customer-safety-women-protect-a7961231.html
- Grenoble, R. (2018, April 12). Uber Is Adding A Panic Button, 3 Years After Rolling One Out In India. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/uber-911-call-in-app-safety_us_5acf8985e4b016a07e9a27a8