Labor & Business

Uber and Lyft Drivers Strike in Rhode Island for Better Pay and Working Conditions

Ride-sharing drivers for Uber and Lyft went on strike in Rhode Island, protesting low pay and poor working conditions. The strike led to driver shortages and surge pricing, but the increased fares did not benefit the drivers. Similar strikes occurred in major cities across the US.

Rhode Island News: Uber and Lyft Drivers Strike in Rhode Island for Better Pay and Working Conditions

April 29, 2023, 2:32 pm

By Steve Ahlquist

On Friday, ride share companies Uber and Lyft were facing a driver shortage and hitting riders with surge pricing – because drivers were on strike, holding signs on the Rhode Island State House Plaza for passing motorists. Uber and Lyft are ridesharing services where riders can get a driver to take them where they need to go. Uber and Lyft match a rider with a driver, and the company takes a hefty fee for providing this service. In fact, the companies take most of the fee, leaving the drivers with very little.

Surge pricing occurs when there are not enough drivers to satisfy the demands of riders. The idea is that higher prices will lower demand, and that drivers, seeing the possibility of getting more business, will surge into an area. A ProPublica piece in 2015 calls into question the idea that drivers “surge” into an area when prices rise. In fact, there is some evidence that drivers stay away from surge areas.

Also, as reported in the Washington Post, though Uber and Lyft sometimes charge up to 6x normal rates for their service during a surge, that money does not go to drivers. The company keeps it and gives the driver what amounts to a small bonus, if any.

Similar strikes and protests were happening in major cities across the country on Friday. The majority of the people protesting outside the State House in Rhode Island were not native English speakers, but Uprise RI spoke to one who translated the opinions of many drivers and allowed me to ask questions of them. None of the drivers wanted to be identified for this piece, for fear of retribution from the companies they work under. But they were happy to be photographed.

“Everyone you see here today is an Uber driver, or Lyft driver and we have united, in strike, because Uber and Lyft are underpaying us,” said the drivers through their translator. “They are not giving drivers fair pay. It is very abusive.”

The situation is difficult because, “Right now, life is very costly.” Rent, groceries, and the cost of maintaining the cars they use to transport riders is going up faster than their pay.

In fact, very little of what a rider pays to the company goes to the driver. The drivers we spoke to said that they receive around a third or less of what the company collects, and during surge pricing, when the company is collecting between two and six times as much money, the driver’s receive small bonuses of maybe a few dollars. Their pay, unlike the companies, is not multiplied.

An Uber from Providence to Boston, for instance, might be 53 miles, and Uber might charge the customer $120. Out of that, the driver receives between $30 and $40. That’s little over $15 an hour for the driver’s time, and does not take into account gas, insurance, vehicle maintenance, taxes or depreciation, all costs borne by the drivers.

Further, surge pricing destroys the incentive for riders to tip.

“Uber claims that they pay their drivers $20-$25 an hour,” said the drivers. “But because Uber is overcharging the riders, those riders, a lot of them, are not leaving tips, thinking that the drivers are getting a high percentage of the ride’s cost, but they are not.”

On Thursday the Senate Labor Committee heard testimony on Senator Ana Quezada (Democrat, District 2, Providence)’s bill that would reclassify workers for “gig economy” companies like Uber and Lyft as employees, granting them the legal and economic protections independent contractors lack. The bill, S0430, would, for purposes of wages, workers’ compensation, temporary disability and unemployment insurance benefits, create a new definition for the term ’employee,” which deems a worker to be an employee, as opposed to an independent contractor, unless three specific conditions are satisfied.”

The drivers Uprise RI spoke to on Friday were unaware of that bill, or that any legislation potentially affecting their job was being heard in the General Assembly.

“Technically we’re self-employed, so we lack many worker protections,” noted the drivers, “but we don’t have a problem with being considered self-employed. We just want our fair share of the money Uber is charging for the rides.”

Uprise RI was shown records of payments drivers received for various rides. One was $40.88, for a 43 miles trip. Another was $144.54 for a 167.7 mile trip to the Bronx in New York. That $144.54 payout was after the driver complained to the company. The first time the company attempted to payout a mere $119. An eight hour round trip to Jersey City netted another driver $146 for 193 miles. Another driver received $154 for 188 miles.

Mind you, these are the payouts received by the driver. The actual cost Uber is charging the driver is many times that amount.

Aside from the issue of money, there are also policies that Uber imposes that drivers have no input towards, said the drivers. One policy is about pets. Uber has an option called Uber Pets that riders use when they want to transport non-service animals. But if a rider gets a regular Uber, which is cheaper, and brings a pet along for the ride, drivers can be admonished for refusing the rider. Riders with allergies are told to “wear a mask.” Some pets can be aggressive, which can be dangerous or distracting for the driver. Not only do drivers no have a choice as to whether or not to transport a pet, they are not allowed to ask if the pet is a service animal or not.

“What is the point of having the option of Uber Pet if people can simply ignore that option and get a ride without paying the premium charge?”

Drivers were sent an email “saying we had no right to deny customers with pets from riding in our cars. They are obligating us as to who is getting into our cars with us. There is very little protection for the driver.”

If a driver refuses to give a ride to a customer with a pet, that driver can be reported and his job temporarily deactivated, losing out on any more business until they can be reinstated.

“The rider gets more protections than we do, because they get to see who’s coming,” said the drivers. “Riders get a picture of us and our names. But we don’t get their names. In their profiles, they can put any name. They don’t have to put a legal name. Names like “Indy” or “Popcorn” are allowed. Also, riders order Ubers for other people. There is technically a process for ordering an Uber for someone else, but many people don’t go through the process.”

The drivers Uprise RI spoke to are in the process of forming a union.

Because of the strike, the Uber situation in Providence on Friday was was very difficult. Surge pricing was in full effect, with Uber charging more for short trips. But remember, that extra money was not going to the drivers who decided to work through the strike. Uber was collecting the lion’s share of what the riders were paying.

“Being a scab is not paying off,” agreed the drivers.