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L.A. Uber Drivers Protest Low Wages, Lack of Rights

Phoenix Tso |
October 22, 2014 | 4:36 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Blue Valentine (center) and other drivers protest. Phoenix Tso/Neon Tommy.
Blue Valentine (center) and other drivers protest. Phoenix Tso/Neon Tommy.

Los Angeles Uber drivers protested this afternoon against what they called the company's harsh fare cuts and their inflexibility dealing with drivers.

Dozens of drivers picketed in front of Uber’s Santa Monica office. London Uber drivers also turned off their apps in solidarity, Joseph De Wolf, an Uber Black driver, announced at the event. 

This is the first Uber driver protest organized by the California App-Based Drivers Association (CADA), which just joined the Local Teamsters 986 chapter. With this protest, CADA hopes to bring Uber drivers together to voice their dissatisfaction with the fare decrease and other measures.

“In December 2013, UberX fares [the cheapest available car service that Uber offers] were $2.40 per mile and $0.60 per minute, with a $4 base rate,” De Wolf, who is also a co-founder and executive committee member of CADA, said. “Now the per mile rate has dropped more than 50 percent to $1.10, the per minute rate has dropped around 60 percent to $0.21 and the base rate is now $0.80.”

Uber has advertised that $1.10 per mile rate as being cheaper than taking the bus. 

SEE ALSO: Uber Attracts Drivers From All Walks Of Life

In addition, Uber used to take only a 5 percent commission from drivers’ total fares, according to De Wolf. That number has now risen to 25 percent.

“Drivers are being hit twice,” he said. “There’s a tipping point, which is why there’s a protest.”

When asked for comment on drivers’ concerns over prices, William Barnes, Uber’s West Coast general manager, characterized the decreases as necessary for company growth.

“We just want to be the biggest company in the world, whatever we need to do to find more clients,” he said. When contacted for clarification, both Uber’s L.A. office and its corporate headquarters declined to elaborate.

Uber drivers are also upset over what they call the company’s misleading tipping policy, its unresponsiveness to individual driver concerns, and its one-sided rating system, where an average below 4.7 out of five stars triggers a warning for deactivation, or firing in Uber-speak, and which multiple drivers described to Neon Tommy as a “sword hanging over their necks.”

More Work For Less Pay

Phoenix Tso/Neon Tommy.
Phoenix Tso/Neon Tommy.
In February, Widmark Alave left his previous full-time job to drive an UberX. He himself has recruited eight of his friends to become drivers with the company. Eight months later, he’s looking for a new job, unable to make ends meet in his current position. 

“I feel so bad. I have so many friends who bought a car just to drive for Uber,” he said. “The promise of Uber was like, ‘Come drive with us and you could make almost $45 an hour.’ But after the rates were reduced, I could hardly make the net $10 an hour right now.”

It’s hard as well for drivers who work with Uber to support their families.

SEE ALSO: California Must Show Uber and Lyft Tough Love

“I’m a single mother, and I have an autistic kid,” said one Uber driver who wished to remain anonymous. “So I got into it thinking I could work on my own schedule, because childcare is really expensive for him. But It’s hard to make any money.”

Since Uber drivers are hired as independent contractors, they have to pay for gas, car maintenance and other expenses themselves, on top of the cut Uber takes. This often makes a significant dent in their already low earnings, drivers said.

“One day, I got a client from 10 minutes away,” De Wolf, who drove an UberX for 10 days in order to check out the experience, said. “I got there, waited for her for 5 minutes, drove her a block, 5 minutes. It was $4 fare. Uber takes a dollar right off the top as a ‘safe ride fee,’ so for 20 minutes of work I get $3. Then they take 25 percent, which leaves about $2.25. Factor in gas, depreciation, time that’s $1.75. Then I get a call 8 minutes away, which comes out to $6.33. It was one after the other, all these short rides. I probably made $7 in that hour,” he said. 

Uber drivers also said that the company’s tipping policy is misleading.

“[Uber] brainwashes the public, saying the tip is included. It’s never been included,” Lotfi Ben-Yedder, a driver and CADA leader, said. “If I give five-star service, I don’t need five stars. I can’t feed my kids with it. I need a tip.”

L.A. Uber customers that Neon Tommy spoke to said that low prices are a primary consideration for using the service.

“I think the $1.10 is fine for now,” Lamarana Diallo, a USC student who frequently uses Uber, said. “Price is a big consideration for taking Uber. Sometimes I won't even take an Uber if there is a price surge. I'll just get a Lyft.” 

Other users said, however, that they would be willing to pay higher prices to take Uber, since using the app was so convenient anyway. Leo Wu, another USC student and frequent Uber user, told Neon Tommy that he would take Uber if they raised prices again.

Everyone - But The Driver - Is Right

On top of the low fares, drivers told Neon Tommy that Uber often recalculates their fares after the fact. For instance, Widmark Alave recounted how after emailing the company about reduced wages after the fact, they replied that it was because he had taken an inefficient route. 

“But they don’t know that there are so many road closures, especially in the 405 freeway,” Alave said. “Sometimes the GPS will direct you to the route, but the exits are closed, so you have to drive several miles again to look for an alternative route going to the clients’ destination. Uber doesn’t know what’s happening on the ground.”

SEE ALSO: Uber Flunks Better Business Bureau Review

Lotfi Ben Yedder. Phoenix Tso/Neon Tommy.
Lotfi Ben Yedder. Phoenix Tso/Neon Tommy.

That Uber can’t see what’s actually happening for each ride is also an issue when it comes to their rating system. After their ride is over, the company’s app asks passengers to rate their driver from one to five stars. The app then averages the ratings for each driver. According to De Wolf, Uber will often send drivers below a 4.7 average rating a warning email. This message says that their account is inactive until they take a class to learn how to get their rating up. If their rating goes below a 4.4 right after they’re back on the app, the company will permanently deactivate them. 

“Riders know this and are asking to do risky or illegal things,” he said. “When drivers refuse they will give low ratings.”

For Alave, this has included parties of seven, eight or nine asking if they could all fit into his car, even though his vehicle only has six seat belts.

“It’s my risk. If I get a ticket, I have to pay that. I always refuse if it’s over six,” he said. “There are times when they’ve said, ‘Okay, we’ll get another Uber.’ So six of them ride my car, and 99.9 percent of the time, I get a one-star rating for that.” 

In addition, drivers have experienced sexual harassment.

“You do get drunk people who are looking to hook up after last call,” Blue Valentine, a part-time UberX driver, said. “If you’re too straight up with them, like, ‘No, I'm not interested,’ you think, ‘Are they gonna give me one star?’ ”

SEE ALSO: Uber Customers Rally On Twitter To Protest Regulations

Male drivers have also experience this. Joseph De Wolf recalled a famous television producer and his friend “going to town” making lewd comments about his wife, whose picture had come up on his caller ID. Because of the producer’s stature, De Wolf thought it would be unwise to kick him out of the car, so instead, he wrote a letter to Uber, asking them to take action, but nothing happened.

“This shows that drivers are expendable, but customers are not,” De Wolf said. 

When asked how Uber would respond to the Los Angeles protests, and to driver concerns in general, William Barnes described a wait-and-see approach. “There’s been a few of [these protests] already, so we’ll just wait it out,” he said. “There’s not enough man work behind the scenes, so it’s hard to communicate with the drivers on a timely basis.”

However, according to CADA, it’s more than that. “Drivers can be deactivated with or without cause. They live in fear.” By creating a union presence, De Wolf hopes that drivers will feel motivated by the strength in numbers to voice their concerns at the protest and beyond.

“I haven’t been deactivated yet, and the other members of the executive committee haven’t either,” De Wolf said. “Having this organization hopefully emboldens people to show their face.”

Contact Staff Reporter Phoenix Tso here or follow her on Twitter here



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