By Peggy Chapman
Northwest Asian Weekly
Wichit Phisaikul emigrated from Thailand to be with family and works as a contract driver with both Uber and Lyft in Seattle. He decided to be a rideshare driver because he feels he has more freedom (“I am the boss”) and likes the money. On a typical Saturday in Seattle, Phisaikul works from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. and 5-9:30 p.m. (he never drives after 1 a.m.), and averages around $230. “$100 here is easy — you can’t do that in Thailand,” he said. “You would have to open a grocery store to make $100 a day.”
The growth of the rideshare industry has been phenomenal. According to eMarketer, 15 million U.S. adults will have used a ridesharing service in 2016, an increase of 20.5 percent over last year. With the growing marketplace comes a large demand for drivers, creating exciting opportunity, but also confusing new territory for the diverse community of drivers who are a part of it.
Uber reported in 2015 that 55 percent of its drivers were of ethnic background. Lyft reported in 2014 that 35 percent of its drivers in Seattle were people of color.
Ram Sapkota, who is Nepalese, has been working for both Uber and Lyft since January 2016. He works part-time, up to 10 hours a day on weekends and 3-4 hours on weekdays. Spreading the hours out on average, he makes about $80 a day. “It’s a side business and I have freedom,” he said. “There are favorite parts of the city with kind customers, and I feel like I am visiting with friends.”
Senior management at both Uber and Lyft reacted positively to the appointment of Elaine Chao as U.S. Transportation Secretary. Chao’s views are sympathetic to the rideshare marketplace. In a 2015 talk at the American Action Forum, Chao expressed her support for “peer-to-peer economy that is fluid, flexible and filled with workers who prefer independent arrangements.”
Harry Campbell believes there is a “honeymoon period” when it comes to working in the on-demand economy.
Campbell is a driver and the founder of the blog The Rideshare Guy (therideshareguy.com), a resource for rideshare drivers. Campbell, who is based in Los Angeles and is Chinese American, feels that most new rideshare drivers find that their first month of driving is a great entry experience because “they’re basically getting paid to drive around and meet new people.”
But eventually, the drivers have to start thinking about the aspects and operating costs of the business and expenses, including taxes, insurance, etc. However, Uber and Lyft don’t provide the information about these issues, and in many cases, they’re legally not allowed to provide any training, which makes the entrepreneurship ideal complicated and confusing.
Mergen Sauzhinov, an artist of Mongolian and Russian descent, said there wasn’t any official training with Lyft. “I was just sent a handbook.”
Sauzhinov lives in Olympia and started driving for Lyft in November. He has to travel from Olympia to Seattle to work for Lyft, so he picks days he feels there won’t be as much competition with other drivers, like Sundays. He says he will probably switch to driving for Uber, since Uber has service in Olympia.
Rideshare drivers are required to maintain upkeep on their cars, pay for gasoline, and provide their own insurance to fill in the gaps. Most rideshare insurance provided by the companies is liability-only insurance — it applies only when a passenger is in the car or the driver is en route to pick up a rider.
“They (companies) only encourage maximizing drivers, but not driver worth — there needs to be more focus on drivers’ security,” said Sapkota.
And then there is the issue of the increasing cut on rates by the companies to attract more riders. Although those cuts benefit the customer, drivers are finding themselves making less for the same amount of work they did before, instead of the traditional pay raise. With the cheaper fares, drivers have to pick up more rides to maintain pay level, which can be difficult in an industry that is attracting more drivers, lending itself to a potentially over-saturated and competitive driver market.
Along with any new population of workers, there also comes the inevitable issue of discrimination. The release of a study conducted by the University of Washington, Stanford, and MIT this October studied racial and gender discrimination towards riders by drivers. The study, conducted in Seattle and Boston, focused on Uber, Lyft, and Flywheel drivers and variances in treatment of race and gender regarding customers.
The results were surprising. In Seattle, riders waited 16-28 percent longer to have the ride confirmed if they had a “Black-sounding” name. Wait times were as much as 29 to 35 percent longer. The study also found that rides with female customers took longer and cost more. “The additional travel that female riders are exposed to appears to be a combination of profiteering and flirting to a captive audience,” the report stated.
Considering the other side, what about riders’ discrimination towards the driver? Does the driver also face discrimination when riders decide whether or not to cancel a ride based on the driver?
Once a driver accepts a ride, the driver’s face and name appears on the customer’s app. The rider has the option to cancel.
“The discrimination issue is always in the back of your mind since you don’t know why riders are canceling rides,” said Campbell. “It could be because you were further away than they expected or it could be because they have a racial bias towards drivers of your ethnicity. It’s never been studied empirically, but I know lots of drivers who feel they get canceled more frequently than others and even rated lower because of their race.”
Campbell feels the issue of lower rating is especially important, since a lower rating can be destructive. Uber drivers are required to maintain a 4.6 rating to stay active on the platform — essentially, you have to have a good grade to keep getting work. “Many passengers will rate a satisfactory ride as 3 or 4 stars when that really is a failing grade for drivers. .. You could imagine that racial discrimination can be the difference for some drivers as to whether they can keep the job or not.”
And then, there are drivers who are not concerned with job security, reflecting the wide spectrum of contractors the new market is attracting.
Raphael Hsieh, who is Taiwanese American, is driving temporarily for Lyft in Seattle. He quit his tech job at Amazon and will be going to his new job at Zulily in the new year. His brother in Boston drives and recommended Hsieh try it during his downtime before he moves on to the new job. Hsieh said he gets to socialize, meet new people, and earn some extra money.
“Driving is a better option than staying at home playing video games.”
Peggy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.