Uber-Broad Street, Birmingham.” Credit: Elliott Brown

June 9, 2017; NPR, “All Tech Considered”

Over the last seven years, Uber has grown into one of the largest private companies in the world, with one of the fastest growing workforces in American history. A recent informal survey by NPR that looks at how drivers are faring found that even though the company’s tagline is “Be Your Own Boss,” the company tightly controls driver performance.

Here’s a summary of key findings.

  • Drivers were split on whether they felt like their own boss. 52 percent did, 46 percent did not.
  • A majority of respondents said Uber forces them to accept agreements they do not like. 72 percent agreed, 26 percent disagreed.
  • A majority feels Uber doesn’t provide them the support they need. 79 percent, compared to 18 percent that did feel supported.

The faceless aspect of this control underlies many of the complaints drivers have about the company. Of respondents, 193 said they were able to speak with a person at Uber when they needed help (like after an accident, or after getting kicked out of the platform), but 688 of them (78 percent) said they could not reach a person at all.

Here are some of Uber’s practices:

  • Uber monitors drivers through the sensors in their cellphones, tracking behavior such as turns and rolling stops. (Its competitor, Lyft, does not do this.) Drivers do not know what Uber does with this data, and some are suspicious.
  • Drivers do not have choice about offering UberPool, the company’s shared-car program, which is a money-loser for drivers.
  • Uber sets the price of a ride using dynamic pricing. The price changes second by second according to a secret calculation, and drivers do not know how much money they will make hour to hour. For drivers, this often means very long shifts of 14 hours or more in an effort to increase income. For Uber, this means keeping drivers on the road longer, which can be a safety hazard for the general public.
  • Uber incentivizes drivers to stay on the road during peak times—rush hour and weekend nights—with surge fares, higher prices of up to five times the regular rate.
  • Uber fires drivers by locking them out of the system, and “drivers typically don’t get a hearing.”

Uber is a window into the future of work. An article this week in NPR’s “All Tech Considered” wrote, “The company has designed an app that is so efficient, cheap, and scalable that it manages 600,000 drivers in the U.S. Yet there’s an underside to distance. It can create a system that lacks the most basic sympathy.”

Drivers have complained about these practices over the last few years. Uber’s response was that in the initial years of growth, it was not focused on communication with drivers. It was focused on expanding into more cities. Even though Uber is currently valued at $70 billion, it didn’t even have a customer support phone number for drivers to call. Even state officials responding to driver complaints could not contact Uber.

According to NPR, “Last year, Uber hired Janelle Sallenave to improve the way it responds to drivers’ and riders’ needs, disputes and accidents.” Uber is now staffing over 200 physical drop-in centers—“green light hubs”—and introducing dedicated phone lines for drivers. However, Sallenave maintains that drivers are “their own boss” and Uber is a platform, not an employer who has to provide benefits. She notes that drivers have both the benefits and risks of being individual small business owners.

The Department of Labor’s wage-and-hour division investigates companies that misclassify workers. David Weil, former head under President Obama, looked at Uber’s practices last year. He found that disruptor tech startups typically allow the people providing the service to set their own prices and define the work they will do, but “at Uber, the company sets the price and designs the services…and those services are core to the brand.”

Weil concluded that Uber “looks a lot like an employment relationship[,] a very sophisticated branded product provider.” But this assessment was not in his role as regulator, since he didn’t choose to formally investigate because “although these drivers were a rapidly growing workforce, they were still a tiny sector, compared with janitors or nurses aides.”

It appears Uber is a strange, new corporate being that comes to life to control and disappears when there is any need for engagement or accountability. (On second thought, perhaps this isn’t new at all.) For now, it is up to consumers, drivers, and riders to keep Uber accountable.—Cyndi Suarez