A Georgetown University study of 40 Uber drivers in the D.C. region released Thursday found some thought the work “unsustainable,” with one-third reporting assaults or safety concerns and saying they went into debt to drive on the platform.
Based on interviews conducted in 2016, the study found 30 percent of the drivers were concerned about their safety. One driver told researchers they were robbed at gunpoint; another said he was assaulted after turning down drugs from a passenger.
“Though questions of safety are often directed at passengers in the ride-hailing industry, this study reveals that physical threats and safety questions are pressing in Uber’s new workplace,” concluded the study, conducted through the university’s Kalmanovitz Initiative for Labor and the Working Poor.
The study said 33 percent of drivers fell into a “debt trap” working for Uber, taking on debt to drive. One driver said he took out a $35,000 loan to buy a Lincoln Town Car in 2012 after being approved to drive for Uber Black, and initially earned more than he did driving a taxi. After Uber changed its policy about how old cars could be in this elite fleet, his car no longer qualified, and he went bankrupt, the study said.
All the drivers in the study said they had problems calculating their compensation because of Uber’s “slippery” wage — “a complex and difficult-to-track set of earnings and expenses” that changes as the platform changes its fees and algorithms, as the study put it. Uber has reduced the base rate that is paid drivers since it came to Washington in 2011, raised its commissions and added a “rider safety fee,” among others, according to the study.
Though Uber ended its auto-leasing program in 2017 after financial losses and criticism it exploited drivers with bad credit, it “still advertises third-party leases at similar rates to drivers,” the study said.
“The debt trap and slippery wage mean that the Uber workplace resembles a casino where drivers must pay-to-play the game of work,” the study said. It added: “Drivers spoke with us about falling asleep at the wheel, constant exhaustion, and the worry of finding a safe place to urinate. The work was draining, unsustainable, and, for many, a challenge to their well-being.”
In a statement, an Uber spokesman said the company “has changed a lot since this research was started,” citing in-app tipping and rewards programs for drivers. In 2017, the company also made improvements it said drivers asked for, including shorter cancellation windows and insurance.
“Driver-partners are the heart of our service — and Uber would not be what it is today without them,” the statement said. “Building on what we’ve already introduced . . . we’ll continue to improve the experience for and with drivers, every day.”
Uber also noted that there are now thousands of drivers who work for the service in the D.C. area and that those interviewed for the study represent only a small portion.
The D.C. Department of For-Hire Vehicles didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
The study recommended establishing a publicly funded commission to study ride-hailing companies and their effects on workers and the region. It also said companies should provide data to the city about their services, including the number of drivers and how much the average driver earns.
Katie J. Wells, the Georgetown researcher who led the study, said most study participants were found on an online forum for ride-hail drivers. Eighty percent were male, 48 percent were people of color, and three-quarters were born in the United States. Fifty percent of drivers in the study said they would recommend the job to a friend; 45 percent said they planned to work for at least six more months on the platform.
Wells said policymakers need to know more about Uber “given the kind of workplace we’ve identified.”
“We have labor standards because we think that makes a good life,” she said. “There should be due diligence on their part.”
Kim Hall, a 50-year-old from Prince George’s County who participated in the study, said in an interview that she drove Uber for about 18 months when she couldn’t make ends meet as a county school bus driver. She’s since gotten promoted to train bus drivers, she said, and quit driving Uber in 2016.
Hall said she was able to make up to $20 per hour before expenses as an Uber driver, but earnings were unpredictable and often dependent on weather. She also sometimes worried about driving people to remote locations and about how to turn down unwanted advances from men because she was concerned about getting bad ratings.
“If you want to Uber and you really have no other means to make money, sure it’s a great opportunity to make some money,” she said. “But if you don’t have to do it, I wouldn’t recommend it. It will suck all of your energy out of you. It will suck all of your life out of you.”