[By Dave Byrnes]
WEST SUBURBS, IL — Welcome to Working Class Stories, a new weekly column where we dig into the everyday and exceptional stories of the people who make society run. For our first run, we’re talking with one of the unsung heroes of many a long night: a rideshare driver.
Mike McDonald is no one famous. Early thirties, lanky, longish hair, likes video games. He also works full time for Uber, and while the rest of us will be stuffing our faces with turkey and pie this weekend, he’ll be out and about getting people where they need to go. What follows is a transcript of his conversation with Patch, lightly edited for clarity:
Patch: You said your main source of income is Uber. How long have you been working with them?
McDonald: Almost four years now. I was out of work and I needed something to pay the bills while I was job hunting. It just kind of worked out because I could make my own schedule and it turns out I could pay the bills on time.
P: But it transitioned from being just something you were doing in the interim to being something that you do full time?
McD: Correct, correct.
P: Well in that case, do you enjoy it? Do you like working for Uber?
McD: I enjoy the work, I wish the pay was better. They keep on changing the pay structure like every six months and it’s kind of frustrating when it’s inconsistent pay.
P: Do they give you any heads up about when they’re going to change pay or why they’re changing it?
McD: They always say why, usually it’s a balancing issue between the mileage and the minutes we get paid. Then it also has to do with city ordinances and Uber’s ongoing battle to keep us classified as contractors, [rather than] regular employees. That’s kind of a big thing affecting Uber right now.
P: If it was up to you, how would you determine what you got paid and how much would you say is a fair wage?
McD: I think the method they have now, with the mileage and distance, works overall very well for this industry, I think the problem is it’s inconsistent… If it was up to me, I would have a minimum based on distance. So say it’s only like a mile or two, there’d be a minimum of like $5 you’d have to pay, if it’s like five to ten miles, that’d be a minimum of $10 you’d make. Something like that so you’re at least getting a base fare, based on how much you’re driving or where you’re going.
P: What about an hourly wage? Would you support that?
McD: I am a fan of an hourly wage, the only thing is I don’t know how that would affect our per-mile, per-minute rate. Like say we get paid an hourly rate, would they then lower the miles and minutes we get paid for down to a negligible amount?
P: I’ve heard through the grapevine – and you can confirm or deny this – that there’s talk of Uber drivers unionizing. Do you think you would support a movement to join a union or become a union workforce?
McD: Yeah, I think I would join it. It sounds like it could be good; a lot of what I’ve been reading about in California and New York about how they have it structured, I think, is a very fair way to do it in terms of the rideshare industry. If they had a similar structure in Chicago to New York and L.A. on what they need to agree upon, with better pay and a set rate, I think it could be very good. The only problem is, in Chicago we have far too many drivers. That affects how much you make as well. On a daily basis we have anywhere between 300 – 600 drivers in Chicago. The more drivers we have, the less individual drivers make overall.
P: But right now you’re still considered “contractors.” Do you think that would change if you became “employees?”
McD: I definitely think it would, because they would have to go through, a bit more strenuously, driving records and who they have working for them. I know in New York, when they agreed to pay [drivers] as regular salary workers, they actually capped the amount of drivers that could work.
P: Let’s change tracks just a little bit here. You said you’re going to be working tonight and tomorrow. What’s it like working on a big holiday?
McD: Honestly, it’s hit or miss. I’ve had some holidays I make great money, but then other holidays I just totally get sh*t on. A good example is last New Year’s, I was working, making good fares, but the problem was right before midnight I got a ride that got me stuck on Lake Shore Drive. I was stuck there for like an hour and a half for a ride that was only going a mile and a half, and I only made $6 for that hour and a half.
P: So you’re living out in the suburbs. Do you ever do any local rides around the suburbs?
McD: Every once in a while I do, but honestly going to the city is where you can make the most money and spend the least gas. Suburb rides can pay more, but they’re far less frequent. So you could be waiting a half an hour between each ride, as opposed to only waiting like ten minutes in the city.
P: So what is the worst kind of passenger you get?
McD: I would say drunk people that don’t know their limits. Like people who hit on women passengers who are saying “no,” or are so drunk they can’t even figure out what’s going on. Those are by far the worst.
P: So what do you do in those kinds of situations?
McD: Well in that one, when that guy was hitting on the woman I had in the car, I had to change the order of drop-offs to drop him off first, because it got to the point where I had to call the cops on him because he was being so disrespectful.
P: Converse to that, what would you say are the best kinds of customers you get, especially on the holidays?
McD: Especially on the holidays, I would say airport people and business people, because they tend to tip the best and are also the most pleasant passengers to talk with during the ride.
P: Just one last question and then I’ll let you go: do you have any advice for new Uber hires, especially if they’re starting during the holidays?
McD: Yes! I would say keep track of all your receipts and mileage, because that really helps during tax season. I learned that the hard way. Also, really kind of watch the trends of what’s happening. There’s apps you can use like Gridwise or even Ticketmaster, they’ll tell you on a map what areas are busiest and also what areas have the most service going on.
P: I think that’s just about it. Thanks for your time, Mike.
McD: Not a problem.