Cathy Goodwin has been an Uber driver for about five years. She enjoys the flexible hours and chatting with customers. And she makes OK money. But the job isn’t easy.
Goodwin spends a lot of hours behind the wheel, commuting from Turner to Portland, where there’s more demand. She’s already put 9,000 miles on a six-week-old car.
“I’m out here most of the waking hours of my life,” she said on a recent afternoon as she took a break at the Portland International Jetport, a pickup and drop-off spot for many rides. “It’s a lot of time to put in.”
The 63-year-old is among hundreds of drivers for app-based delivery and ride-hailing services in Portland. The popularity of “gig economy” jobs as freelance or independent contractors for companies like Uber, Lyft and DoorDash has grown rapidly across the United States.
With that growth has come debate over workers’ treatment. Labor activists have pushed for better pay and benefits. Companies say workers like working when and how much they want.
The debate is front and center in Portland right now because of a proposal to raise the minimum wage by 2025 to $18 per hour for all workers, including drivers for ride-hailing, taxi and delivery services. It also would eliminate the tip wage credit that allows tipped workers to earn less than the minimum wage, a proposal many restaurant workers have spoken out against.
Question D is one of the most controversial referendums voters will consider Nov. 8, and it’s drawn much of the spending by political action committees. Uber has invested over $100,000 to fight the proposal, including nearly $31,000 spent by United for Portland Workers, a committee Uber started to fight Question D. DoorDash has spent $75,000.
Hillary Clinton, however, endorsed the proposal this week in a new ad by One Fair Wage, a group supporting Question D.
“Raising the minimum wage to $18 per hour would raise wages for 20,000 hardworking people in Portland alone, including the tipped workers like taxi drivers, gig workers, domestic workers and, of course, restaurant workers,” said the former Democratic U.S. senator from New York, secretary of state and presidential candidate. “You have the opportunity to make sure every worker in Portland receives a stable, livable wage.”
“Portland never got a chance to vote on whether we want to let these Silicon Valley corporations come into the city and completely upend the economy,” said Wes Pelletier, who chairs the Livable Portland campaign of the Maine chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, which put the question on the ballot.
He said the group has heard from workers struggling to make enough money.
“These companies want to tell you they’re providing a service and it’s a good way to make money cheaply, but in reality these workers are getting exploited,” Pelletier said.
GROWTH OF GIG ECONOMY
According to the Pew Research Center, 16% of Americans have earned money through gig work. It’s the main job for about three in 10.
Pay varies and rules can be complex. Uber drivers are paid a per-minute, per-mile rate and receive 100% of tips, according to the company. Demand and wait times also can factor into pay. DoorDash says pay is based on the estimated time, distance and desirability of an order, customer tips and promotions.
Lyft did not respond to emails seeking information about its pay. Lyft, Uber and DoorDash also did not answer queries about how many workers they have in Portland. The Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce estimates that at least a few thousand drivers in the region are working for app-based delivery and ride-hailing services.
John Brautigam, an attorney who represents One Fair Wage, a group advocating for Question D, said in an email that city ordinance is unclear about whether gig workers must get minimum wage, and the referendum seeks to correct that.
When many labor laws were written, app-based services did not exist, Brautigam wrote, and Maine state law exempts taxi drivers from the minimum wage. But he said he doesn’t think state law addresses the modern-day gig worker.
The debate over how gig workers should be paid has raged nationwide, with much attention focused on whether workers should be classified as employees or independent contractors, which can affect the pay and benefits to which they’re entitled. Under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, employees are entitled to minimum wage and overtime pay, while independent contractors are not.
Earlier this month, the Biden administration proposed new rules that would make it easier for several categories of workers, including janitors, truckers and Uber drivers, to be classified as employees, and thus subject to greater protections.
Portland’s Question D specifically defines ride-hailing and delivery drivers as employees. Opponents say that threatens their flexibility as independent contractors.
“The ability to work when, where and for however long they choose is the top reason people look to DoorDash to help them meet their goals, and it’s why 90% of Dashers say they prefer to remain independent contractors,” a spokesperson for DoorDash said in a statement. “We’re committed to protecting this flexibility so that Dashers and other delivery workers like them in Portland can continue to earn on their own terms.”
Brautigam said that labeling drivers as “employees” in city ordinance and requiring a minimum wage doesn’t mean drivers can’t also have flexibility. “A person might be legally classified as an ’employee’ for some purposes, while not considered an ’employee’ for other purposes,” he said.
Pelletier said gig workers under the minimum wage could still be flexible and would earn $18 no matter when or how long they worked. While he couldn’t speak for companies like Uber, he said, “What they’ll have to do, I think, is say, ‘These workers are logged in, they’re taking fares, and now they need to be paid an hourly wage that at least meets the minimum.’”
HOW MUCH DO DRIVERS MAKE?
Whether these drivers already are making minimum wage in Portland depends on who you talk to. Uber says its drivers average $37 per hour, while DoorDash says its “dashers” average over $25 and typically work fewer than four hours a week.
Ben Braasch, who has driven for Lyft for four years, said he easily earns $120 for six to eight hours of work, or $15 to $20 per hour before expenses – which is more than Portland’s minimum wage of $13 – and holidays and weekends are even better.
Braasch, 75, said he worries the company – which helps with expenses via gas cards and discounts on car maintenance – could leave Portland if the proposal passes. “They take really good care of you, and you don’t have to be an employee,” he said.
Uber driver Louis Ouellette said the company’s pay structure is opaque and that while he makes between 30% to 50% of what a rider is charged, he has no control over the fare and often has trouble following how and why Uber is taking what it does.
Ouellette, who has been driving full-time for about a year, said he earns $1,000 to $1,200 when he works more than 40 hours a week, before deductions for taxes, gas or maintenance. He estimated he makes about $12 an hour after expenses, but spends unpaid time waiting for rides and driving to and from them.
Ouellette said he’s actively looking for another job: “Most of the money I’m making is going back into the vehicle, and Uber does not care whether or not their drivers are turning a profit.”
HOW WOULD THE NEW PROPOSAL WORK?
Some details about how the proposal would work if it passes have yet to be figured out.
Pelletier said companies could still use per-mile or per-minute rates to pay workers, so long as they reached the minimum wage before tips, or they could pay a flat rate. Ideally, he said, drivers would be paid on their way to pick up a ride, not just with a rider in the car, though that’s another detail that would need to be determined, with the help of a new Department of Fair Labor Practices required under Question D.
An Uber spokesperson didn’t directly answer questions about whether the passage of the proposal would change the way Portland drivers are paid. In markets with similar laws, like Seattle, which approved a $16.39 hourly minimum wage in 2020 for Uber and Lyft drivers, ride prices have increased and drivers have seen fewer rides, the spokesperson said, citing the Seattle Times.
“Every poll, survey and election has shown that drivers want to remain independent contractors, and we feel confident that Portland voters will listen to what workers actually want in November,” the spokesperson said in an email.
On a recent afternoon at the jetport, more than a dozen drivers filtered in and out of the cellphone parking lot between rides. Most weren’t familiar with Question D.
Uber driver Abdullahi Aden wondered if he would have to work set hours. “Right now, I can exit when I want and come in when I want,” he said. “If I don’t want to accept a trip I don’t do it, but Question D would force me to do it.”
Aden, who lives in Auburn, drives 40 to 50 hours weekly. The pay, he said, comes with “ups and downs,” fluctuating with the seasons and flow of tourists. “I make more than I would going to a warehouse, and I can clock out when I want,” he said. “I’m my own boss.”
Goodwin, the driver from Turner, initially thought an $18 minimum wage would be a good idea. She makes $1,200 to $1,300 per week working 60 to 70 hours, before expenses. “At least it’s guaranteed money, and if you’re going to put in 16 or 18 hours in a day, why not? I’d like to be able to make that,” Goodwin said.
But after thinking about it more, she said she wouldn’t support the proposal. She said she often makes more than $18 per hour, especially during tourist season, and while she pays for gas and car maintenance, Uber offers help with bonuses and special rates during busy hours.
“That might all go away with $18-an-hour pay, plus maybe no overtime. It won’t be worth it anymore,” she said.