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Some tips for Uber drivers (but not the cash kind)

Some tips for Uber drivers (but not the cash kind)
Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, moonlighting as an Uber driver, with his first customer, Eloisa Lopez, in downtown Los Angeles on Sept. 17. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

No job is worth having if it doesn't offer ample opportunity to confab with colleagues and grouse about the management. In that regard, I think I'm going to be fine if I keep driving for Uber.

Drivers have been weighing in since my Sunday column, in which I reported on my brief (so far) experiment working for Uber. I noted that all my passengers were thrilled with the ride service, but the take-home pay and working conditions for drivers are less inclined to produce smiles.

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Here's one response from a fellow chauffeur:

"I am an Uber driver and agree with you that you should definitely keep your day job. The rest of us are having to endure this modern day indentured servitude out of desperation."

The driver, who feared being dumped by Uber if I used her name, didn't put all the blame on the company. Public demand for rock-bottom prices, regardless of the consequences, also came in for a good shot.

"When I first started driving for Uber in Orange County, what struck me most — other than the fact that I was operating at a loss — was the customers. I felt that Uber has created a class of entitled customers who expect a limousine service for the price of a rickshaw in India. I would, of course, realize later on that that is just the American customer — we have been conditioned to develop unrealistic expectations."

It wasn't all guff from drivers. As an Uber spokeswoman had told me, a study commissioned by the ride-sharing company found that the vast majority of drivers like being their own bosses, setting their own hours and working only as long as they need to, often to supplement income from regular jobs.

In fact, one reader wrote to blast my column, saying he loves driving for Uber and doesn't need a wiseguy like me telling him he's underpaid.

"I went from a six-figure job to unemployment" followed by retirement, he said, and, being in his 60s, he had trouble finding another job before Uber came along. "The money I make supplements my retirement, and at $13-plus an hour, it is way better than someone my age could get at a regular job."

That may well be true, but is this something to celebrate or lament?

Driving a vehicle for pay used to be the kind of job that came with decent pay and a few benefits. In the sharing economy, it's been turned into something else.

Uber has fought efforts by drivers to be classified as employees with a right to certain benefits, rather than as independent contractors. This is reminiscent of, though not identical to, the ongoing labor battle between the ports and truck drivers who once were employees but now are contractors with myriad grievances.

"We've shifted the responsibility of just about everything away from the employer and onto the individual," said Barb Maynard, a labor activist who represents the truck drivers. "It's the ultimate evolution of work.... Little by little, corporations have figured, gee, we can make money by breaking up this entire system."

And yet in the case of Uber — a $40-billion company — it's hip, Maynard said, for people of all political persuasions to extol the virtues of the ride-sharing culture.

As Uber drivers argued in response to my column, they use their own vehicles, they pay for their own gas, they have no health insurance or other benefits, and on top of all that, Uber encourages passengers not to tip.

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One rider, Hollywood resident Travis Fields, told me he took his first ride recently and wasn't sure whether he was supposed to tip. So he contacted Uber for clarification and got this response:

"Riding Uber means there's no need to tip. We've built the Uber experience to be as seamless and safe as possible for both riders and drivers, and at this point that means having an entirely cashless experience."

I'm not sure what's safe or seamless, as a driver, about not getting a tip. But I do know that from my 16 passengers, I didn't get a single tip.

Readers asked me whether drivers have to pay taxes. Yes, but the mileage deduction lowers the toll.

And they asked whether drivers are insured to carry passengers.

That one's trickier. Insurance has been a controversial topic from the beginning. If drivers inform their insurance company that they're in the driving business, they risk having their policies canceled, so many drivers don't fess up.

Uber offers good coverage once a driver goes to pick up a passenger and once the passenger gets into the car. Two months ago, it added coverage for accidents that might occur while a driver is online and awaiting a call.

But for that first period, the insurance is not as extensive and doesn't cover the driver's injuries or damage to his vehicle. So many drivers are taking on the added cost of ride-sharing insurance.

"My insurance goes up about 60 to 80 dollars a month" to cover ride sharing, says a driver named Brandon. In a standard refrain among Uber drivers, he told me he's desperately seeking another job, but they're hard to come by these days.

In the meantime, he's taking notes. Uber has more Sacramento lobbyists than Wal-Mart, he noted, so it's not surprising that workplace protections are nonexistent, taxi and limo drivers are losing their jobs, and predatory pricing is pushing wages for drivers even lower.

Brandon said he works 10- or 12-hour shifts Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, and he's put 50,000 miles on his Prius in a little over a year. Depending on how he does, he said, he nets somewhere between $6 and $11 an hour after subtracting expenses.

"When the car breaks down at 120,000 miles, I don't know what I'm going to do," said Brandon. "I have three and a half years left to pay on it, all the expenses are on the driver, and basically what you're doing is shifting equity in your car for cash upfront."

The first driver I quoted in this column called ride sharing a domestic form of outsourcing. "We have quietly been buying cheap clothes and other products made by underpaid and overworked people overseas, while raising our expectations for even cheaper and better products," she said. "And now we are riding in cars owned and driven by underpaid Americans."

She, too, is looking for other work.

Ride sharing, as I said in my first column, has a big upside. It's changing the way people think of travel, their community and their relationship to it.

They'd do well to think about the darker implications, as well, and at the very least, consider leaving a tip.

Follow @LATstevelopez

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