Shaping a Resistance From Behind the Wheel

Lyft reaps millions even as drivers claim exploitation, but now one group is fighting back.

Standing in his kitchen in Antioch cooking himself an egg breakfast, Steve Gregg recalls the first thing he liked about driving for Lyft when he got behind the wheel almost two years ago.

“I fell in love with the human race,” he says. “I thought, ‘I’ll hate seven out of 10 people,’ but instead it’s been the opposite.”

Gregg has made almost 13,000 rides since then, working eight-to-12-hour shifts at a time. After a year-long break, he’s made San Francisco his main area of operation, although his work as a Lyft driver six days a week takes him all over the Bay Area.

In the seven years since the company’s 2012 launch, Lyft has become a major player in Silicon Valley — and according to Bloomberg, it was valued at $24.3 billion when it went public on March 29. However, this multibillion-dollar company has become profitable off of exploiting and underpaying its drivers, according to Gig Workers Rising, a statewide labor-rights group that has come to represent rideshare drivers like Gregg and other gig-economy workers.

On March 25, Gig Workers Rising staged a protest outside of the Omni Hotel in the Financial District, where Lyft executives were meeting with potential investors before they started trading on the NASDAQ. Drivers and their supporters held signs and spoke out about the injustices they’ve experienced in the time since they’ve driven for Lyft, such as account deactivations when they’ve made complaints to management, and sudden increases in expenses. Lyft had moved their roadshow from the Omni to the Olympic Club by the time they got there, but drivers ended up picketing outside of the original location.

“There’s no real relationship with Lyft,” Gregg says. “It’s dysfunctional at best. There’s no real way to reach them except through Driver Support. They act like they’re suffering this great inconvenience of having to deal with drivers.”

According to Gregg, Lyft has met with Gig Workers Rising exactly once. There was a second meeting on the books, but Lyft cancelled it without rescheduling. Gregg posits that this was done to stop drivers from capitalizing publicly on the fact that they had gotten executives to respond at all to their concerns.

Gig Workers Rising, a project of Working Partnerships USA, an organization that bridges policy initiatives and grassroots organizing, has identified four main demands: guaranteed living wages, transparency over how rideshare companies determine pricing policies, benefits, and an independent organization within Lyft where drivers’ voices can be represented.

Part of what is especially aggravating about Lyft’s treatment is that it keeps its drivers dependent if they work full-time. Gregg started working for Lyft when he re-entered the workforce after a neck injury, intending for it to be a transitional job while he looked for other work. Though he says he was having “such a blast” that he opted to make it a full-time job, Lyft’s continuous tweaks to its algorithms mean that he and other drivers constantly have to put in more hours to make up the difference, leaving little time for job-hunting.

Each time they’ve cut his pay, “it seems to happen at a time when I’ve finally been able to decrease expenses and make it work,” he says. “It’s a titration downwards.”

“Unless they’ve increased or decreased pay, drivers have no idea how much they actually make,” he adds.

In November, Lyft changed its policies so that drivers would be rewarded based on hours logged, rather than by mileage, Lyft’s Director of Communications Chelsea Harrison told SF Weekly in an email. Harrison says that Lyft did this to keep earnings more consistent. Up until then, Gregg had been earning $700, but now says with the changes in payment structures and the prices of gas going up, it’s hard to make that.

“I only see my kids three to four hours a week,” he says. “I have no time for a life. I’m either working or exhausted.”

Despite its multi-billion-dollar valuation, market analysts say that Lyft is actually losing money. Business Insider reported Friday that Lyft’s shares had sunk to its lowest value on record, as Uber is filing to go public in late April or early May.

“If you can’t make a profit and pay people,” Gregg says, “your business isn’t valid.”

Some analysts have said that the losses are due to growing costs, even though drivers say that Lyft severely under-pays them. To fix that, Gregg and Gig Workers Rising have some solutions.

“Lobby less, spend less on research,” Gregg says. “Preserve an experienced driver database of people like me who care about the service they’re providing. Everyone says customer service is going down. And pay your drivers a living wage.”

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