The Uber drivers forced to sleep in parking lots to make a decent living
Every Saturday morning before the sun rises, 35-year-old Uber driver Sultan Arifi rolls up the sleeping bag in the front seat of his car, places it in the trunk, and prepares for another day of work.
He will spend the next 12 hours picking up as many passengers as he can on the streets of San Francisco before returning to a grocery store parking lot in the north of the city to sleep, often for six hours or less, rising as early as he can on Sunday to do it all again.
The 35-year-old immigrant from Afghanistan commutes into San Francisco from Modesto, some 80 miles away, where he lives in an apartment with his wife and four children. He is one of a growing group of Uber drivers in San Francisco who spend nights in their cars in parking lots across the Bay Area on the weekends. Some come from places as far as eight hours away to make a living before returning home.
Arifi will be joining fellow Uber drivers in San Francisco and seven other cities across the US on Wednesday in a 12-hour strike protesting low wages ahead of the company’s public offering later this week. Drivers have four main demands: a living wage, transparency in decision-making, employee benefits, and a voice in company decisions.
“They are just taking care of themselves, they don’t care about us,” Arifi said of Uber’s leadership.
“Drivers are the main source of profit for these companies. They are not losing money, we are losing money. We are losing time – working into late nights, sleeping in places like this, because you have to, you have to do it to make money,” he added.
Decreasing pay, increasing costs
As Uber prepares to go public this week, there is growing unrest among drivers like Arifi who say they are not getting a big enough piece of the company’s ballooning profits.
Uber has been valued at as much as $91bn, and the company’s IPO is expected to turn some millionaires on the board into billionaires.
But drivers for Uber and Lyft, the Uber rival that went public in March, make a median wage of as little as $8.55 per hour before taxes, below the California minimum wage of $11 per hour and barely above the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. In New York, Uber stopped hiring new drivers after local legislation forced it to increase the amount it pays to $17 per hour to earn the city’s minimum wage of $15 per hour – the baseline of what labor groups say is a living minimum wage there. San Francisco has introduced no such legislation.
Uber plans to give drivers approximately $300 million in bonuses to 1.1 million qualifying drivers around the world “to acknowledge Drivers who have participated in [its] success” ahead of the IPO, the company said in a statement. A spokesman said the company will continue to work with drivers to improve conditions.
“Drivers are at the heart of our service ─ we can’t succeed without them ─ and thousands of people come into work at Uber every day focused on how to make their experience better, on and off the road,” he said.
Drivers like Arifi say that’s not enough, and argue they they are taking home less money than ever. Arifi said he now has to work nearly twice as many hours to take home the same amount of income he earned when he first started driving.
“To make a living and survive in San Francisco, we have to drive 70 or 80 hours per week” Arifi said. “Living expenses keep going up, and Uber keeps decreasing how much they pay drivers.”
Drivers say Uber has increased its cut on trips, even as gas prices rise. According to Uber’s financial disclosures ahead of its IPO, the company takes an average of 21% of earnings on each ride as of late 2018. But screenshots from the drivers’ apps shows they are taking home as little as 30% of fares on some trips. Uber had 3.9 million drivers on its platform for the quarter ended 31 December 2018, according to its filing, including more than 50,000 active drivers in San Francisco alone.
Mohammad Sadiq Safi, a driver who commutes nearly 90 miles to the Bay Area from Sacramento and lives out of his car four days a week, was paid $28 of a $72 pool fare from the San Francisco airport, near Millbrae, into San Francisco last week. Safi completed 130 rides in five days last week before driving home to Sacramento.
“Uber doesn’t care about us, you can see this in our payment,” said Safi, who sends money to Afghanistan in hopes his wife and five children can join him in the US soon. “Every week I have to make more trips to cover my costs,” he added.
Health and safety concerns
Mohammad Abdulrahimzai, another driver who sleeps in the grocery store parking lot on weekends, said he has grown frustrated with high costs and low wages and wants to organize with his fellow drivers. His wife fears for his life, worrying it is dangerous to drive so many hours on little sleep.
Since February 2018, Uber requires drivers to rest after 12 hours of driving. But some drivers simply switch from the Uber app to the Lyft app when they reach the safety limit. A 2018 study from the University of Chicago showed fatal car crashes increased in cities were Uber and Lyft were introduced.
“This job is not safe enough for how little you make,” Abdulrahimzai said. “The time is mine, the gas is mine, the car is mine. I am investing a lot and they are just taking more and more.”
Abdulrahimzai’s wife and two children, ages 10 and 5, live in Modesto. He is frustrated with costs that Uber does not cover, including rising prices of gas and tickets Uber vehicles get for double parking to pick up passengers. Recently he received a $110 ticket while waiting to pick up a passenger who was not ready for her ride. He estimates he makes approximately $10 per hour on average when he drives with Uber. Abdulrahimzai said he looks for jobs with other companies every day and will leave Uber as soon as possible – for him, the IPO was the last straw.
“The founders will make billions of dollars and the drivers are making less and less,” he said. “In Uber’s terms and conditions there are nice words and nice comments about drivers, but in reality it’s nothing like that.”