THE CHIEF – Sonam Ghisling Lama begins his days by 8 a.m. and works until 6 or 7 in the evening—an average of 50-55 hours each week spent hurrying people to their meetings and doctor’s appointments, picking up and dropping off their food when they get home from work. Lama started working as a full-time Uber driver six years ago, eventually picking up delivery driving with DoorDash and other apps. As long as he continues to work long hours, he will usually bring home $200-$300 each day.
“The reason that I joined these two companies is, basically, the simple answer is to survive in New York City, you know, that’s the food and the bread,” Lama said.
Lamenting the toll that the low and inconsistent wages, long hours, lack of benefits and access to basic employee rights given the industry-wide classification of drivers and delivery workers as independent contractors, working for these rideshare behemoths has not met the optimistic promise with which he entered into the ride-share industry. But, Lama says the last few months have been harder still with rampant inflation and rapidly rising gas prices.
At the height of the pandemic, in April 2020, the national average price of a gallon of gas fell to a decades-long low of $1.84. By the time President Biden took office in January of 2021, prices had moved to a national average of $2.22.
Largely due to rising demand in the wake of peak pandemic depressed need for fuel, gas prices increased steadily until March of this year when sanctions imposed on Russia following its invasion of Ukraine caused prices to leap to $4 per gallon, and then to reach a record high average of $4.33 on March 11.
“When this Ukraine thing happened, it skyrocketed,” said Lama. “It was gradually increasing. It was OK. Even up to $2, it was OK for us. But like, now, like, up to $5, is something, it is killing us.”
The steep increase, he said, was particularly hard on those who drive for a living, whether on delivery runs or car service.
Dachuan Nie, like Lama a full-time app worker in the city, has been driving and delivering with apps like Uber, DoorDash, Lyft and Chowbus since 2018, but has been struggling to maintain the same standard of living compared to even just a few months ago.
“Everyone have the family they need to feed, have the rent they need to pay, right?” he said.
Nie said that when he began working with the rideshare apps, he could fill his Honda Accord’s gas tank for around $24. Looking to increase his earning potential with Uber—his main source of app work and income—he traded in his Honda Accord for a BMW X5 last year, making him eligible to participate in Uber’s premium black car service. It initially cost him about $68 to fill up the BMW’s tank. In the last few weeks, it has set him back $100.
“It’s almost double, it’s almost double price. That’s very crazy,” said Nie. “I spoke with a lot of drivers before, you know, the drivers said: If I don’t go out to work, if I don’t go out to drive, I don’t have to add gas—I save money. A lot of people say that,” he said laughing.
Since app drivers’ income has remained about the same while the price of gas has skyrocketed, he said “so that means I need, you know, sometimes I can’t go to have a dinner with my wife.”
Uber, DoorDash and Lyft have all responded in some fashion to urgent pleas from workers for relief from the steep increases in fuel prices.
“Uber increased its rate for drivers 5.3% at the start of March, bringing the minimum wage up to $29.78 in New York City and helping with increasing fuel prices. In addition, we recently launched a new feature that helps drivers save up to 25¢ per gallon through cash back with GetUpSide. Our platform only works if it works for drivers, so we’ll continue to monitor gas prices and listen to drivers over the coming weeks,“ Uber spokesperson Freddi Goldstein told The Chief.
Uber and Lyft both established fuel surcharges of 55 cents per gallon in all cities besides New York.
Lyft was quick to note that “though the fuel surcharge doesn’t apply to NYC, drivers can still take advantage of the 4-5% cashback on gas through June 30 with the Lyft Direct debit card.”
And a DoorDash statement said that as gas prices have increased, the company has launched what it calls a “Gas Rewards program” that it said could lead to savings for drivers of anywhere between $1.65 and $2 a gallon. “We’ll continue to monitor the evolving situation and explore additional resources in the coming weeks and months,” the company said.
But drivers said that these relief programs—some of them not applicable in New York City—are not sufficient enough to alleviate the multi-pronged issues facing gig-workers. Some said Uber’s estimated minimum wage of $29.78 for New York City fails to include any of the associated costs that push wages down, including the price of gas, currently of chief concern to most drivers, dwarfed only slightly by rising inflation.
David Alexis, a former rideshare driver now running for a Brooklyn State Senate seat, said he supports gig workers’ cries for industry-wide change.
“These companies look for every excuse they can get to extract more money from their workers and saddle them with the risk—the recent energy crisis is just the latest excuse,” he said. “These apps depend 100 percent on the hard work of drivers and delivery workers, and there’s no question that those workers deserve a living wage. More than that, they need a seat at the table—to be listened to and treated like the crucial part of the business that they are. Only then will workers see the fair wages and true stability they deserve.”