Uber Drivers Say They Are Struggling: ‘This Is Not Sustainable’

When Lamin Jatta began driving a yellow cab in 2012, competition was stiff to procure a taxi for his shifts from a busy garage in Queens. Along with other drivers, he would have to slip up to $25 to a dispatcher to make sure he got a car.

This cost, though unofficial, was on top of his daily taxi lease, $120 for a 12-hour shift, which took a big chunk out of his earnings. And if he got stuck in traffic returning to the garage, he would get hit with a $25 late fee.

So Mr. Jatta eventually traded in yellow cabs for Uber and Lyft, lured by the promise of more money and working on his own terms.

But now, Mr. Jatta, an immigrant from Gambia, cannot earn enough to support himself and his family. He and other ride-hail app drivers say they struggle to pay their rent and other bills, have maxed out their credit cards, and are stuck making payments on cars they no longer want.

“You work and you make no money,” said Mr. Jatta, now 43, who is quitting Uber to become a truck driver. “This is not sustainable.”

Uber and Lyft drivers now earn less in fares and tips than taxi drivers, according to new data from the Taxi and Limousine Commission, which regulates both groups. During the month of September, Uber and Lyft drivers earned an average total of $5,046, including $277 in tips, while those in taxis earned $5,844, including $865 in tips.

Drivers have increasingly battled with Uber, which sued the taxi commission to block a raise for Uber and Lyft drivers in December. Uber argued the raise could cost the company an additional $21 million to $23 million per month, and that it could force it to raise passenger fares by 10 percent.

In response, drivers organized two strikes and urged customers to boycott the Uber app. Last week, Mr. Jatta and dozens of drivers gathered outside Uber’s office in Lower Manhattan, shouting “Shame on Uber.”

Still, Uber prevailed in its lawsuit after a state court judge said the city had failed to sufficiently justify the increase. The ruling will also apply to drivers for Lyft, which was not part of the lawsuit.

Josh Gold, a spokesman for Uber, said that its drivers “remain busy by any metric,” and that their earnings have increased significantly in recent years. Uber drivers now earn an average of $33.30 per hour before tips, up from $23.50 per hour in 2018, according to Uber data.

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But the inflation rate — as of last fall, triple what it was four years ago — has possibly canceled out some of those wage increases. Last summer, the cost of food in the city was up by nine percent over the previous year. And drivers and passengers are both dealing with more expensive Uber rides. As of September, prices had risen 37 percent over the last three years, according to the data analytics company YipitData.

Many drivers said the higher fares had benefited Uber more than them. “Don’t think what they charge you is what goes to the driver’s pocket,” said Ibrahima Gory, 56, who began driving for Uber in 2014.

Bruce Schaller, a transportation consultant, said the app services make money by charging passengers as much as they can — and paying drivers as little as possible. “The point of the business is to squeeze both the driver and passenger as much as possible because the companies make more money,” he said.

Uber, which arrived in New York in 2011, was once seen by many drivers as a better alternative to the yellow cabs that long ruled city streets. App services like Uber and Lyft offered bonuses and incentives to drivers to switch, and they allowed those who could not afford a taxi medallion — city-issued permits that peaked at more than $1 million in 2013 — to drive their own cars.

Credit…Todd Heisler/The New York Times

As riders and drivers embraced the apps, the taxi industry plummeted. Taxi owners, many of whom had borrowed hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy medallions at an inflated price, were drowning in debt. In desperation, some were pushed to suicide. Then, the pandemic decimated their business.

Nino Hervias was a taxi driver for 38 years before he lost his medallion in September 2021 because he was unable to keep up with the payments. Though he is considering reacquiring his medallion through a relief program the city created last year, he is not sure whether he will earn enough as a cabby to cover the cost.

In the meantime, Mr. Hervias, 63, is driving for Uber. He earned about $1,200 per week last year, but that dipped below $1,000 in December — or less than one-third of the $3,000 a week that he could earn driving a cab before 2015.

Currently, there are about 173,000 licensed for-hire drivers in the city, down from 204,000 in early 2020 before the pandemic, according to the taxi commission. The total number of for-hire vehicles, most of which are affiliated with Uber and Lyft, also shrank from 125,000 to about 100,000 during the same period.

“There weren’t enough trips for everyone at the height of the pandemic, so drivers had to switch to other industries to make a living,” explained David Do, the taxi commissioner. This resulted, he said, in “a major reduction and attrition in the numbers of drivers and vehicles.”

But some critics said the number of for-hire drivers was still too high, making it difficult for anyone to make a decent living. “Too many cars on the street is like too many cooks in the kitchen,” said Samuel I. Schwartz, a transportation consultant who drove a taxi in the early 1970s. “Everybody bumps into each other.”

In 2018, the City Council passed a bill to to establish a minimum pay standard for app service drivers. Since then, the taxi commission has significantly raised wages for Uber and Lyft drivers, who are also scheduled to receive an increase in March that will be the third since 2020 to help offset rising expenses and costs from inflation. Last month, metered taxi fares increased for the first time in a decade.

“The minimum pay standard has really changed the industry,” Mr. Do said. “Drivers are making more across the board.”

But it has not been enough for Ishtiaq Ahmed, 42, who works for Uber and Lyft and lives with his wife and four children in Brooklyn. Mr. Ahmed said that, more than a decade ago, he used to earn $700 to $800 a day with the app services. Now, he is lucky to make $140. He has $30,000 of credit card debt, he said, and he owes thousands more to family and friends who helped him buy an S.U.V. for the job.

Mr. Ahmed and other drivers have criticized the service fees charged by Uber and Lyft, along with government-imposed taxes and surcharges, for cutting into their earnings.

For an Uber trip from Manhattan to Kennedy International Airport in November, Mr. Ahmed earned $59.29, or just 65 percent of the $91.71 fare, while Uber’s service fee was $17.72, or 19 percent. Another $14.70, or 16 percent of the fare, went to government taxes and fees, including a $2.75 congestion fee in Manhattan.

Mr. Gold said that Uber and Lyft drivers have earned less than taxi drivers partly because they worked fewer hours. In September, taxi drivers worked an average of 7.6 hours per day compared with 6.5 hours per day for Uber and Lyft drivers, according to city data.

He added that, last year, Uber reduced its average service fee to 16 percent of the total passenger fare for every trip that started in New York City, compared with generally between 20 and 28 percent before 2015. But government-imposed fees and charges have increased since 2018.

Bhairavi Desai, the executive director of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, which represents for-hire drivers in the city, disputed Uber’s statistics, noting that the company generally keeps data on driver pay secret and only publicizes flattering numbers. “When convenient, Uber hides behind the corporate veil,” Ms. Desai said.

Mr. Gold responded that Uber reports detailed data on driver pay, passenger fares and trips to the taxi commission, as is required by city law.

Some drivers said they felt trapped because they had invested heavily in Uber and Lyft when they thought driving for a ride-hailing service would be a lucrative career.

Alpha Barry, 50, who was a yellow cabdriver for about 15 years before switching to ride-hailing apps six years ago, bought a 2017 Lexus for about $42,000 when he decided to work for Lyft.

Because of that investment, Mr. Barry said, he cannot return to the taxi industry, even if working conditions might have improved since he left.

“I already put myself in this car, you know, spent all this money on this car,” Mr. Barry said.

Mr. Gory, the Uber driver who was a cabby for 20 years, makes about $800 a week with the app service and still owes about $51,000 on his 2022 Toyota Highlander. He recalled that he was drawn by Uber’s ads and sign-up bonuses and incentives. “They were so slick,” he said.

By the time he found out that he could not make a living with Uber, it was too late. He was stuck.

“I pay my insurance, I pay costs of repairs, oil change, brakes, carwash — it’s too much,” he said. “Way, way too much.”

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