I’ve been a software engineer at Uber for two years, and I’ve also been a ride-hail driver. I regularly drove for Lyft in college, and while my day job involves writing code for the Uber Android app, I still make deliveries for app-based companies on my bike to understand the state of the gig economy.
These experiences have made me realize a crucial factor in the gig economy: Uber works because it’s cheap and it’s quick. The instant gratification when we book a ride and a car shows up only minutes later gives us a sense of control. It’s the most convenient thing in the world to go to your friend’s house, the grocery store or the airport at the click of a button.
But it’s become clear to me that this is only possible because countless drivers are spending their personal time sitting in their cars, waiting to pick up a ride, completely unpaid. Workers are subsidizing the product with their free labor.
I’ve decided to speak out against my employer because I know what it’s like to work with no benefits. Before joining Uber, I worked a range of low-wage jobs from customer service at Disneyland to delivering pizza with no benefits. Uber is one of several large companies bankrolling California’s Proposition 22. They’ve now contributed $47.5 million dollars to the campaign. At work, management tells us that passing Prop 22 is for the best because it is critical for the company’s bottom line. Yet, a corporation’s bottom line will not and should not influence my vote.
Uber claims Prop 22 would be good for drivers, but that depends on Uber the company treating drivers better. I know from my experience working as an Uber engineer there is a slim chance of that happening. At the beginning of the pandemic, we learned Uber was about to embark on a round of layoffs. For weeks we sat around not knowing if we’d keep our jobs and health insurance.
Ultimately the company laid off 3,500 workers in the middle of a pandemic, and they did it via a three-minute Zoom call. For many of us, the layoffs seemed random and arbitrary, as if managers had been given a quota of people they should fire, not dissimilar to the way in which Uber deactivates drivers without recourse. The entrenched culture of not caring about workers had extended to engineers. We realized we too are a fungible resource.
As a software engineer, I have a very different experience working for Uber than drivers do. Being classified as an employee affords me benefits including healthcare, a retirement plan, stock vesting and the ability to take paid vacation and sick leave. Uber drivers are not afforded these benefits, since Uber misclassifies them as independent contractors. Since January 1 of this year, the law has been clear: Gig drivers should be classified as employees. Yet Uber refuses to obey the law and is now seeking to get Prop 22 passed so they can write a new set of rules for themselves.
There’s a misconception that all Uber drivers are part-time. Maybe they drive as a fun hobby in retirement or pick up a few hours after class in college, as I did. These drivers exist, but the drivers who are essential to Uber’s business are full-time workers. A study commissioned by the city of San Francisco released in May found that 71% of the city’s gig drivers work at least 30 hours per week. It is these drivers who give the majority of the rides. California legally requires employers to provide benefits to all workers working at least 30 hours per week, so 71% of daily drivers are currently denied benefits required by the state.
Were it not for my background as a Lyft driver, I would have accepted my employer’s argument at face value. This was never about disrupting an industry; their business model is the same as any other company’s — cut costs no matter what in order to increase profits. I’ve been lucky to meet some of Uber’s fantastic drivers while organizing with the advocacy organization Gig Workers Rising. Everyone knows about the high cost of living in San Francisco — these folks are often trying to make do on less than minimum wage. I’ve met drivers who have to sleep in their cars, risk financial ruin over a single doctor’s appointment or go without life-saving medication. There’s no way around it, Uber’s Prop 22 is a multimillion dollar effort to deny these workers their rights.
My message to other tech workers and to the public at large is this: Research ballot propositions on your own. When your employer tells you to vote for something because it’s what is best for the company, consider that your employer’s interests might not align with your own, or with society’s.
To employees at Uber, Lyft, DoorDash or other gig economy companies: Get to know the drivers who use your product every day. In many ways, we have more in common with these workers than we do with the executives making millions from our labor.
In November, you will have a choice to either stand with other workers and vote no on Prop 22, or align yourself with executives and billionaires by voting yes.
Stand with workers — vote no on Prop 22.