LA Uber Drivers Organized A Boycott, One Passenger At A Time

Laurel Hirschmann, pictured here on May 6, 2019, drives seven days a week for ride-hailing apps like Uber but still struggles to make ends meet. (Photo by David Wagner/LAist)

Uber's estimated $90 billion stock market debut later this week is about to make a lot of investors rich — but not its drivers.

Los Angeles drivers went on strike Wednesday, joining protesters in cities across the country to call for better pay and working conditions ahead of the company's highly anticipated IPO on Friday.

Local organizers expected more than 4,000 drivers to turn off their apps for 24 hours. The day of the protest, many drivers at LAX were not participating in the strike, continuing to drop off and pick up passengers. Travelers at LAX's app pickup zone were still hailing rides. Some weren't sure that the strike was happening.

That's why some drivers were trying to spread the word earlier in the week from behind their steering wheels.

"We need as many people on board with this as possible," said Laurel Hirschmann, a driver based in the Miracle Mile area.

While driving two tourists from England to Universal Studios on Monday, Hirschmann asked, "Are you aware that Uber and Lyft drivers are going to be protesting?"

Passenger Joanne Robinson hadn't heard about the strike. She said ditching Uber on Wednesday would be a challenge, because they need to get to the airport.

"Our first choice would be Uber," Robinson said. "Obviously we've got suitcases and luggage."

Hirschmann told them that Uber recently cut per-mile pay for drivers in L.A. by 25%. She said that she's driving more than ever, but earning less. She listed the drivers' demands: $17 per hour after expenses, along with a bill of rights including more transparency around driver deactivations and an elected driver representative on each company's board of directors.

After hearing Hirschmann out, Robinson said she'd think about taking a shuttle to the airport instead.

"You want the person driving you happy," she said.

Hirschmann started driving for Uber in late 2017 after undergoing two back surgeries. By the time she recovered, her work as an interior designer had dried up and she needed another source of income. At first, according to Hirschmann, the pay was OK. Uber used to have better incentives and bonuses that boosted driver pay, she said.

But now, after she subtracts the cost of driving, Hirschmann said she's making less than L.A.'s $13.25 minimum wage, and she's struggling to pay her rent.

"It's scary, because I'm making less and less money," Hirschmann said. "I'm really in a quandary about what to do next."

As companies like Uber have grown, average monthly revenue for drivers has declined by about half throughout the country, according to a recent study from the JPMorgan Chase Institute.

"It's actually one of the most important findings in our study," said Diana Farrell, the institute's president.

In L.A., average monthly revenue for drivers is down by 54 percent since 2013. Farrell said much of that decline can be chalked up to the average driver spending less time driving. However, some full-time drivers blame Uber and Lyft for eating into their bottom line.

One thing is clear from the research: Cities with a high cost of living have more people driving.

"We measured the cost of living as, how many hours would you have to work to pay the median rent, at the median wage," Farrell said.

By that measure, people in L.A. face the highest cost of living among the 27 cities studied for the report. Workers earning the median wage in L.A. would need to work 102 hours in a month to earn the city's median rent, more than in other high-cost cities like San Francisco (84 hours) and New York (89 hours).

Given L.A.'s expensive housing, Farrell said it's no surprise that more and more people are driving in L.A.

Joyce Beebe, a research fellow at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy, is skeptical that protests will spur Uber executives to make the kind of changes drivers are asking for.

"As to whether they will accomplish higher pay right after the protest, to be honest, I don't think so," Beebe said.

She said companies like Uber and Lyft classify drivers as independent contractors because it's 20% to 30% cheaper than hiring them as employees and having to provide benefits, pay overtime and follow minimum wage laws.

Going public will put new pressure on Uber to turn a profit. Given that, Beebe said protesters shouldn't count on the company to change their employment status.

"I think the best thing they can hope for is to get the lawmakers' attention," Beebe said.

One bill currently moving through the California state legislature, AB 5, would push companies to stop treating drivers as independent contractors.

Uber declined an interview for this story, but provided a brief statement via email.

"Drivers are at the heart of our service ─ we can't succeed without them," an Uber spokesperson wrote. "We'll continue working to improve the experience for and with drivers."

Driver Laurel Hirschmann attended the protest at LAX. She said if drivers' demands aren't met, she plans to keep talking to her passengers about the changes she and other drivers want to see.