Amid a contentious battle over the rights of gig workers, a new union-backed report has found that Uber and Lyft drivers in Massachusetts earn well below the minimum wage, or $12.82 an hour.
The study, based on third-party data from one million ride-hail trips in the state from June 2022 to July 2023, found that nearly three of five drivers made less than $15 an hour — the state minimum wage for hourly employees — and that half of ride-hail earnings were taken up by expenses such as gas and vehicle maintenance. In Greater Boston, 53 percent of time that ride-hail drivers spent working was spent without a passenger in the car, and therefore unpaid, much of it moving between pickups or repositioning themselves to meet customer demand.
(The data was collected from 1,929 local drivers through Gridwise, an app used by many gig workers to track their work earnings and expenses. It was analyzed by Big Lake Data.)
The report, which comes amid efforts by Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ to organize ride-hail drivers in Massachusetts, purports that poor working conditions, including “stark discrepancies between promised earnings and actual compensation, extensive work hours, and unaddressed work-related expenses,” are “pervasive within the industry” and have led to high turnover amongst drivers.
For years, SEIU has gone head to head with tech giants, who argue drivers are classified as independent contractors or freelancers, and benefit from the flexibility that status can bring. Some local drivers, by contrast, believe they should be employees of Uber or Lyft and thus eligible for more benefits and legal protections.
Roxana Rivera, assistant to the president at SEIU, said ride-hail drivers should be unionized employees to balance out to challenges created by a “piecemeal” industry with few standards for compensation and working conditions.
“They are working for minimum wage because you have to count all the work time,” Rivera said. “Folks are getting paid for the ride, but not all the work time that goes into making that ride happen or the expenses.”
But Conor Yunits, a spokesperson for the Massachusetts Coalition for Independent Work, which represents Uber, Lyft, and Instacart, pushed back against the study’s findings. He said 1,929 drivers is “a fraction of a fraction of total drivers on the platforms” and thereby underestimates what they earn. He also pointed to a 2021 report from the BW Research Partnership that found drivers in Massachusetts average more than $26 per hour.
In the second quarter of 2023, Uber said, Boston-area drivers made $33 an hour, including time spent waiting for a trip.
Plus, Yunits added, the structure of ride-hail driving is what offers drivers the ability to choose what trips they make, or even work for multiple apps at the same time. If they worked, and were paid for, a regular shift, those options could diminish.
“Paying for engaged time is what allows drivers to have the flexibility they want and, for many, need,” Yunits wrote in an email statement.
In 2020, Uber, Lyft, DoorDash, and Instacart won a statewide vote in California to enshrine the independent contractor status of drivers. But similar campaigns in Massachusetts have been unsuccessful so far: The Supreme Judicial Court threw out a tech industry-backed ballot question last year, and both sides of the fight filed ballot questions in August in the hopes of bringing the debate to voters again next year.
The Drivers Demand Justice coalition, which represents more than 6,000 drivers, is also pushing state lawmakers to approve the Rideshare Drivers Justice Bill, which would establish a transportation network driver bill of rights and give drivers the opportunity to unionize and negotiate pay and benefits.
In a statement, Yuntis added the coalition takes no position on the union’s ballot question and instead supports “a legislative framework that creates new benefits and protections for app-based rideshare and delivery drivers while protecting their flexibility to earn on their own terms.”
Some drivers allege their working conditions have worsened in recent years. Many are working more hours for less money as the tech giants take larger shares of their revenue. The report added that “it’s not uncommon for drivers to engage in discussions with riders and uncover instances where these companies are now pocketing more than 50 percent of the trip fare, a noticeable increase from previous years.” Others said the companies are arbitrarily closing or deactivating workers’ accounts.
Take Bethlehem Tsegaye, for example. The 39-year-old Dorchester resident began driving for the apps a decade ago. She made good money at first, driving during her children’s school days and on weekend nights — eight-hour shifts that would cover around 200 miles, she said. Now she often drives Lyft for 12 hours and 250 miles every day for half the money.
Her husband works full time, too, and shares the responsibilities of raising their 11, 7, and 5-year-old. Still there’s never enough to cover the bills.
“If you don’t work the rush hours, you’re literally not making money at all,” said Tsegaye, who supports the idea of a union. “There are times you can’t even pay for the car maintenance until you make more money. It is so exhausting. You cannot be functioning literally. When I come home, I am like a zombie.”
One-third of rides in Massachusetts, the Big Lake study found, are completed by “all-in drivers” like Tsegaye, who drive at least 35 hours a week and who see the apps as their primary source of income. Casual drivers, who work 10 hours or less, only take 17 percent of trips.
That makes it all the more important to protect full-time drivers, said Alan Deng. The Weymouth resident is advocating for a union for both the pay and the security he hopes it would provide. Deng felt his income decrease while Lyft shaved drivers’ earnings percentage. But last September, a bigger problem derailed his life: A severe car accident left the 57-year-old unable to drive, and the current structure of gig work made it near impossible for him to be reimbursed by insurance or secure workers’ compensation.
“I don’t feel they did anything after the accident,” he said through a translator. “No attorney can help me fight for what I deserve.”