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Uber drivers have fewer passengers — and face greater risks — than ever

One West Virginia Uber driver describes the effect of the coronavirus on his business.

A person sitting in the driver’s seat of a car and holding a cellphone.
Uber drivers are still on the road, but passengers are few and far between.
Getty Images/iStockphoto

In the past month, a huge number of typical Uber destinations have closed their doors for the foreseeable future. Bars, restaurants, gyms, and movie theaters are all shuttered, offices and commercial districts are in stasis, and citizens have canceled the housewarmings and birthday parties on their calendars. The whole country has lurched into inaction to try to flatten the curve, and that leaves a ride-share driver like Johnathan, 36, with a rapidly deteriorating customer base. He’s not sure where to turn next.

Johnathan lives in West Virginia, the last state in the US that confirmed a coronavirus case, but his usual beat in Morgantown has slowed to a trickle. College towns are full of kids who rely on Uber to get around — there have been Fridays and Saturdays where Johnathan has netted four figures — but now, he’s lucky to crack $100 after a shift. The whole dynamic of the industry has changed; Johnathan hardly ever speaks to his riders now because he wants to limit their interaction as much as possible. It only takes one unlucky trip to get him sick.

Johnathan expects that in the near future, he probably won’t be driving for Uber anymore. (Already, he’s started to explore other app-based contract work, like Instacart.) The economics were never great for him anyway, and he’s been unimpressed with the contingency plans offered by Uber corporate. This is a reality of so many gig contractors, who have an employment experience that flies under the radar of the emergency stimulus packages parachuted in by Congress. The CARES Act that passed on March 27 contained language allowing gig employees access to unemployment benefits, but states have reported that it may take “weeks” to set up that infrastructure for the country’s Uber drivers. Read our conversation below.

When did you start noticing coronavirus having an effect on your job?

It really became apparent two weeks ago, when the stock market started crashing, and as the sports leagues started closing. That’s when it became apparent and became a conversation with all the riders. Initially, we still had plenty of riders. I live in Morgantown, West Virginia, which is a college town, so it was very similar to that scene in Florida. There was this humongous party happening right before spring break.

So have you noticed a slowdown with your clientele?

I have noticed it, especially on St. Patrick’s Day. There was nobody going out at all. Normally, St. Patrick’s Day is one of my busiest days. My first year doing it I made $1,200 over a weekend. I expected to make at least $1,000 this year. Instead, I only did $150.

Are people going to the same places when they call you up? Or has that changed?

There are still people going to bars and restaurants, there were still a few that were open, though they’re now all closed on orders from the health department [on March 18]. It’s one of those things that people can’t quite believe. It’s incredible that it’s happening. I used to get a lot of people who are going to work, and there’s a lot less of that. It’s just a huge reduction.

Are you worried about getting sick?

Yes. It put a chill on the interactions with the customers. I talk a lot less. Just because I know it can be spread by opening your mouth, or through your mouth. I had a rider coughing the other day, and that made me freeze up a bit. I wipe down my car a lot more, I use a portable vacuum. It’s just this chilling effect.

So the whole dynamic of being a ride-share driver has changed, you don’t even feel comfortable talking to your customers now?

Yeah, that brings to mind one thing. I’m Asian, and one guy did have a negative thing to say. He was drunk, he asked me where I’m from, and my family is from Taiwan. He said, like, “Are any of your family coming over here?” I said no. He said, “If any of them come over I’m going to shoot them and send you the pictures.” I didn’t take it seriously. I gave him a two-star rating. It’s not a big deal, but it’s something that you remember.

Do you expect the ride-share demand to continue to go down?

I think that when summer comes around, people aren’t going to be able to tolerate this lockdown. I think eventually people are going to ignore these lockdowns. You have to function. You can’t live like this for a year. I can’t imagine living like this for half a year. I’m trying to tolerate a month or two, and it’s horrible.

Are you considering any other jobs outside of ride-sharing to keep yourself sustainable during the lockdown?

The fact is, the economics of ride-sharing are bad anyway. And I think this is an excuse or a reason to enact a change in my life. I’ve been doing it since 2016, and this is a time to sit back and reflect on the kind of projects I’d rather be doing. This pandemic is forcing a reassessment of life.

Have you heard anything from Uber or Lyft about how they’re going to help you get through this period?

They’re offering 14-day assessments, but the hoops are pretty onerous. You have to have a positive coronavirus test result and be in a city under legal quarantine. When that happens, they’ll suspend you from the app and pay you your daily average for the last six months for two weeks. They’re also not accepting new drivers from the harder-hit areas.

So they don’t have a plan for people who don’t want to drive for fear of getting sick. They’re only intervening if you get sick.

They have some guidelines on the website, but not much beyond that.

Do you think people need to take this pandemic more seriously?

I think the drivers are taking it seriously. I don’t know many drivers personally, but everything I’ve seen in the Facebook groups looks like we’re taking it seriously. I’m not as sure about the riders. The guy who was coughing was on the way to work at a restaurant. He probably should’ve stayed home.

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