My week as an Uber courier: my bike got stolen, but I kept my five-star rating
Nicholas pads down the stairs of his apartment building on Broome Street in New York’s Soho neighbourhood – where the cheapest two-bedroom unit costs a fraction over $2m – in his boxers and a T-shirt to meet me on a Saturday afternoon. The twentysomething hands me two books and asks for them to be delivered to his friend’s place 11 minutes away in the West Village. I am at Nicholas’s beck and call – and anyone else’s if they have a smartphone – as an Uber courier.
Delivering Nicholas’s books – The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism and Empire As a Way of Life – earns me $5.60 (it costs him $7 as Uber takes 20% of all my earnings). Still, it equates to an hourly wage of $30.60 – far higher than the New York City minimum of $10.50. I did, however, spend three hours waiting for a job on the Uber Driver app and he is my only client.
As 8% of Americans and 14% of Britons have turned to the so-called “gig economy” to make ends meet, such as driving for Uber or Lyft, cleaning apartments for Handy or doing odd jobs via TaskRabbit, I have joined them as an UberEats and UberRush cycle courier. The delivery services, which are used by restaurants to deliver lunch and dinner to office workers as well as to deliver packages for people like Nicholas, are some of the newest tentacles of the fast-growing Uber empire that has seen the seven-year-old Silicon Valley company’s valuation soar to $68.5bn.
Signing up is simple enough. I fill out an online form, watch a video explaining how the service works and take a test to make sure I’m paying attention. After passing, I’m rewarded with a link to download the app, and a flurry of text messages urging me to saddle up and get on with my new career.
Joining companies like Uber is straightforward because workers are not classified as employees but self-employed contractors. This makes it much cheaper for the employer, as they don’t have to grant workers rights such as access to healthcare, sickness benefit or holiday pay.
This has led to high-profile strikes on both sides of the Atlantic, including Uber drivers in the US attempting a nationwide strike and repeated strikes by Deliveroo and Uber Eats takeaway delivery drivers in the UK.
Politicians in the UK and the US have criticised gig economy companies for steadfastedly refusing to give workers benefits even if they are working effectively full-time for one employer. A committee of MPs last week criticised Uber for creating “gibberish” and “almost unintelligible” contracts to ensure that its drivers remain self-employed.
Frank Field, chair of the work and pensions select committee that is carrying out an investigation into the sector, published full details of contracts at Uber, takeaway courier firm Deliveroo and Amazon. “Quite frankly the Uber contract is gibberish,” Field said. “The way they work looks in most ways an awful lot like being employed.
“These companies parade the ‘flexibility’ their model offers to drivers but it seems the only real flexibility is enjoyed by the companies themselves. It does seem a marvellous business model if you can get away with it.
“My worry is that as a result these companies contribute little to the public purse or our social safety net. They are not paying sick leave, national living wage, or contributing to pensions. Yet it seems likely that their employment practices will lead more people to need taxpayers to pick up these costs.”
In the UK, Uber lost a landmark employment tribunal that could effect the status of its 30,000 drivers. In their ruling on the case, brought by two Uber drivers, the tribunal judges turned to Hamlet to criticise Uber for “grimly” sticking to “faintly ridiculous” arguments that it is an app and not a taxi service. “The lady doth protest too much, methinks,” it said. Uber is appealing the ruling.
It says it is revising its contracts in plainer English and that “we’ve always been clear to drivers who use Uber that they are self-employed and free to choose if, when and where they drive with no shifts, minimum hours or uniforms”.
As a courier back in New York, if it’s going to rain tomorrow I won’t find out from the Weather Channel, but from Uber. Rain, snow or particularly cold weather means more profit for the company as demand increases, and it responds with price surges. It also means the potential for more earnings for the more than one million Uber drivers and cyclists around the world. (The cyclist option is currently only available in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Toronto and Portland.)
“Rain is forecast tomorrow and it will be one of the busiest days of the year so far!” reads a text from Uber. “We are offering a $25 incentive for completing at least five trips throughout the day tomorrow … This is a HUGE opportunity to earn money so don’t miss out.”
I fire up the app at lunchtime and wait for jobs to come pouring in. Soon my phone pings and a countdown begins, giving me 10 seconds to decide whether or not to accept a job. I accept and rush for the elevator, fearing any delay could jepoardise my five-star rating.
Uber drivers and couriers are rated by each customer, and the company warns that any delays, breakages or perceived rudeness are likely to lead to poor ratings. Couriers and drivers also rate the customers. I give all my customers five stars except Nicholas, who I give one star out of petulance at his laziness.
This job is to collect a “Buckaroo” burger (beef, aged cheddar, brisket, wild mushroom and smoke sauce on a brioche bun) and fries from the trendy organic chain Bareburger in the Financial District and take it to a university lecturer 0.66 miles away. The delivery takes six minutes, earning me $4. Not bad, but the time to collect goods is unpaid, as is the trip back to the starting point. The jobs aren’t rolling in either, even though I am in one of Uber’s designated busy zones in the financial heart of the city, where it has boosted fares by 1.4 times this lunchtime.
The downtime is OK for me because I’m fitting delivery around my day job writing articles, like this one, but for people turning full-time to gig economy jobs, excessive periods of downtime can make earning a consistent living precarious.
Just two more jobs come in that day – delivering a falafel sandwich to a tech bro working alone in a huge empty office at the tip of Manhattan with views of the Statue of Liberty ($4.12, plus a $2 tip, thanks man), and dispatching a letter from a downtown WeWork co-working space to Gillian at another WeWork in the West Village ($12.10) – so I fail to secure the $25 incentive.
My luck appears to be looking up the next day as my phone pings at 10.31am, sending me to Cafe Patoro, a Brazilian bakery famous for its pão de queijo (cheese-flavoured tapioca rolls). I am at the downtown cafe to pick up a half brigadeiro cake (a condensed milk and chocolate truffle, a national icon in Brazil since it was invented during the second world war when it was difficult to source fresh milk).
The cake is for Roberta Freitas, a Brazilian banker working on Lexington Avenue in Midtown who has ordered it for an office holiday party, where the multicultural team have been asked to each bring a delicacy from their home country. I set off cycling up the East River bike path, but soon realise Freitas’s cake won’t survive the journey in my satchel.
Worried that I could ruin her office party and my five-star Uber rating, I lock my bike and take the subway uptown. A very smiley Freitas collects her cake, and I take the subway back downtown, only to find a very lonely lamp post where my bike had been.
My bike is not insured by Uber. When I eventually get hold of a human at Uber, I am told the only insurance cover is up to $1m to cover “bodily injury or property damage to third parties where the claim arises out of UberEats and UberRush operations”. Note it only pays out if I injure a third party; if an Uber cyclist gets knocked down by a cab, he or she will have to pay for their own ambulance/hearse. Freitas’s cake doesn’t appear to be insured either. A spokeswoman says: “In terms of your question about dropping cupcakes (or breaking something during a delivery), this is something we examine on a case-by-case basis.”
A very short-lived cycle courier career over before it’s properly begun, you might think. But not having a bike doesn’t appear to phase Uber: with the swipe of a finger I turned from “Uber Bicycle” to “Uber Walker”, and with jobs like Nicholas’s begins the slow attempt to earn enough money to buy a new bike.
At the current rate of roughly one $6 job a day it’ll take just under a year. But I maintain my five star-rating.