Vermont’s Department of Labor wrote in a 2017 bulletin that the “usual course of [Uber]’s business is the provision of a technology platform to its drivers, in exchange for a service fee.” But one federal judge in California called the distinction between technology and transportation company “fatally flawed.” (Uber settled that lawsuit by workers in March 2019, for $20 million.).
Avedian has been driving part time for Uber and Lyft for four years, but just two months ago, or anywhere outside California, this sort of strategy wouldn’t have worked.In response, some savvy California drivers have changed their behavior. “I’ll just sit down and cherry-pick,” says Avedian. “I’m doing fewer rides and making more.”Gabe Ets-Hokin, a writer and ride-hail driver around San Francisco, has embraced the same strategy. “When it became clear to me that Uber was not going to fire us for excessive cancelation or for declining rides, I started doing it whole hog,” he says.
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A spokesperson for Uber said that the changes in the app were prompted by Assembly Bill 5, a new California law that attempts to clarify the difference between an independent contractor and an employee. “Gig economy” companies like Uber, Lyft, Postmates, and Doordash have always classified their workers as contractors, freeing them from paying Social Security or payroll taxes, or complying with federal laws regarding wages, hours, and working conditions. AB 5 tightens the rules for qualifying as a contractor , requiring that a worker be “free from the control and direction” of the company they’re working for; perform work outside the “usual course” of the company’s business; and engage in the same type of work when not working for that specific company.
“Employers often respond to changes in the law by tweaking their business practices to avoid responsibility, and that’s clearly what we’re seeing here,” says Benjamin Sachs, a professor of labor and employment law at Harvard Law School.But not every business is controlled by a black box of an algorithm, designed to poke, nudge, and push both drivers and riders to drive and ride more. Since Uber changed its rules for California drivers, a small group of dedicated drivers—who have long clustered in forums on Reddit, a website called UberPeople, and in groups on Facebook to trade tips—have been studying how to peek inside the new black box, and make more money doing it. Avedian even coaches drivers on smart driving methods.
Uber's self-driving cars could be crucial to the company reversing operating losses that topped $3 billion last year. If it works, that self-driving technology might finally lead the ride-hailing company to the kind of profitability its investors—who have sunk more than $22 billion into Uber already—would like to see.
Uber has changed the way its bonuses work. Instead of handing over a lump sum after a driver hits a set number of trips in a set amount of time, Uber now lowers the company’s take, increasing the driver’s pay for future rides. A driver who may have once paid out 20 percent of each ride to Uber may now have to give the company only 15 percent once they hit their ride goal; that may prompt some drivers to stay on the road to earn bonuses. (The goals are set region by region, but drivers say that the thresholds now are generally lower than they were when Uber handled out a cash bonus.)
The company declined to say whether there have been shifts in tipping since mid-September 2017.The paper relies on detailed data about drivers, riders, and the rides themselves, including length, pickup time, and how many quick accelerations, hard brakes, and speeding stretches occurred during the trip.