For weeks, Uber drivers have lamented the lack of fares – and the scramble to find new work – as the coronavirus outbreak erased ride-share driving as a reliable source of income.
New data now crystallizes their plight. Superfly Insights, a consumer-behavior analytics firm, looked at a slice of Uber’s sales data from the start of 2020. Its analysis shows that in the final four weeks of the first quarter, Uber rides plummeted 94% in the U.S.
Seemingly overnight, fares across the nation dried up, and ride-share drivers saw huge losses in income.
In Fort Myers, a cozy beach town along the Gulf of Mexico in southwest Florida, fares started to slow “as soon as they started talking about [the coronavirus] on TV,” said Chip Adams, an out-of-work driver for Uber and Lyft.
“I tried it all. I went to the airport, which is something I normally try to avoid… I went to different mall locations,” he said. “We’re talking six hours for three fares, which is maybe 30, 40 bucks.”
Toward the end of March, there was nothing left.
“My Uber and Lyft are completely gone,” he said. “I don’t even try anymore because… I was just waiting in the car with nothing happening.”
Here are some ways ride-share drivers can weather the crisis.
What’s an Uber Driver to Do Amid the Coronavirus?
Being an independent contractor in the midst of a pandemic is tricky business. Because they’re not considered employees, gig workers aren’t clearly laid off or furloughed when work disappears.
Lawmakers recognized that nuance when they included unemployment assistance in a sprawling $2 trillion stimulus package called the CARES Act. For the first time nationally, self-employed, freelance and gig workers are now eligible for relief if they lost income due to the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus.
- Pandemic Unemployment Assistance: PUA is run through state unemployment offices. It’s available to those typically ineligible for unemployment insurance. PUA grants half of the state’s average unemployment insurance payment, plus a $600 weekly bonus from the federal government. The federal bonus lasts up to four months, and the entire program may last up to 39 weeks.
- Paycheck Protection Program: PPP funds are geared toward small businesses, but self-employed workers can also apply for relief through their local banks. It is not unemployment assistance per se. It’s a forgivable loan that covers up to 2.5 times the applicant’s average net income. This program requires a well-documented paper trail to prove average monthly earnings. If the loan funds are used for mostly salary (some expenditures like rent or utilities are OK) it will be forgiven after eight weeks.
Both new programs are backlogged, and it’s unclear when the agencies will start paying out. According to the Department of Labor, more than 15 million people have applied for unemployment assistance since mid March.
Chip Adams was one of those applicants. He said after a few days of no fares, he decided to stay home and apply for PUA through Florida’s unemployment office.
I was just waiting in the car with nothing happening.
Due to technical glitches, the process was not easy. It took him a week and a half. He says he sifted through pages and pages of check-yes-or-no questions, only to get an error and be kicked back to the start.
“Finally, this morning I managed to get the application through,” he said in an interview with The Penny Hoarder April 9.
There’s also the option of taking on a different gig.
Some out-of-work drivers are using their skills from ride-sharing to transition into delivering for Instacart, Shipt and Uber Eats, which are steadier due to the increased demand. Matthew Bourassa, a former ride-share driver from Scranton, Pennsylvania, has had a lot of luck delivering groceries for Instacart lately.
“It’s 10 times better than Uber, in my opinion,” he said.
Bourassa signed up for Instacart after watching a YouTube video of a shopper break down his earnings from the app. During the pandemic, Instacart announced it was onboarding 300,000 new full-service shoppers. Bourassa applied Friday, March 27, and was approved the next day.
Typically, new shoppers have to wait for a credit card to be mailed to them, but he says Instacart offered an Apple Pay option, which he was able to sync to his phone. He was ready to roll.
Compared to Uber, Bourassa says Instacart gives the grocery delivery drivers much more control over their earnings. Before accepting an order, he gets to see a summary, which includes the customer’s tip and the payout from Instacart.
In most markets, Uber doesn’t provide that information up front.
For Bourassa, Instacart has been like “magical money.”
A Tale of Two Gig Workers
Financially speaking, it’s been the best of times for Bourassa. For Adams, it’s been the worst.
The coronavirus’s rampaging effect on the economy isn’t distributing equally. Some industries have been pummeled while others are soaring.
Bourassa’s jobs include a maintenance and cleaning position at a local nonprofit food bank, a pizza delivery gig and, now, Instacart. Amid the outbreak, delivery, cleaning and grocery businesses have done particularly well.
On the other hand, Adams is a ride-share driver, realtor and DJ — three of the many areas of the gig economy that the coronavirus slammed. Even though applying for unemployment was a huge headache, Adams is staying positive. He says he’s lucky that he can lean on the support of his wife, who has a government health care job through the Department of Veteran’s Affairs.
“Because of my wife and having a support system… I can’t complain,” Adams said. “For a lot of people who don’t have that option, I think it is hell on earth.”
Adams spends his time now at home, on the phone, trying to drum up business for his realty gig. But people keep giving him the runaround and postponing or canceling appointments. He’s doing a lot more chores these days. He jokes he’s being a good “house husband.”
Bourassa knows he’s lucky. He says it feels like he “hit the 777 jackpot by accident.” He’s not sure how long it will last, but he’s happy to play it by ear.
“It’s like I struck gold, basically, in this coal-mining town that I live in,” he said.