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When Your Boss Has No Face: Inside the Uber Driver Workplace

Nobody wants to hear they’ve been fired. Those who’ve had it happen say it feels like a punch in the gut. Now, imagine that instead of your boss telling you face to face, the message comes from a pop-up alert on your smartphone. That’s how people get canned at Uber.

Eric Huestis wasn’t aware of the practice until it happened to him. His day started off a unusual when he took his Chrysler 300 to a Burlington, Vt., car wash. He had purchased the car specifically to drive for Uber. Bur right after the car wash when he tried to open his Uber app, he got a “deactivated” notice.

Uber has built one of the fastest-growing labor forces in U.S. history. They recruit drivers with the slogan, “Be Your Own Boss.” But dozens of interviews and surveys show that hundreds of drivers feel the company doesn’t live up to that promise. In fact, the San Francisco-based startup sets strict rules and punishments (just like a typical boss) but remains eerily distant. Even in a worst-case scenarios— like when you’ve just been fired — drivers can’t reach a human. And that facelessness sets it apart from other workplaces.

For Uber, that tagline is a lot more than just savvy marketing. Being one’s own boss is the legal argument at the very core of Uber’s business model. The company claims that drivers are independent contractors — not employees entitled to expensive benefits. An Uber-commissioned study says 87 percent of drivers joined because that’s what they want: to be their own boss and set their own schedule. Uber lawyers cite that statistic in court as evidence when drivers sue the company for employee benefits.

In interviews with NPR, Uber officials admit they need to do better in their communication with drivers. As a startup that grew at breakneck pace in the initial years, that part just wasn’t a top priority. Now, they claim, things are going to change.

But Uber executives haven’t publicly asked their drivers the obvious follow-up question here: “do you feel like your own boss?” So NPR put that question to drivers. A little more than half of respondents — 491 total — said they did; and, perhaps unexpectedly, nearly half — 436 — said they did not.

“You don’t feel like your own boss at all,” says driver David McKee from Vista, California. “The only thing you control is the time when you sign on and sign off. Other than that, Uber controls everything. It’s ‘Be Your Own Boss’ and ‘do what I say.’ ”

There just aren’t a lot of workers who can drop their kids off at school each morning, run errands as needed, and then clock in. The power to set one’s own hours is actually rare.

While McKee and other Uber drivers appreciate that flexibility, they explain that it’s important not to make too much of it. A total of 779 survey respondents — more than 80 percent — say that to make enough money as an Uber driver, they have to work peak hours, which means morning rush or weekend nights. After all, Uber is a service that relies on the ebbs and flows of customer demand — it’s not a freelance coding job where you just open your laptop and put in hours anytime.

But drivers go further and explain they aren’t just subject to market forces. Uber tightly controls driver performance as a way of managing their brand. The company taps into sensors in drivers’ own smartphones to monitor driving habits like turns, lane changes, and rolling stops. Of the survey respondents, more than 10% weren’t even aware that Uber did that (the line is buried in the middle of a very long contract) and nearly half wish that Uber would stop it. Uber’s competitor Lyft does not do such tracking.

McKee explains that it’s the government’s job license, penalize and take away a person’s license if need be. He feels Uber is making a power grab and “becoming the police.” Moreover, he and other drivers don’t trust the company’s intentions with the private data they collect. Many Uber drivers actually work for multiple ride-hailing services, and they fear the tracking is a way for Uber to collect intelligence on smaller competitors like Lyft.

Another complaint is that drivers don’t have a choice about UberPool — the service where passengers share the car with others. Drivers say Uber is coercing them into offering it, and while passengers get to pay much less, drivers also bring in less — in fact, it’s often a money loser. In the NPR survey, 7 out of every 10 respondents who offer UberPool say they do not like it and wish they didn’t have to provide it.

But they do. Uber bundles its services, so anyone who wants to drive for Uber’s standard service (UberX), has to offer Pool too. For many, that just doesn’t seem very much like “being-your-own-boss.”

Another issue is that at Uber, the company sets the price (as opposed to most private contractor arrangements where the contractor sets their own price). It’s dynamic, changing second by second according to a secret algorithm.

Only Uber knows what that formula is. Drivers are left clueless. And so in contrast to a typical job, drivers don’t know what they’ll earn per hour. This means they can end up on the road far longer than expected. Seventy-nine drivers surveyed by NPR said they’ve pulled driving shifts that went 14 hours or longer. That means being in the car, Uber app turned on, either driving a passenger or waiting for a call. Uber does not limit how many hours a driver can work — creating a public safety hazard.

One driver kept a detailed log of a typical, non-extreme day where he was in his car 14 hours, 9 minutes, and covered 401.2 miles. He got only one small surge fare. After subtracting the cost of gas, he made $165.30. Including tips, he nearly hit his goal, and it only took a few more hours than he had hoped (it wasn’t anywhere near his longest shift).

Each night for the Uber driver is a gamble. The hours go by — just like in a casino. Only here, you could fall asleep at the wheel or just lose focus and kill someone.

That’s a problem Uber could solve. It specifically designed the app to shut out drivers if they don’t accept a certain number of passengers (kind of like being put in the digital corner), so there’s no reason why it couldn’t design a safety feature to lock out drivers after they’ve been driving a certain number of hours. (as Lyft currently does).

But Uber hasn’t made any move to do so. As a spokesman said in an email, “Uber is a flexible work opportunity, so people can drive whenever they want.” Also, more than half of their drivers use the app less than 10 hours a week.

Uber is actually quite worried about its strained relationship with drivers since the whole model collapses without them. it recently hired a personnel expert, Janelle Sallenave, to improve how it responds to drivers’ and riders’ needs, disputes and accidents. “How could my job not exist? How could there not be somebody whose job it would be to oversee the support of our drivers?” she says in a phone interview with NPR.

Sallenave says Uber, which began service in 2010, has grown so fast, it just didn’t have the time to “marinate” — like older companies — on some of the basics. The focus has been on launching in more cities.

But now, she says, drivers are a top priority and Uber will be announcing changes. “I think in the coming months some of the improvements we are making directly address feedback that our drivers have been giving us for the last year plus.”

Sallenave acknowledges how hard it’s been to get anyone on the phone. But now Uber is staffing more than 200 physical drop-in centers (called “green light hubs”) and introducing new dedicated phone lines.

She does insist that drivers are their own bosses; that Uber is a digital platform (like eBay), not an employer; and that drivers are a lot like her own husband, who recently started a consultancy business.

“He doesn’t get benefits. He doesn’t exactly know what he’s going to make. I mean, that to me is all of the risks, but also the potential reward, of being an individual small-business owner,” she says.

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Emery Reddy