You probably never want to hear you've been fired. If you've heard those words, you know they feel like a punch in the gut. Now, imagine that instead of your boss telling you face to face, you get the news from a pop-up alert on your smartphone. That's how it works at Uber.
Eric Huestis didn't realize that, until it happened to him. At first, there was nothing unusual about that day in April. He took his Chrysler 300 to a Burlington, Vermont, car wash. He bought the used car specifically to drive for Uber. After the car wash, he slid into the front seat and tried to open his Uber app. Nothing. He'd been "deactivated," as Uber calls it.
Uber has created one of the fastest-growing workforces in American history. And to recruit drivers, company leaders are fond of saying you can "Be Your Own Boss." But through dozens of interviews and an informal survey, NPR found that hundreds of drivers feel the company is not living up to that promise. They say the San Francisco-based startup sets strict rules and punishments, just as other bosses do, but it's eerily distant. Even in dire situations — like when you've been axed — it's impossible to reach a human in charge. This facelessness is decidedly unlike other workplaces.
In interviews with NPR, Uber officials acknowledge that the company has to improve its communication with drivers and that in the initial years of growth, it was not a top priority. Now, they say, that's going to change.
When Huestis found himself locked out, he wasn't sure if it was just a software glitch. He recalls the app alert told him to "please contact customer support." It's counterintuitive, but again in Uber-speak, the driver is the "customer." Drivers rely on the company's service — the now iconic black app — to match them with riders.
Huestis hit the button on the Uber app, which directed him to a form (not a person). Moments after hitting "submit," he got a message from a company Uber uses to do criminal background checks. Checkr, another Silicon Valley startup, told him he had a marijuana record that needed to be reviewed before he could drive again.
The timing threw Huestis off.
The 42-year-old, who lives with his girlfriend and her child, indeed had a record for three marijuana possessions — spanning from 1993 to 2010. He says when he started driving for Uber in early 2016, he passed the background check. The only thing that has changed since is that on New Year's Day, Jan. 1, 2017, Huestis was pardoned by the governor of Vermont, clearing his record.
"It wasn't a DWI. It wasn't a felony. It wasn't a rape charge. It wasn't a kidnapping," Huestis says. "It was nothing violent or anything that would stop me from being a Uber driver. So I was like, 'Why is this happening?'"
Huestis felt like he was invested in Uber — he even runs a Facebook page for local Uber drivers to bond — but the company isn't invested in him. Uber is among the largest private companies on earth and is currently valued at about $70 billion. But it didn't even have a number for him to call. Uber doesn't offer that kind of customer support. Huestis did manage to contact state officials, he says, but they didn't have a way to call Uber either.
So Huestis found himself trapped in a maze of online forms and generic emails. At first, the notifications told him it would take 15 days to review his case; then, 30 days. If that doesn't sound like a big deal, he puts it in perspective: "What if you got booted off your cellphone provider? That [would] change everything. I mean, I got booted off my income provider, for no reason."
The experience of this Uber driver may be a window into the future of work. For years, workers have enjoyed the way technology creates distance from the boss. You can join meetings from home, or from Hawaii. But with Uber, we are coming to a strange inflection point. The company has designed an app that is so efficient, cheap and scalable that it manages 600,000 drivers in the U.S. Yet there's an underside to distance. It can create a system that lacks the most basic sympathy.
NPR conducted an informal survey of Uber drivers, using email lists and social media. It's not a scientific poll. Respondents are self-selected, and possibly more negative toward Uber than the average driver. Still, it's a window into how hundreds of drivers feel; and an Uber spokesman says many of NPR's survey results track the company's own findings about its driver workforce.
Huestis' experience is clearly not unique. Of the respondents, 193 said they were able to speak with a person at Uber to get the help they needed. But 688 said they were not — no human was available. In phone interviews with NPR, drivers shared examples of how they couldn't reach Uber after an accident on the job (one man contacted Uber's insurance company, which then became the conduit to Uber), or after being kicked off the platform (drivers typically don't get a hearing).
Huestis lives week to week. After his deactivation, he managed to make a bit of money by picking up scrap metal from nearby farms and recycling it. Only he can't do that work alone. He needs a friend to help because he's an amputee. He lost his left leg in a motorcycle accident.
Huestis contacted NPR the same day he was axed and, over the weeks, we followed his ups and downs. On May 1 he texted, "i'm in tears today, rents due, no income from uber in over 20 days." He spent day and night checking his Uber app, waiting to learn the fate of his career the way some people check Facebook to see if a selfie got liked.
Uber says the proper appeals procedures were followed with the third-party background check company in Huestis' case. After nearly a month, he was allowed to drive for Uber again. He says he would like to sue Uber for about $3,000 in lost wages. That's a lot of money for him, but not enough for a lawyer to bother with his case.
'Be Your Own Boss' or 'Do What I Say'?
Uber's tagline — "Be Your Own Boss" — is an invitation as empowering as Nike's "Just Do it" and Apple's "Think Different."
In Uber's case, though, it's more than just savvy marketing. Being one's own boss is the legal argument that underlies Uber's entire business. The company says 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.
But Uber leaders have not publicly asked an obvious follow-up question: At Uber, do you feel like your own boss? So NPR asked drivers, in the informal survey. 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.'"
Few workers can drop their kids off at school every morning and then run errands as needed before clocking in. The power to set one's own hours is rare.
While McKee and other Uber drivers appreciate that flexibility, they say it is important to not overestimate 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, like morning rush or weekend nights.
It's not unparalleled freedom, which is hardly surprising. After all, Uber is a transportation service that relies on customer demand, not a coding job where you can flip open your laptop and work anytime.
But drivers go a step further and say they are not just subject to market forces. At Uber, they are also bound by the company's determination to protect the brand by tightly controlling driver performance.
Uber uses the sensors in drivers' own smartphones to monitor their turns and lane changes and rolling stops. Of the survey respondents, 116 (more than 10 percent), say they didn't realize Uber was doing that (they may have missed that line in the very long contract) and 433 (nearly half) would like Uber to stop it. Uber's competitor. Lyft, does not do such tracking.
McKee says it is the job of the government to license you, penalize you and take away your license if warranted. He says Uber is making a power grab and "becoming the police." He and other drivers also don't trust the company's intentions with their private data. Many Uber drivers work for more than one ride-hailing service, and they fear the tracking is a way for Uber to collect intelligence on smaller competitors like Lyft.
Uber says smartphone tracking is good for safety and protects drivers against unfair complaints from passengers. If you want to drive, opting out is not an option.
Drivers also don't have a choice when it comes to UberPool — the service where you can share a car with others. Drivers say they feel Uber is coercing them into offering it. They say while passengers get to pay much less, drivers also make much less — it is 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 has bundled its products, so if you want to drive for Uber's standard service (UberX), you have to offer Pool, too. For many, that doesn't feel very being-your-own-boss-like.
Dynamic pricing: Keep 'em guessing, and driving
The way pricing works at Uber also subjects drivers to a kind of control that's novel. While people who are independent contractors typically set their own price for services, at Uber the company sets the price. And it's dynamic, able to change second by second according to a calculation that is secret.
While economists marvel at dynamic pricing — it's a superpower that the smartphone and algorithms make possible — drivers scratch their heads. It leaves Uber all-knowing, and drivers clueless.
Unlike in other jobs, they're not sure what they'll make per hour, and so they can end up on the road far longer than expected. Seventy-nine drivers tell NPR they have driven shifts 14 hours or longer. That means being in the car, Uber app on, either driving a passenger or waiting for work. Three people showed NPR documentation for driving 20 hours in a single day. Uber does not limit how many hours a driver can work.
This is clearly a public safety hazard. But at Uber, drivers talk about it as though it is normal.
Kyle Reninger is an Uber driver from Muncie, Indiana. The 32-year-old works weekend nights because, he says, that's when he is most likely to pick up surge fares — the higher prices (two, three, five times the regular rate) that passengers hate to pay and that drivers live by. They are the nuggets of the Uber gold rush.
Over the course of several weeks, he kept an audio diary for NPR, sending WhatsApp messages and screenshots between rides. His voice memos become a way to peer into his modern workplace and observe how the nights stretch out.
Reninger says he feels like his own boss: He chooses when to turn the Uber app on and off. And it's a side gig. He and his wife run a vegan bakery. As that business gets off the ground, Uber is a way to make quick money and also advertise to his passengers. He keeps vegan cookies in the car. (An Uber spokesman says it's OK for drivers to advertise another business in their own cars, so long as it is not an Uber competitor.)
One Friday, Reninger sets out to make $200, not counting the cost of gas. He is on Uber and competitor Lyft, though the vast majority of his business comes from Uber.
Business is slower than he would like. It takes him 98 minutes on the road to get his first payment of $14.14.
That amount is less than he expected. The Uber app estimated he should bring in $7 more. He says he is used to Uber playing this game — suggesting one fare, then paying another. He sends a message in the app basically saying: I got underpaid; fix that. Then, he keeps waiting for his next passenger.
"This is the hard part, the in between," he says in his voice memo. "Not really sure, you know, if I should drive around, hope to get another ping. Or if I should head back north." He had driven down to Indianapolis, a little more than an hour from home, hoping for a busier night.
In between the waiting, the passengers he does get make him laugh, think or sometimes cringe. One man is a globe-trotter who talks about his forays in Europe. Another sneaks an open beer can into the car, even though it's against the law and Reninger asked him not to. "That was kind of a jerk move," the driver says. By 1:42 a.m., nearly nine hours into his shift, he is only about halfway to his $200 goal.
An hour later, he gets another passenger who says over and over, "I'm so drunk; I'm so drunk, man." The passenger wants to go to IHOP, which is typical. A bit less typical, Reninger says in another voice memo, is that the drunk man got out of the car, "zipped down his pants and started to urinate, right in front of IHOP. Then walked in, like nothing happened."
By 6:11 a.m., you can start to hear Reninger's voice fading. And there is something he doesn't admit in his voice memos while he is on the road: He is having a hard time staying awake. He sips water and rolls down his window to help him. He waits until he gets home to mention this.
All told, the Uber driver was in his car 14 hours, 9 minutes, and covered 401.2 miles. He got only one small surge fare. If you put aside the cost of gas, he made $165.30. Including tips, he nearly hit his goal. It just took a couple of more hours than he had hoped (and it was by no means his longest shift).
And so it goes. Each night for the Uber driver is a gamble. The hours go by — just like in a casino. Only here, you could get tired and kill someone.
This is a problem that Uber could solve. It designed the app to lock out drivers if they don't accept a certain number of passengers (kind of like being put in the digital corner). It could design a safety feature to lock out drivers after a certain number of hours. (Lyft does that.)
But Uber lacks the will to do so. A company spokesman says in an email, "Uber is a flexible work opportunity, so people can drive whenever they want." Also, according to Uber data, more than half of U.S. drivers use the app less than 10 hours a week. (Uber declined to disclose data on how long full-time drivers have the app on.) And finally, the spokesman says, Uber is testing out a new app alert in some cities, to remind drivers about the importance of getting enough rest.
The hype around Uber is that the company doesn't need drivers because it is developing self-driving cars; and the biggest workplace crisis is sexual harassment — the way women in the corporate office are treated. But according to current and former employees as well as investors, Uber feels far more threatened by its broken relationship with drivers. This is the existential threat to the business, because self-driving fleets won't be ready anytime soon. Uber needs the human workforce now.
Last year, Uber hired Janelle Sallenave to improve the way 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 that getting an Uber representative on the phone six months ago was a feat that, she says, "frankly I don't know I would be able to do." She says Uber has a lot of work to do to improve communication with drivers, and the company is doing that. It's staffing more than 200 physical drop-in centers (called "green light hubs") and introducing new dedicated phone lines.
Drivers' complaints about poor communication are no surprise to Sallenave. She says Uber needs to revamp the way it "deactivates" drivers and that the company faces "some serious work" in how it handles those situations. Sallenave says Uber is undertaking significant policy changes, though she declined to provide details.
She also maintains that drivers are their own boss; 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.
A case study in disruption
A former federal regulator strongly disagrees with the Uber official's position.
"You know, I can't just declare a pigeon a duck because I think it should be a duck," says David Weil. He was head of the Department of Labor's wage-and-hour division under President Barack Obama. It was Weil's job to investigate companies that misclassify workers.
In 2016, Weil visited Silicon Valley. He came with then-Labor Secretary Tom Perez (who is now head of the Democratic National Committee). And something struck Weil: While people in tech talked like they were all disruptors in the same boat, they weren't. At a startup like TaskRabbit, for example, the people providing a service set their own price and define what work they'll do. The company doesn't control those things. But at Uber, the company sets the price and designs the services (like Uber Black, X and Pool), and those services are core to the brand.
"Yeah, it looks a lot like an employment relationship. It looks like a very sophisticated, branded product provider," Weil says.
Weil's opinion, which is not based on inside knowledge, strikes at the heart of a number of legal battles and court cases in which workers are suing Uber, saying they are employees entitled to benefits.
But Weil didn't publicly express his opinion about Uber as a regulator; and he didn't put resources into investigations or outreach to Uber drivers. He says that is because although these drivers were a rapidly growing workforce, they were still a tiny sector, compared with janitors or nurses aides.
"As the head of the agency, I every day dealt with this reality. We were responsible for 130 million workers in 7.3 million workplaces," he says. "When you face those kinds of numbers you have to think every day very strategically about, where will you put your very limited resources?"
In this respect, Uber becomes a fascinating case study in how disruption works. While the tech startup pursued aggressive growth — move fast, think later — public officials describe their collective response as cautious. "You don't want to be seen as stopping progress," another former federal labor official told NPR.
About the survey
NPR conducted an informal survey of Uber drivers from May 20-21, 2017, based on questions developed in consultation with a nationally recognized survey company. NPR distributed survey invitations to Uber drivers through an email list and through popular and active general online forums. We avoided recruiting from any forum focused on complaints or negative topics to avoid unduly biasing the responses. The survey respondents are not a scientific sample and not representative of all Uber drivers nationwide. They are self-selected and therefore represent the views of drivers who chose to participate. For example, drivers may be more likely to respond if they are more comfortable filling out an online survey or if they have more negative feelings toward the company.
To verify that survey takers were indeed Uber drivers, NPR included questions in the survey that require intimate knowledge of how the company pays drivers. Of the 1,158 respondents, NPR determined 943 responses valid. This is just a fraction of the hundreds of thousands of people who drive for Uber. Not all respondents replied to every question. Percentages may not total 100 because of rounding. NPR asked about length of service, to ensure a diversity of driver experiences with Uber. NPR solicited contact information of drivers surveyed and called dozens of drivers for follow-up interviews. The drivers were almost all still active; a handful had stopped driving in the last three months.
NPR Business Desk intern Mollie Simon, Senior Research Director Lori Kaplan and News Apps Developer Brittany Mayes contributed to this story.