Abdulsalam Mindas chose to work as an Uber and Lyft driver last year because it allowed him to take English classes at a community college in Aurora.
And the money was solid — enough to send hundreds of dollars back to his siblings and parents in his native Sudan, helping them pay school tuition fees and medical bills.
But now it’s different, Mindas and other ride-share drivers say. The tech giants are taking more and more of their shares, inflation and gas prices are eating into their take and there’s little transparency, they say, over how the companies calculate prices.
For Mindas, what started as an enticing proposition to be his own boss and make decent money turned into an endless cycle of low-wage work — without the benefits of independence.
“I stopped supporting my family, I stopped college,” Mindas said. “I have no money to do that.”
Ride-share and delivery drivers in Colorado and across the nation appear to be nearing a breaking point. A recent study found Uber, Lyft and DoorDash drivers in the state made just $5.49 per hour after expenses — one-third of Denver’s minimum wage. DoorDash delivery drivers, the study found, made just $1.23 an hour after costs such as insurance, gas and car maintenance.
“Left unchecked and unregulated, gig companies will continue to shift the cost of doing business onto their workers and consumers — taking money out of our communities and putting it into corporate pockets,” Colorado Jobs with Justice, which authored the report, wrote in its conclusion.
The rideshare and delivery companies disputed the numbers and methodology in the study, saying their drivers make far more than one-third of minimum wage. An Uber spokesperson called the report “nonsense.” A DoorDash representative said its findings are “biased, flawed and should not be taken seriously.”
In November, 150 drivers turned off their apps for four hours at Denver International Airport, part of an organized labor strike aimed at putting pressure on state lawmakers and regulators to take action. The short strike came amid a broader Driver’s Rights Movement, in which couriers across the country are demanding a greater say in the system and more autonomy over their work and data.
Meanwhile, drivers in other states are also walking off the job for better pay and greater transparency.
Those here, though, are hopeful that one of their own can change the conversation in the Colorado Capitol.
Stephanie Vigil, a Colorado Springs Democrat, in November won a seat in the House of Representatives, marking the first time, she said, that a gig app driver was elected to the state legislature. A member of Colorado Independent Drivers United — a union representing taxi, rideshare and delivery drivers — Vigil said it’s time for Colorado to rethink how these tech companies are regulated.
“We are dealing with really outdated regulatory framework for a much more high-tech, fast-paced independent contractor world,” she said.
“Like a slot machine”
It wasn’t always this way.
Colorado gig workers say rideshare companies used to take roughly 25% of the cost of a ride, leaving the rest for drivers.
But the tech giants, which are constantly tinkering with their algorithms, have started to up the percentage that goes back to them, drivers contend. Those behind the wheel in Colorado and elsewhere say the company’s take is now closer to 40% or 50% on many rides.
“We work a lot but we don’t make anything,” said Mindas.
A ride from downtown Denver to the airport used to net a driver $25 to $30, the 30-year-old said. Now that ride earns him $16.
The meager pay has forced drivers to either scale back their time behind the wheel and get other jobs — or go all the way in and work double.
Manyang Duot started driving for Uber and Lyft in 2017 to supplement his main gig helping hotels and convention centers set up and break down events.
The Sudan native starts his day at 6:30 a.m., taking his children to school. He drives until 4 p.m., before heading to the hotels for his main job. Duot doesn’t get home until 1 a.m., long after his six children are asleep.
“I don’t get to see my family very much,” said Duot, a member of Colorado Independent Drivers United. “It’s sad for me.”
There are still plenty of drivers, though, who say they make far more than the average pay listed in the Colorado Jobs with Justice study.
Chris Lozano, a 55-year-old living in Colorado Springs, started driving for Uber and Lyft two months ago after his work in the real estate and mortgage industry plummeted when the Federal Reserve raised interest rates.
Lozano — whose interview with The Post was set up by Uber — said he typically makes $300 a day if he drives in Denver, more than $30 an hour before expenses.
“I feel like everybody’s bartender,” he said with a laugh. “They can talk to me about anything.”
Harry Hartfield, an Uber spokesperson, said median earnings for Colorado drivers were $37 an hour for time spent engaged on the platform, and roughly $30 an hour when factoring in waiting time between requests. The company’s take-rate — the money Uber receives per ride — is 19.4%, according to an August news release.
Lyft says its U.S. drivers earned on average north of $35 per utilized hour, including tips and bonuses, though this doesn’t take into account waiting times and other expenses.
In October, Lyft introduced a new earnings algorithm — called “upfront pay” — in Denver and 17 other cities that would allow drivers to see destination and pay details before accepting a request.
Vigil, the incoming state representative, said she has a whole system that works to make her third-party delivering gig worthwhile.
But the problem, she said, is that “app companies have manipulative ways to make you do more work for less money.”
For example, DoorDash will give surprise tips — extra money that isn’t shown when a “dasher” accepts an offer to pick up food from a restaurant. After an order is completed, a driver will see a notification in the app that their earnings are higher than the initial offer — sometimes even $20 or more.
This may sound great on the surface: Who doesn’t want surprise money?
“The problem is,” Vigil said, “people who have no way of discerning ‘unicorn’ offers will take more low-ball offers hoping they’ll get a surprise.”
What should be an informed decision “is more like a slot machine,” she said.
Food delivery drivers, in particular, rely heavily on tips. DoorDash drivers in the Colorado survey said 41% of their income came from tips (those numbers were 13% for Lyft and 14% for Uber).
The food delivery app changed its tipping policy in 2019 following heavy criticism that it was using customer tips to subsidize its payments to workers.
DoorDash, in a statement to The Post, said its workers make on average $25 an hour while on a delivery, including 100% of tips, while driving an average of less than four hours a week.
“We’re proud to provide flexible, low-barrier earning opportunities to the millions of Dashers who value this type of work,” Parker Dorrough, a company spokesperson, said in the statement.
“A shroud of mystery”
This entire framework has to change, advocates say.
Colorado Independent Drivers United has a set of demands from the tech companies and Colorado regulators: A maximum take-rate of 25% out of drivers’ fares, a $2 gas surcharge per ride and an end to what they call discriminatory deactivations.
Fifteen percent of drivers in the Colorado Jobs with Justice study reported being deactivated at some point. Many said they received no reasoning for the cause and were given little recourse once they were removed from the platform.
Mohamed Bashir recalls his last ride for Uber — a pickup in 2017 from Denver International Airport. The ride was uneventful, he said. No conversation with the passenger. He had a 4.7 rating. After the ride, though, his account was deactivated.
“They said, ‘You are no longer a driver,’” Bashir said. “They never told me what happened.”
Many of the rideshare drivers in the Colorado union are immigrants, often from Africa.
“I’ve met zero white drivers who have been deactivated,” said Eida Altman, a rank-and-file member and organizer with Colorado Independent Drivers United. “Someone can type anything into an app and this person loses their livelihood. It doesn’t seem right to me.”
Uber came under pressure in the United Kingdom last year after a union there said it found multiple cases where drivers were misidentified by the company’s facial recognition software, leading to the revocation of their licenses.
The most common reasons a driver might lose their account access are expired documents, issues with background checks and other safety concerns and fraud, according to Uber’s website.
Unions in New York City and Canada have established agreements with the ride-hail giant to create deactivation review processes for drivers, but that doesn’t exist in Colorado.
“The state can create processes and laws that require some sort of due process,” Altman said.
That’s where Vigil may come into play.
In 2014, Colorado became the first state in the country to legislatively authorize ride-sharing services. They’re lightly regulated by the Public Utilities Commission, but unlike limousine or taxi companies, Uber and Lyft are not required to do public rate-setting. Delivery companies such as DoorDash, meanwhile, are not regulated by the PUC at all.
Complaints filed against these companies have been minimal, according to state data, though critics say few people know where to file grievances.
Advocates and union representatives argue state regulators have not been enforcing a provision in the 2014 bill that mandates transparency from ride-share companies concerning rates.
But Vigil believes the state needs to completely overhaul the way it regulates these companies. That might mean placing ride-share giants under the Department of Transportation or Department of Labor and Employment.
“We can’t afford to keep it under Public Utilities Commission indefinitely,” she said, noting that the PUC is spread thin, covering so many areas. “There needs to be more to the equation than that.”
As a freshman legislator, Vigil said she’s still figuring out what kind of regulatory or legislative changes might make the most sense. But, she said, having a gig driver in the halls of power is a start.
“These people have never had access to drivers,” Vigil said, “That tells me we have quite a shroud of mystery for this sector of the economy.”
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