Uber Drivers Confront Challenges Working For A 'Faceless Boss'
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The ride-hailing company Uber says if you drive for them, you can be your own boss. That's their tagline. Well, hundreds of drivers tell NPR it's not true. They say Uber feels more like a faceless boss, setting strict rules and punishments but hard to reach, even in emergencies. Uber leadership has responded to our findings, as NPR's Aarti Shahani reports in this installment of her series on Uber drivers.
AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Last year, Uber hired Janelle Sallenave to improve how the company responds to drivers' and riders' needs, disputes, accidents.
JANELLE SALLENAVE: Like, how could my job not exist, right? How could there not be somebody whose job it would be to oversee the support of our drivers?
SHAHANI: 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 that will change.
SALLENAVE: In the coming months, some of the improvements that we are making directly address feedback that our drivers have been giving us for the last, you know, year plus.
SHAHANI: The myth about Uber is that drivers don't really matter because Uber will have driverless cars soon and also that the biggest workplace crisis is sexual harassment, the way women in the corporate office are treated. But according to employees and investors, Uber feels far more threatened by its broken relationship with drivers. Self-driving fleets will take years, so humans matter.
Sallenave accepts that Uber has been a bad communicator - that faceless quality. But she rejects the boss part. She maintains Uber is a digital platform like eBay, not an employer, and that drivers are a lot like her own husband, who recently started a consulting business.
SALLENAVE: So he (laughter) 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, you know, being a individual small business owner.
SHAHANI: A former federal regulator strongly disagrees.
DAVID WEIL: You know, I can't just declare a pigeon a duck because I think it should be a duck.
SHAHANI: David Weil 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. Last year, Weil visited Silicon Valley, and it struck him. People in tech talked like they were all disrupters in the same boat, but 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 UberBLACK and X and POOL, and those services are core to the brand.
WEIL: Yeah, it looks a lot like an employment relationship. It looks like a very sophisticated, branded product provider.
SHAHANI: Weil's opinion 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 like health care and paid sick days. Weil didn't publicly express his take on Uber when he was a regulator, and he didn't put resources into investigations or outreach to Uber drivers. He says that's because although these drivers are a rapidly growing workforce, their numbers were still tiny compared to janitors or nurse's aides.
WEIL: 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. When you face those kinds of numbers, you have to think every day very strategically about where will you put your very limited resources.
SHAHANI: In this respect, Uber becomes a fascinating case study in disruption. While the tech startup pursued aggressive growth - move fast; think later - public officials describe their collective response to Uber as cautious. Another former federal labor official told NPR, quote, "you don't want to be seen as stopping progress." Aarti Shahani, NPR News, San Francisco.
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