STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Uber, the ride-sharing service, has a slogan to recruit drivers. Company leaders say that at Uber you can be your own boss. You know, you're in the car. You drive when you want, knock off when you've had enough.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Sounds great, right? But many drivers say it's not actually true. In dozens of interviews plus an informal survey, NPR News found hundreds of drivers who do not feel like their own boss. They feel controlled by a boss that is faceless but ever present.
INSKEEP: Today, NPR's Aarti Shahani begins a series of reports on Uber drivers and their employer.
AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Imagine being able to drop your kids off at school every morning and then run errands because you're allowed to clock in when you want - 10 or 10:30 instead of 9 a.m. sharp. The power to set your own hours is rare. It's a power that Uber drivers have.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And I drive with Uber because it gives me the time to spend with my son.
SHAHANI: This is a commercial from Uber.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And music's a big part of my life. And Uber allows me to keep it that way.
SHAHANI: The best slogans are enticing invitations - Nike's just do it, Apple's think different. Uber's be your own boss is special because it's not just great marketing, it's a legal argument. Uber claims drivers are independent contractors, not employees entitled to very expensive benefits. Uber commissioned a study that says 87 percent of drivers joined because they want to be their own boss, set their own schedule.
But company leaders have not publicly asked an obvious follow-up question. At Uber, do you feel like your own boss? So NPR asked. We conducted an informal survey reaching out to drivers through email lists and social media. A little more than half of respondents, 491 people, said they did, just like the people in the commercial. But perhaps less expected, nearly half - that is 436 - said they did not.
DAVID MCKEE: No, you don't feel like your own boss at all. The only thing you control is the time when you sign on and sign off. Other than that, Uber controls everything.
SHAHANI: Driver David McKee is from Vista, Calif. He and other respondents are self-selected and possibly more negative than the average driver. It's not a scientific poll. Still, it's a window into how many drivers feel about their workplace.
What hundreds say is Uber sets strict rules and punishments like a boss. Let's start with tracking, not on websites like Google does but tracking in the physical world. Driver McKee.
MCKEE: The state licenses you. And if you get tickets or accidents or something like that, then the state will take away your ability to drive. So I don't see where it's really up to Uber to be tracking how you drive. That's, you know, they're becoming the police.
SHAHANI: Uber uses the sensors in drivers' smartphones to monitor how they turn left or change lanes or stop. Turns out, 116 respondents say they didn't realize Uber was doing that. Uber does ask for consent in a long online contract. Four hundred and thirty-three would like Uber to stop the tracking. Competitor Lyft doesn't do it.
Uber says smartphone tracking is good for safety and helps drivers when passengers complain unfairly, so it's not a choice. UberPOOL is also not much of a choice. POOL is that option where passengers can share a car, but it turns out many drivers feel coerced by Uber into offering it. Driver Michael Makarov from Phoenix, Ariz.
MICHAEL MAKAROV: Well, when POOL started, I thought, oh, this is great. We're going to make more money.
SHAHANI: But that didn't happen. Drivers say POOL is just a way for passengers to pay way less while drivers make way less.
MAKAROV: So they're basically a giveaway for us.
SHAHANI: Uber says if you want to offer the standard service, UberX, you have to offer this cheaper one, too. The vast majority of respondents say they don't want to. When you're your own boss, you typically get to set the price, but at Uber, Uber sets the price. And it can change second by second according to a calculation that Uber keeps secret.
Drivers say this pricing scheme keeps them guessing. Take Dani Brockington, who's driving one night in Atlanta. Her Uber app says rates are way up because there's so much demand.
DANI BROCKINGTON: But I'm not getting any pings. And it's weird because I'm in really high-traffic districts.
SHAHANI: Because drivers don't really know what they'll make an hour, they could end up on the road far longer than expected or than the public would want. Seventy-nine drivers tell NPR they've worked shifts 14 hours or longer. Three even showed NPR proof of driving about 20 hours in one day.
Feeling controlled is one aspect of the Uber workplace and plenty of workers feel that. Another, which may be more unique, is not being able to reach a human in charge even in emergencies like when you've had an accident or gotten cut off the app.
JANELLE SALLENAVE: I would absolutely acknowledge to you that getting a Uber representative on the phone six months ago was a feat that frankly I don't know I would be able to do.
SHAHANI: Janelle Sallenave is in charge of driver and customer support at Uber.
SALLENAVE: We heard that feedback loud and clear from drivers.
SHAHANI: Sallenave says Uber has a lot of work to do to improve communication with drivers, and the company is doing that. They're staffing more than 200 physical drop-in centers and introducing new dedicated phone lines.
Drivers complaints about poor communication don't surprise her, but she maintains they are their own boss and have the choice to stay or go. Aarti Shahani, NPR News, San Francisco.
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