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2015-2016 Issue IV Editors' Picks Local

“Uber Answers to Nobody”

THE DAY AFTER Uber cut its prices in November, again, Marcus Roberts bumped into another driver. They talked about the email as they filled their tanks at a gas station in Orange, CT. “We were both pissed,” Marcus said. His friend planned to quit Uber next week; another group of drivers had left that day. The new fares were just too low. “What was so cruel about it all,” Marcus said, “was they just dropped it on us that day.” No letter in the mail, no call on the answering machine.

Marcus, 34, may not drive for Uber much longer. For more than a decade, he had worked late nights driving clients to the airport in a rusty limousine, until black ice crashed his car on the interstate last December and he lost his job. Sitting in his hospital bed, Marcus saw Uber on the news. He downloaded the app and applied in twenty minutes. One week after leaving the hospital, he was answering requests. When Marcus joined Uber last April, drivers were paid $1.50 per mile and eighteen cents per minute. The November email lowered those rates. Marcus now earned only $1.10 per mile and sixteen cents each minute.

“I used to make $700 a week, minimum,” Marcus said. “And I didn’t work nearly as hard as I do now because the fares were decent.” He struggles now to break $500. His last eight paychecks have been even smaller – around $300. His friend at the gas station later called Marcus – he was now a cashier at the Dunkin’ Donuts on Park Street. Marcus remembers scoffing when he heard the news. “But at the end of the day,” he admitted, “this guy might be right.” He would earn more money at Dunkin’ Donuts without ever getting behind the wheel.

Uber, the transportation private taxi service now available in over 400 cities, entered Connecticut in April 2014. The app quickly entered the smartphones of many students and professors in the greater New Haven area. Push a button, and Douglas-with-a-4.8-rating arrives in minutes. No long waits, tips, or negotiating over the fare. That convenience comes at a cost, however, a burden increasingly borne by Uber’s full–time drivers. Uber’s lower prices come out of drivers’ pockets.

Uber attracts most of its drivers through a hands-0ff approach. At the limousine company, Marcus wore a suit and drove customers during those odd hours of the night when the highways were empty. He shared the same limo with other drivers working different shifts. Whenever he went over the speed limit, the company would call and tell him to slow down. With Uber, Marcus can drive his own car, wear his own clothes, and work his own hours.

But no strings means no accountability. Uber drivers are not technically employees – even those like Marcus and Maurice who work full-time. They are instead independent contractors, and have no union to voice grievances. And even if they could organize, there is no local office to target. Ever so often, Uber reps rent a local hotel room for the afternoon so drivers can come and ask questions, but the operations for Connecticut are concentrated in New York City.

***

IT’S A FRIDAY MORNING in April when Maurice Roberts picks me up on the corner of College and Elm. He looks like his nephew Marcus even with his salt-and-pepper beard. Maurice, 50, has lived his whole life in New Haven. He had been a chef for eighteen years at TGI Friday’s, then Chili’s, then Apple Bee’s, and then Texas Roadhouse. But in 2009, heavy lifting in the kitchen caused two ruptured discs in his spine. Back problems led to two surgeries and no job. Maurice was out of work until a year ago, when Marcus introduced him to Uber. “Working for Uber is a godsend,” he said. Once without a job, Maurice became his own boss. “Nobody is keeping track of you,” Maurice said. He has no contact with the company except through an occasional email.

Maurice and I pick up a graduate student named Jenny on Cold Spring Street. Maurice is not supposed to have another person in the car, but he explains to Jenny that I’m a Yale student shadowing him for the day. She was in a hurry; she was supposed to deliver a presentation at the School of Music in a few minutes. “Don’t worry, Ms. Jenny,” Maurice told her. He called all his passengers by their first name this way.  “Sometimes we get overwhelmed with the things in our lives. But we just keep going.”

The ride lasts five minutes as Maurice drives down Whitney Avenue, then Temple Street. Jenny stays quiet as she thumbs through her phone. Then she gets out of the car, on time, and Maurice keeps going. He has to – he can’t find a job anywhere else. He had settled for a sizable lump sum amount after his accident at Texas Roadhouse. His wife works as a nurse at the Smilow Cancer Center. But he wanted to provide for her and their seven children. The extra income from Uber lets him feel useful, but he doesn’t depend on it.

But his nephew, Marcus, itches to leave and launch his own taxi company, JMR Enterprise. The name combines his initials with his wife’s. But first he must finish a long list of state requirements – the same red tape that Uber has avoided by its Transportation Network Company (TNC) status. Until then, his clientele come from a small network, curated from his years on the road. He drives the same nurse to work and back most weekdays, thirteen minutes each way. He had met her during the summer, when she was on maternity leave. Now when she leaves her home in Hamden each morning, Marcus is waiting. “People prefer the same driver,” he explains. He drops the nurse’s son off at daycare then brings her to the Saint Raphael hospital; he completes the roundtrip in the afternoon. They talk every day, he says. “We’ve known each other forever.” Marcus offers his business card after each Uber ride in the hopes of winning new customers.

Marcus and Maurice reveal conflicting experiences among Uber drivers in New Haven. Many drivers like Maurice value Uber as an opportunity that wasn’t available to them before. They appreciate the flexibility Uber gives them to earn extra money and set their own schedule. “Drivers can turn the app on and off,” Ariella Steinhorn, a media representative with Uber NYC, told The Politic. “They can drop their kids at school, drive for a few hours and make some extra money, then pick their kids up.” Steinhorn cited Uber’s recent national survey confirming this conclusion. Over two-thirds of drivers wanted to set their own schedule and drive their own hours. Half worked around 10 hours each week.

But Steinhorn seemed to ignore the realities of drivers like Marcus who rely on Uber for their main income, who can’t afford the recent price cuts. The survey, conducted in November 2015, polled just 800 drivers across 24 of Uber’s largest cities. With a population of only 130,000, New Haven was not included. “Their fare is higher than ours,” Marcus said of Uber drivers in New York City. “There are drivers there who make six figures a year.” Data obtained by Buzzfeed News has found that Uber drivers in New York don’t quite make that much money – but they can come close, and they certainly earn more than drivers in New Haven.

***

STRUGGLING DRIVERS in New Haven have found an unlikely advocate in the taxi industry, which has always been Uber’s fiercest opponent. Bill Scalzi, CEO of Metro Taxi – the largest cab company in Connecticut – attacked Uber for what he called “predatory pricing.” The app, he said in an interview with The Politic, has drastically lowered prices below natural levels to drive its competitors out of business and gain market share. Drivers all around the world have complained. Uber has responded not by raising its rates but lowering them. “They’re losing a billion dollars a year and they’re not fazed,” said Scalzi angrily. “You just can’t provide transportation at that price point.”

Efforts to regulate Uber and other TNCs have fallen through. Uber is notorious for its “my way or the highway” response to such efforts. This February, Uber shut down its service in Paris for four hours to protest France’s new regulatory changes. “They just turned the switch off, like that,” Scalzi told The Politic. “Uber answers to nobody. Uber does what Uber wants to do.”

Scalzi frames Uber as the Goliath to Metro Taxi’s David – a $50 billion company breaking the rules to drive out the competition. Scalzi, who is also the incoming president of the Taxicab, Limousine and Paratransit Association (TLPA), which represents more than a thousand transportation companies around the world, called Uber a case study in the “disasters of deregulation.” Uber has saturated the New Haven market. Drivers don’t make any money when the delicate balance of supply and demand becomes upended: there are too many cars  out on the road and not enough people who want them.

Metro Taxi has its hands tied whereas Uber is given free rein. Connecticut takes two months to inspect and approve a new taxi driver. Uber can hire a new driver in two hours. The Department of Transportation regulates taxi prices while other state regulations require Metro Taxi to have a certain number of drivers on the road, 24/7. No matter how late a customer calls, or where they call from, Metro Taxi must send a cab. Its vehicles are fully insured, and its drivers fully vetted. Half of its 150 cabs are wheelchair accessible – the highest proportion in the nation. But people are drawn to low prices and care little about amenities. “Your entire college is using Uber,” Scalzi told The Politic. “The students, the professors have basically abandoned my company.”

Without taxi cabs to provide an alternative to Uber, what happened in Paris could happen in New Haven. “if you don’t play ball, Uber goes home,” Scalzi warned. “What happens if there are no cabs and Uber turns its switch off? What happens to our customers?”

***

IN THE WAR between taxis and TNCs, drivers are the main casualties. They are victims of a system that regulates Uber more leniently than taxi companies. Scalzi recognizes Uber is here to stay; he understands “the world is changing.” But many taxi regulations are esoteric, he said. For taxis to remain viable competitors, the state needs to update or relax these regulations. Meanwhile, Scalzi added, Uber needs to follow the rules. But there are no rules for TNCs in Connecticut; the state legislature has declined to introduce any bills from the taxi industry this session, which ends May 4.  Such inaction has failed to bring Uber and taxi companies to a middle ground.

Nonetheless, Marcus keeps driving with Uber. At the end of the day, he signs off the app, disconnects from his bluetooth, and drives home. Morghan, his ten-year-old stepdaughter, is waiting. So is his wife of seven years, Donna, who he met through a phone chat service, when he worked lonely nights behind the wheel of a limousine. Tomorrow morning, when you call an Uber, maybe Marcus will be waiting. Remember to ask him for a business card.

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