When Their Shifts End, Uber Drivers Set up Camp in Parking Lots

Uber driver at night.

Jason Tester/Flickr

From the Chicago Tribune:

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"That's the sacrifice," he said in May, smoking a cigarette beside his Toyota Prius parked at the Safeway at 1 a.m., the boats in the bay bobbing gently in the background. "My goal is to get a house somewhere closer, so that I don't have to do this every day."

The vast majority of Uber's full-time drivers return home to their beds at the end of a day's work. But all over the country, there are many who don't. These drivers live near, but not in, expensive cities where they can tap higher fares, ferrying wealthier, white-collar workers to their jobs and out to dinner — but where they can't make enough money to get by, even with longer hours. To maximize their time, drivers find supermarket parking lots, airports and hostels where they catch several hours of sleep after taking riders home from bars and before starting the morning commute.

In a sense, drivers sleeping in their cars typifies, in an extreme way, what Uber said it does best: offer drivers flexibility. "With Uber, people make their own decisions about when, where and how long to drive," the company said in an emailed statement. "We're focused on making sure that driving with Uber is a rewarding experience, however you choose to work."

Uber drivers across the country swap tips for finding sleeping spots, like: which stores have the most forgiving security guards and where to find free Wi-Fi. In Chicago, drivers call the 7-Eleven at the intersection of Wrightwood & North Lincoln avenues the "Uber Terminal." In Columbus, Ohio, drivers prefer the Walmart off the Jack Nicklaus Freeway. In Queens, New York, drivers are known to frequent the 7-Eleven off JFK Expressway. Drivers on the online forum Uberpeople.net joke that there is money to be made in a motel chain serving the large number of Uber drivers sleeping in their cars in New Jersey.

In Chicago, Walter Laquian Howard sleeps most nights at the "Uber Terminal." "I left my job thinking this would work, and it's getting harder and harder," Howard said. "They have to understand that some of us have decided to make this a full-time career."

Howard has been parking and sleeping at the 7-Eleven four to five nights a week since March 2015, when he began leasing a car from Uber and needed to work more hours to make his minimum payments. Now that it's gotten cold, he wakes up every three hours to turn on the heater. He's rarely alone. Most nights, two to three other ride-hailing drivers sleep in cars parked next to his. It's safe, he said, and the employees let the drivers use the restroom. Howard has gotten to know the convenience store's staff-Daddy-O and Uncle Mike-over the past two years while driving for this global ride-hailing gargantuan, valued at $69 billion.

"These guys have become my extended family," said Howard, 53. "It's my second home. We have this joke that I'm the resident. I keep asking them: 'Hey, did my mail come in yet?'"

Howard's real home is 40 miles away in Griffith, Indiana. He lives alone in a basement apartment that he began renting when he and his wife split. Before working as an Uber driver, Howard was a nurse's assistant. In 2014, he started driving for Uber on the weekends to make some extra cash. The surge pricing and new driver promotions convinced him that he'd hit the jackpot. "It was great. I made $40 an hour, no problem. Of course, I left my job to become a full-time driver," he said. In the fall of 2015, Howard said everything changed when Uber began offering a group-ride service called UberPool and giving drivers a lower cut of their fares. He said he now makes $12.50 an hour. Uber said it's working on improving the UberPool experience for drivers.

Mark Lewandoske, 51, has been driving for Uber since July. He owns a home in the unincorporated town of Sage, California. It's 77 miles from San Diego International Airport, where he gets the best fares and does some of his driving. He'll drive late into the night, usually until the bars close. Then he'll find somewhere quiet to park and sleep. Some days it's on a residential street. To avoid the police and keep warm, he puts up reflective sunshields in his Prius. He tries to work five days in a row before heading home to his partner and dogs.

Lewandoske served in the Navy for 20 years as a hospital corpsman, and one perk of being a veteran is that he has access to Camp Pendleton, the Naval base. No one questions him there. Sometimes he'll park his car for the night, and in the morning, he can shower in the base's gym. "Base police have never done anything to me there," he said. "They know if you're on base, you hold an ID card; you're not going to cause a problem."

It's Lewandoske's military pension that helps him stay afloat; Uber wages are not enough. He likes driving, but, he said, "They need to stop lowering their rates." Lewandoske tries to earn $125 a day no matter how many hours it takes. Sometimes that means he drives 6 hours, other days 18.

At the Travelodge by San Francisco International Airport, drivers occupy about a third of the rooms, a worker at the front desk estimated. Some rooms are shared by several drivers.

In January, Andre Williams booked 11 nights at the motel, so he wouldn't have to commute daily from his home in Sacramento. His tab added up to $980, but he said it's worth it because he'll make up to four times that in a week, working 14 hours a day. Uber regularly rewards drivers who complete 120 trips in a week with cash bonuses of up to $500.

Williams, 40, used to sleep at the Marina Safeway, but his leg started to swell from sitting for too long and never laying down, he said. "I started having some health issues. Usually I stay in a parking lot when I run out of money, but for now I'm treating myself to the Travelodge," Williams said.

Other drivers sleep at hostels, which can be even cheaper. At the Marin Headlands Hostel in Sausalito, Calif., where guests pay $31 for a bunk bed and shower access, Michaela Hogan, a front desk clerk at the hostel for the past year, said Uber drivers had been coming there at least as long as she's worked there. The hostel limits stays to 14 nights, though, preventing drivers or anyone else from living there full-time. "It's sad because Uber should pay them more," Hogan said. "But the drivers don't seem that sad, to be honest. They do seem tired, though."

In one recent TV commercial, a smiling actor playing a sometimes-driver quips, "These days, everyone needs a side hustle, and driving with Uber lets you go from earning to working to chilling at the push of a button." The sound of a cash register chimes in the background.

What Uber has never said publicly is that half of the driving gets done by people who work more than 35 hours a week. Those workers generate about half of Uber's revenue and are responsible for about half of Uber's trips, Uber confirmed after Bloomberg analyzed a study of its drivers conducted by the company. A small number of those drivers will go to extremes, like sleeping in parking lots, to make a living.

For the past few years, Uber has dropped fares across the U.S. at the start of each year. Drivers have seen their earnings fall as a result, though Uber said that over the long-run, hourly pay has remained basically unchanged. This year, Uber has said that it won't decrease fares, but many drivers said they couldn't go much lower.

Last week, Uber agreed to settle Federal Trade Commission claims that it misled drivers about how much they could expect to earn each hour. In Boston, a Craigslist ad said drivers could get $25 an hour; however, fewer than 10 percent of drivers were paid that much, according to the FTC's investigation. Uber said that didn't account for driver bonuses. "We're pleased to have reached an agreement with the FTC," Matt Kallman, an Uber spokesman, wrote in an email. "We've made many improvements to the driver experience over the last year and will continue to focus on ensuring that Uber is the best option for anyone looking to earn money on their own schedule."

Uber is by far the biggest employer in the gig economy, but others have also faced complaints about worker misclassification and falling wages. The food delivery company Instacart recently announced that it was cutting pay for many of its workers. And while U.S. rival Lyft allows riders to tip drivers within the mobile application, fares haven't proved to be much higher. Some Uber drivers who sleep in their cars also work for Lyft, but the more than a dozen drivers Bloomberg interviewed said they did the majority of their driving for Uber. Lyft, unlike Uber, restricts how many hours drivers can work in a row: After 14 hours, the app makes the driver take a six-hour break.

In an email, Lyft spokesman Adrian Durbin said: "Our drivers tell us that the flexibility to work when and where they want is the most appealing aspect of driving with Lyft. Peak earning hours are often late at night and early in the morning. In order to maximize earnings, a very small fraction of drivers have told us they choose to rest in their cars in between these peak times."

"I personally haven't spoken to a driver that's slept in their car," said Nundu Janakiram, Uber's head of driver experience. "From my perspective, I think we have such a wide range of drivers, people on our platform, almost nothing I learn about any individual surprises me anymore."

Uber has declared 2017 "the year of the driver" and said that it will focus much of its energy on building tools for drivers and improving communication. "I take a lot of personal responsibility in making sure our drivers feel heard and recognized and have been given good feedback," Janakiram said. "I also fully acknowledged and realized that we are many, many steps away."

"People who work at times when other people don't want to work are paid more both on the Uber platform and by the labor economy as a whole," said Uber's head of economic research Jonathan Hall. "The people who are willing to be inconvenienced can earn higher amounts."

Paul Oyer, a professor of economics at Stanford Graduate School of Business, sees it as a new version of an old story: low-wage earners traveling from affordable places to work in richer ones. "These are essentially immigrants searching for better wages that they then take home to their local economies," he said, not meaning "immigrants" literally. "It's not always pretty. These 'immigrants' are creating more supply, which is good for consumers, but it's not good for the workers."

Others believe that sleeping in parking lots is a direct consequence of Uber's refusal to classify workers as employees and give them the benefits and protections that go along with that. "If these drivers were considered full-time — and therefore paid a decent and consistent wage — you would not see them sleeping in their cars," said Erica Smiley, the organizing director at the labor advocacy group Jobs With Justice. "A steady wage allows the worker the confidence to take time to rest. An on-demand wage creates great uncertainty for the workers and their families."

Another theory is that there are just too many drivers chasing too few rides. "Reasonable regulation — intended to benefit the public — limits the number of for-hire vehicles on the road. Camps flourish when states or cities deregulate and open entry," said Dave Sutton, a spokesman for a group that represents the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association.

In a survey of 1,150 drivers, Harry Campbell, who runs a blog for ride-hailing drivers, found that more than half said pay was the most important thing to them, followed by more than a third who picked flexibility. The study found that hourly pay for Uber drivers averaged $15.58 before expenses like gas and maintenance. In study co-authored by Hall, Uber's economist, the average hourly pay for a driver in October 2015 was $19.35.

Tugas, the driver from the Social Safeway parking lot, said that he was sleeping there because he wants to. And he doesn't hold Uber responsible for his decision to work 14 hour days. In January, eight months after first talking about his life, Tugas is still working his punishing schedule — but he had to find a new sleeping spot. In May, Safeway became less hospitable, hiring a security guard who hassled the drivers, he and Williams said. (Safeway declined to comment.) Some of his fellow drivers moved to a darkened street nearby, but Tugas now sleeps in his car in the parking lot at the McDonald's by San Francisco International Airport.

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