Since its inception over a decade ago, Uber has deployed public relations to distract from the many reported problems with its business model, such as paying drivers wages so low they’ve been forced to sleep in their cars, or choose between working or risking COVID-19, or go hours without using the restroom. On Saturday, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi continued this tradition by tweeting that he spent a few hours delivering Uber Eats and posting how much he made.
"Spent a few hours delivering for @UberEats," Khosrowshahi tweeted. "1. SF is an absolutely incredible town. 2. Restaurant workers were incredibly nice, every time. 3. It was busy!! - 3:24 delivering out of 3:30 online. 4. I'm hungry - time to order some 🍔🍟🍺”
Khosrowshahi then added a picture he took at 6:36 PM PT showing he earned $98.91 over the course of the day, completing 10 trips for 45 points on the app. An hour later, he shared another picture showing he made six of the trips from 11:51 AM to 5:35 PM, with a four-hour break between some deliveries. He claimed he only spent just under four hours actually logged into the app, and making deliveries for about 3.5 hours. The implication of his stunt was clear: Uber drivers make decent money; more than minimum wage, in fact. This claim is a longstanding element of Uber’s PR narrative, despite reports and research over the years showing that they often don’t.
In typical fashion for Uber PR, which often relies on asymmetries of information or perception, Khosrowshahi’s tweets only show part of the story of being an Uber Eats driver.
For one, Khosrowshahi doesn’t have to live on this income. If he needs to take an hours-long break between deliveries as his screenshots show, potentially due to low demand, he can earn money at his CEO job, whereas another worker may not have the means to make such “flexibility” work to their advantage. Indeed, reports have shown that the long amounts of time gig workers can spend logged into their platforms without making a delivery (time referred to as “deadhead” by workers) can work out to sub-minimum wages.
Another issue is that the pay is not reliable. Khosrowshahi delivered again the next day but earned half as much. Couriers are also at the mercy of constant pricing experiments that the company carries out that may increase prices while keeping worker pay status quo. Finally, many workers must pay for maintenance, fuel if they’re using a car, electricity if delivering by e-bike, meals, and then rent, health insurance, and other bills.
Uber responded to Motherboard’s request for comment by pointing out that Khosrowshahi has an Uber Pro account without additional perks, and noting that although Khosrowshahi made much less money on his second day of deliveries, he also worked for an hour and a half less.
It’s hard to imagine the chief executive of Uber Eats tweeting out that he was tip-baited, or that customers were angry about him, or other unfortunate realities of being a gig worker. On Reddit, this disconnect was apparent on the r/UberEATS subreddit.
"YOU are taking a vacation day out of the office, smiling and having fun riding your bike around San Fran, slumming it for slave wages," one Reddit user wrote in reaction to Khosrowshahi’s tweet. "WE have to do this, and grind it, day in and day out just to survive. When my car broke down last winter, I tried to deliver on my bicycle, and you jerks had me pick up an extra large pizza in the middle of a snowstorm. On my bicycle."
“Dara is so full of shit,” another user wrote. “I live in Oakland and used to do Eats in SF because it would always advertise $3-$4 surges during dinner. So I’d pay the $6 toll to drive over the bridge and try to make some money during dinner rush. Man is it horrible. Traffic obviously, but I also barely got any orders, and the ones I did get would frequently take me all the way to South SF. Also the tips were horrendous. Idk. Maybe it’s different on a bike, but car deliveries have always been horrible for me in the city, no matter the time of day.”
The discussion around Khosrowshahi’s tweets once again highlights how ride-hail companies often deploy information asymmetries. By denying passengers, workers, regulators, and competitors the information necessary to make a full and proper assessment of gig companies’ activities, or eliding less-rosy realities, the companies are more free to pursue monopoly status, or whatever new and shiny public-facing narrative is currently being used.
Khosrowshahi’s tweets are a continuation of a recent turn to a more direct form of PR, with Khosrowshahi himself disputing reporting or penning op-eds repeating well-worn talking points instead of focusing its expansive PR machine on reporters covering the company.
At the end of the day, however, it doesn’t really matter what Khosrowshahi saw when he was delivering food on his bicycle. He may very well have had a great experience, but it’s not indicative of the wide scope of worker experiences and given Uber’s long history of deploying various asymmetries, it’s not clear why anyone should care about what he or any other Uber executive has to say about working for the company.
Update: This article was updated with comment from an Uber spokesperson.