Over the weekend, a video following one UberEats driver’s progress towards $100,000 a year went viral—brought to you by Grow, a sponsored content partnership between CNBC and Acorns, a financial services company.
"This Uber Eats driver is on track to make $100,000 a year - here's how he's doing it" read the corresponding article’s headline. After the pandemic killed his online business and caused a hiring freeze, Sam Lyon created what he called the “Uber Eats Challenge” on TikTok to see how much he could earn in the month of June.
The challenge was simple: make as much money as possible by driving as long as possible, every day, for the entire month; Uber Eats allows drivers to be online for a maximum of 12 hours, so Lyon worked 12 hour days, 7 days a week, for 30 days.
The video is quick to point out that he made $8,357 for the month, putting him on track to make over $100,000 "at his insane pace" while a typical five-day work week earns a measly average of $72,540. Some of his expenses are talked about concretely, namely: gas ($599), mileage (4,844 miles), an oil change ($49), and a phone holder ($5), and taxes (30 percent or ~$2,961). His post-tax income is estimated to be $5,396 with another $653 in expenses.
The video’s core premise of projecting one month’s earnings into the year is absurd once you step back and ask whether a human being should spend 12 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, inside of their car. Even if Lyon could earn $100,000 a year doing this, why should it be seen as anything other than horrifying? In most states, other types of commercial drivers are prohibited from driving more than 10-11 hours a day or 60 hours a week because that’s when you begin to see increases in driver fatigue that correspond to increases in fatal crashes.
Multiple studies and experts have laid out that driving full-time for ride-hail companies has a serious toll on a driver’s health and mental-well being. In New York City, poor working conditions led to a string of app-based driver suicides and are connected to another string of suicides in a taxi industry decimated by ride-hail companies.
Add on the fact that ride-hail drivers and food delivery couriers like Lyon are misclassified as independent contractors, despite the existence of an employer-employee relationship, and are left footing the bill for benefits employees enjoy such as health insurance and paid leave. Even during the pandemic, Uber’s own paid sick leave program was a spectacle that failed to provide for drivers who contracted covid-19 or were at risk.
But what makes this video even more absurd is after actually calculating expenses and taxes, Lyon is barely on track to make $40,000 a year despite working 12 hours a day, every single day.
Immediately, the video fails to accurately portray his earnings or expenses. In Lyon’s own breakdown video, he says that $2,988 of his money came from tips—about a third of his income, so Uber only actually paid him $5,369.
Lyon drove 4,844 miles but it’s not clear how much that would actually cost him if it kept at this for a year. The IRS pegs business vehicle operating costs at 57.5 cents per mile or $2,785 and knocks his non-tip Uber pay down to $2,584 ($7.18 an hour). With tips, he’d earn a grand total of $5,572 or $15.48 an hour. However, studies tend to find that driving expenses are much higher: a 2020 study of Seattle and Washington State ride-hail drivers, put the operating costs per mile at 72.5 cents, which would cost Lyon $3,512. That brings down his non-tip Uber pay to $1,857 ($5.16 an hour) for a grand total of $4845 ($13.46 an hour).
Lyon is also setting another 30 percent of his income for taxes—which contractors pay their net income, not gross income as the video suggested. After taxes, Lyon would be left with $3,360 a month—that’s approximately $9.33 an hour or $40,320 a year for driving 84 hours a week, every week, for an entire year. A far cry from the advertised $100,000 a year.
If not for the video’s giant Acorns and CNBC branding, it would be indistinguishable from the ongoing PR blitz spearheaded by Uber to preserve its misclassification scheme in California and prevent other states from getting ideas about reclassification. Uber, Lyft, and a coalition of gig companies have now spent $181 million on Yes on Prop 22, a campaign supporting a ballot measure that would exempt them from following California’s labor laws. Uber and Lyft have also massively expanded their lobbying operations in California and Washington DC in attempts to undermine any legislation deemed a threat to their business model.
Just last month, Uber’s PR campaign moved to co-opt the #DeleteUber—a campaign to delete the app after it tried to break a strike by JFK airport taxi drivers protesting Trump’s 2016 Muslim ban—by revealing a billboard that read "If you tolerate racism, delete Uber” and in smaller print read “Black people have the right to move without fear.” Nevermind the fact that Uber exploits its predominantly Black and brown driver workforce by paying them subminimum wages.
Lyft has also had its own PR campaign and released two ads last month meant to paint it as an engine of equality and justice. During the Democratic National Convention, Lyft aired an advertisement defending its misclassification. The ad asserted that its misclassification of drivers as independent contractors gave them the “flexibility and freedom” needed to be “on the frontlines of the pandemic" and "deliver food and medicine to keep everyone safer.” Another ad, titled “Lifting Up Communities of Color” featured Maya Angelou's reading of On the Pulse of Morning, which the poet laureate first read at Bill Clinton's 1993 inauguration.
“Access to transportation is one of the biggest drivers of social and economic mobility,” Lyft explains in the ad’s description. “Underserved communities of color lack access to affordable and reliable transportation, which has been magnified by the pandemic. People are facing high levels of unemployment, health care challenges, and more.”
It is hard to reconcile such words with the fact that a recent study found both Lyft and Uber hike prices for trips in non-white neighborhoods. As Aylin Caliskan, one of the study's co-authors, told the New Scientist: "Basically, if you're going to a neighbourhood where there's a large African-American population, you're going to pay a higher fare price for your ride."
No amount of spin can change the fact that these companies do not offer livable wages and they do not lift up communities of color, but that won’t stop them from insisting others—or benefiting from others eager to repeat corporate propaganda as fact.