Someone's Going to Get Killed Charging Those E-Scooters
Companies like Lime and Bird encourage competition among contractors, which subjects them to the threat of physical violence for little pay.
Image by Lia Kantrowitz
Jacob Pierpont decided to turn his life around when he was approaching 30. That meant giving up a job making ten bucks an hour at a retirement home in San Antonio, Texas, and finally going back to school so he could become an electrician. The only hiccup was that he would need both cash (to fund his education) and a flexible schedule (so he could attend class by day). He ultimately did what a lot of millennials have been doing in recent years and looked to the gig economy for answers. But, figuring his market was saturated by Uber and Lyft drivers, he noticed a newer company—Lime—was coming to town. Pierpont suspected he'd hit the lottery when he signed up to become what's known as a "juicer" for the e-scooter behemoth, whose products are among the massive fleet of shared vehicles that popped up in a bevy of cities seemingly out of nowhere over the last year or so.
For the past six months, that's meant driving around with his cousin between 9 and 10 PM, loading up their car with battery-depleted Limes, charging them in their garage, and then "serving" them by dropping them off at designated spots around 4 AM, getting paid via app for each vehicle. (Fees for scooter charging have typically ranged from a few bucks to $20 a pop.) Though Pierpont completely depends upon the money he makes per scooter as an independent contractor and seems to genuinely appreciate the freedom his hustle affords, he told me something else that other juicers I canvassed readily corroborated: Juicing Limes, like "Hunting Birds" (one term for charging a rival scooter giant's products), is an often downright dangerous gig because it's purposefully hyper-competitive and because the nascent industry hasn't figured out how to punish people who threaten others or cheat the system.
"Last night, I had an encounter with a jerk," Pierpont told me over the phone in January. "He actually picked up a two-by-four off of a construction site and started swinging it at my car and stuff. I said, 'Hey dude, the eight dollars isn't worth it.' I guess he needed the money really bad."
Companies like Bird and Lime are now ubiquitous in more than 100 municipalities on both sides of the Atlantic, and for all the talk of the "micro-mobility revolution," it's increasingly clear these unregulated modes of transportation pose a set of spiraling dangers. There's a class-action lawsuit in California accusing both Bird and Lime of "gross negligence" after people either tripped over scooters, crashed them, or were crashed into by them. Meanwhile, at least three people have died using such devices in the last few months, according to the Washington Post. In February, a woman sued Lime after her daughter was catastrophically injured riding a scooter down a busy street in Fort Lauderdale—something the company's app apparently instructed her to do, according to the complaint, although Florida law dictates she should have been on the sidewalk. (Lime has said it does not comment on pending lawsuits, and Bird has said its product is no less safe than a bicycle.)
What's more, even if you're supposed to be either 16 or 18 depending on where you are and generally obey the rules of the road when you hop on an e-scooter, anyone who's ever seen a drunken reveler hop on one and speed down, say, Dirty Sixth Street, in Austin, Texas, or some crazy person go the wrong way down an Indiana interstate on either a Bird or a Lime, knows the reality: Scooter companies are not enforcing those rules in any meaningful sense, and interviews with the people charging many of these devices suggest the same laissez-faire attitude has ominous implications for their safety.
Neither of the two leading scooter companies responded to questions from VICE about whether they were making attempts to clarify the rules of charging, or if they thought it possible that someone might be hurt or even killed while doing it. "Lime has a zero-tolerance policy for violence of any kind for both riders and Juicer, and any report of such behavior will result in immediate removal from the Lime platform," a spokesperson for the company told VICE. "If riders or Juicers experience violent behavior, they should first and foremost contact local law enforcement and then Lime customer service to report the incident." For their part, Bird, whose chargers' woes have previously been documented by Motherboard, did not respond to an e-mail query at all.
Like the ride-share apps that preceded them—and to whom they sometimes can trace their executives' careers—these private companies at least initially tended to put the burden on police, local officials, and citizens to regulate what they could not. But after facing some serious blowback (including seeing their products seized by local officials in some cases) scooter companies have at least begun to play ball with the powers that be, as the New York Times reported in January.
“A lot of these companies roll into town, flout local regulations, see what they can get away with and how far they can push cities to accommodate them,” Chloe Eudaly, a Portland city commissioner, told the paper of the general gig-economy trajectory. “I feel like there is somewhat of a reversal of that trend among these companies and they are learning that’s not necessarily the best way to do business.”
But for all the talk of cooperating with regulators, workers said, the companies who dish out these scooters continue to fail their 1099 contractors.
"When we apply for Lime or Bird, they just ask for your name and your Social—really basic information," said Jerry Loya, a 40-year-old who juices between 9 PM and 12 AM every night around Venice Beach, California. "There's like zero background check, and when we're on the street and run into someone who might cause trouble, there's no way to report them." (Lime and Bird did not comment on the background check process despite being asked about it specifically.)
Last summer, Loya told me over the phone, he was confronted by a couple of apparent juicers who told him, "Don't come around here no more." Just recently, he was overtly threatened: As Loya told it, he was leaving lunch with his family when he noticed some scooters nearby that he figured he might as well grab. As they were leaving, an SUV pulled up to his vehicle, and the other driver motioned for him to roll down his window. The man, who was accompanied by a woman in the passenger seat and appeared to be middle-aged, said they expected to not see him on their scooter turf again or else he would be shot, he recalled. Loya's three small children were in the backseat as this exchange occurred, he said.
"I didn’t report them to Lime or Bird because I’m very doubtful that anything will be done about it," he said. A lack of clarity coupled with the prospect that he was contending with violent criminals had Loya worried that he'll one day have to take matters into his own hands. When we spoke, he was considering the purchase of Mace or a knife to defend himself. "What I am worried about is running across another person who doesn't have anything to lose and wants to make a quick buck and get aggressive," he told me. "We have to travel to get the scooters, and if you have someone get there a second before you it can be infuriating. It can definitely lead to [a mentality of], 'I need that scooter more than you do.'"
That mentality also can cause people to bend the rules in their favor. In fact, there's an entire subreddit called r/limejuicers filled with enough esoteric shop talk as to make your head spin. Much of it consists of complaining about those who commit a litany of offenses such as "hoarding," or hiding a bunch of scooters in one's house and letting them increase in value—the companies pay contractors different rates at different times to feed demand —before finally claiming them.
Charlotte Garden, who teaches labor law at the University of Seattle, said the Uberization of the world means workers have effectively been tricked into thinking they control their own behavior, even if in reality they're being manipulated. This dynamic also allows for companies to turn a blind eye to the bad outcomes of the incentives they've created.
"Part of the idea behind the independent contractor/employee distinction is that independent contractors can take care of themselves in the market—sometimes that’s true, as you can probably attest if you’ve ever tried to hire someone to take care of a plumbing or electrical emergency," she said. "But the persistence of objectively terrible labor conditions inside and outside the platform economy shows how that principle doesn’t always hold; sometimes people are dependent on the companies they work for and relatively powerless to either demand better or walk away."
Another scooter startup called Spin is trying to phase out contractors and replace them with salaried employees, which would certainly help in providing basic workplace protections in an industry that constantly seems to be racing itself to the bottom. (Bird was also moving in that direction when it came to the people who repair their scooters in a few cities.) However, if that model takes hold, it would mean that Daniel Blanc needed to find a new gig: He currently works just enough to make $20 a night, he said—the perfect part-time gig for a high school senior who takes his studies seriously. But until then, he'll have to contend with the more unsavory elements of the Lime universe, which is populated by adults desperate to make rent by playing a deranged version of Pokémon Go.
Over the phone, Blanc described a recent encounter with a couple who were snagging scooters outside of his house in Los Angeles by putting tape over them so that their alarms wouldn't sound. (The idea behind this scheme is that you keep the vehicles until the battery drops to the point that they need charging, and then you have first dibs on them.) He called out the middle-aged man and woman, who simply told him, "We need the money." Blanc felt bad for them rather than threatened, and continues to enjoy his job. Still, he said, "I've heard lots of scary stuff, and if that happens to me even once, I'm done. I don't need that for a five-dollar scooter."
Meanwhile, other chargers seem to have adopted more of a stand-your-ground attitude. A man who responded to a post of mine on r/limejuicers said he carried a gun with him whenever he worked. In fact, he said, he just gotten into a fight with a boy who was trying to take home a Lime he had not yet "captured," or claimed, on the app. While the redditor noted he wasn't willing to "beat up a teenager in front of a quarter of the city," he also mentioned he wasn't carrying at the time.
Still, juicing might be the best option some Americans have. A month after I talked to Pierpont, he emailed me to ask a favor: He'd heard talk in San Antonio of the local government severely capping the number of Lime scooters on the street as well as imposing limitations on where they could be parked. As someone who "relies on the charging eco-system for supplemental income and stability," he wanted to know what I could do to get the word out about this initiative and the effect it would have on people like him. He was scared of losing his lifeline more than the vague threat of possibly, in an extreme case, losing his life.
"When I talked to you I was shaken up and a little disturbed being that I had someone nearly whack me over the head with a piece of lumber for collecting scooters," he wrote. "But this eco-system is possibly feeding families and is definitely doing more good then [sic] harm. Not only is it possibly providing transportation to people in need, it may also be keeping people from starving."
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