Vegas rideshare strike doesn’t yet have momentum, but driver frustrations are real

By: - July 22, 2021 5:08 am

The Las Vegas Uber Greenlight hub, on Wednesday, July 21, 2021. Drivers come here to get their cars inspected. (Photo: April Corbin Girnus)

Rideshare driver Hope Nicole Marion is fed up.

She started driving for Uber in 2015 when the San Francisco-based company first launched in Las Vegas. Back then, the money was good. The ride-hailing platform was being touted as a much-needed disruptor to the powerful taxicab industry and a way to “be your own boss.” Marion says that first year she raked in $85,000 to $90,000 in fare. She estimates about half of that went directly to Uber. Then came her out-of-pocket expenses — like gas and the snacks and bottled waters she hands out to customers. But what ended up in her pocket still felt like enough.

More than five years later, Marion’s view of rideshare companies has darkened. Now, she’s attempting to galvanize her fellow drivers into organizing and demanding more from Uber and Lyft.

Marion has connected with Rideshare Drivers United, a California-based organization of rideshare drivers fighting for better worker protections. While no formal Las Vegas chapter has been established, approximately 300 local drivers so far have expressed interest in the organization, according to Marion.

Rideshare Drivers United held a nationwide app-based drivers strike Wednesday. Rallies were advertised in 11 different cities, most prominently in Los Angeles and San Francisco, where California’s heavily lobbied Proposition 22 is having an impact on worker conditions, but also in Las Vegas.

The organization is calling on Congress to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which advocates say would strengthen the right to unionize and shore up employee misclassification issues, two issues that have plagued rideshare companies for years.

Only Marion and a handful of others physically showed up to a media event outside Uber’s Las Vegas inspection facility, ironically located a stone’s throw from a Regional Transportation Commission property housing public buses driven by unionized workers. But Marion hopes it will be an earnest start to a growing movement that draws attention to the working conditions of rideshare drivers in Southern Nevada.

Marion still drives for Uber and Lyft but she doesn’t recommend anyone else follow in her footsteps and sign up as a “partner.”

Both companies refer to drivers as “partners.” That’s a friendlier term than what they legally are, which is independent contractors. As independent contractors, drivers are not privy to the same protections as traditional employees and they don’t receive traditional benefits like health care or retirement.

Marion says when she started as one of the first rideshare drivers in Las Vegas, the upside was better than the downside. But the money simply isn’t as good these days. Uber takes a bigger cut than it used to and is less transparent about why, she says. They flooded the market with drivers, thereby hurting everyone’s bottom line but their own.

What drivers actually earn is hotly debated. Independent studies over the years have estimated income at the equivalent of $0 to $10 per hour after expenses. Uber has refuted that and last year released their own, much higher estimates, which they say are based on internal earnings data. But critics counter that those numbers are misleading and don’t take into account fees and out-of-pocket expenses.

Marion recalled one customer who complained about the ride costing $75 because of surge pricing. Marion says her cut of that trip was around $25. (She’s not alone in criticizing who benefits from surge pricing.)

“That’s the disconnect,” she added, “her experience as a customer and mine as the driver.”

Among other demands, Rideshare Drivers United is calling for a cap on the percentage of passenger fare a company can take. They also want drivers to be paid for the miles and minutes accumulated en route to the passenger, because those costs can cancel out any profit made from the actual trip.

Shantrevia Lowe, another rideshare driver who participated in the Vegas strike attempt Wednesday, recalled driving an hour to pick up a rural passenger located outside of Vegas. She didn’t bemoan the passenger for needing the ride — it was to a medical appointment — but she knew when the trip was over she had earned “just pennies.”

Lowe has been driving rideshare for two years. She says in that time she’s seen policies change to the frustration and detriment of drivers.

“One thing that hasn’t changed?” She adds. “They still don’t care.”

Lowe says rideshare drivers just want to be respected for their labor. They want their voices heard.

Marion says Uber rarely follows up on her expressed concerns, which she is forced to direct toward an impersonal 1-800 support line. She says she experiences sexism and racism from customers regularly but has little recourse or support, despite the company launching a high-profile anti-racism campaign.

She believes the system, which relies on passengers rating drivers after rides, emboldens some people to direct insults and harassment toward drivers. (Again, Marion is far from alone in that criticism. Uber is currently facing a federal lawsuit on racial discrimination, with former drivers arguing the company’s rating system disproportionately leads to the dismissal of people of color.)

“I have to be nice; I have to be respectable,” says Marion. “Even if they are being rude, I can’t be rude. … I have to be quiet, and smile, until they get out of my vehicle, so I can get my five stars.”

Marion acknowledges that any public-facing job will involve dealing with bad customers. In Vegas, it’s a given that you’ll deal with drunken partiers and pushy tourists. But she feels Uber especially lacks empathy and is uninterested in its drivers’ wellbeing. After covid-19 resulted in a month-long hospitalization where she nearly got put into a medically induced coma, nobody from the company called to check in or cared.

She hopes the pandemic is serving as a wake-up call for other drivers to realize they deserve better treatment. That’s why she’s decided to begin speaking out.

“I’m done,” said Marion. “I’m frustrated. Now, if I had somebody that was behind me… (If) I called support and was being treated like I was equal… If you weren’t taking maybe 70, 60 percent of my money, (then) we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But they’re rich. And I’m poor.”

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April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus

April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. She has been a beat writer at Las Vegas Sun, a staff writer at LEO Weekly, web editor of Las Vegas Weekly and a blogger documenting North American bike share systems’ efforts to increase ridership in underserved communities. An occasional adjunct journalism professor, April steadfastly rejects the notion that journalism is a worthless major. Amid the Great Recession, she earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. She later earned an M.A. in media studies and a graduate certificate in media management from The New School for Public Engagement. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise with her husband, two children and two mutts.