Millions of people around the world choose to drive or deliver on platforms like Uber and Uber Eats. This type of independent work offers something traditional jobs cannot: the freedom to choose when, how and where you work. Many people strongly prefer this type of work, whether because of its scheduling flexibility or simply because they enjoy working for themselves. But choosing to be independent has historically meant fewer benefits and protections. That’s because many labor laws and policies are binary: a worker is either an employee, with more benefits but less flexibility, or an independent contractor with more flexibility but almost no safety net.
Over the last year, this has begun to change. New laws and legal decisions have given app-based workers in some countries both the guarantee of independence and new protections, like minimum earnings guarantees. In California, for instance, the passage of Prop 22 has ensured that app-based rideshare and delivery workers will never earn less than 120% of the local minimum wage for the time they are actively working on the app—from the moment they accept a trip or delivery, until they drop the passenger or item off.
In the United Kingdom, the UK Supreme Court’s recent decision gave greater clarity on the definition of working time. A key finding of the Court was if a driver was penalized for not accepting trips, drivers could be said to be “working for Uber” any time they simply had the Uber app open on their phones, and should be paid for it. But this has not been true since 2017. As such, Uber now treats drivers as “workers,” a unique classification under UK labor law that guarantees them at least the national minimum wage for any time spent actively working (although drivers can, and do, earn more).
But our critics claim that these minimum earnings floors aren’t good enough because they don’t account for all of the time drivers spend with the Uber app on, before they get a ride or delivery request. Some studies have claimed that no matter how much drivers earn while they are driving, it isn’t enough, unless they’re also paid when they aren’t on a trip (we have strongly disputed these studies).
These critics are misunderstanding and misrepresenting how platforms like Uber work. The reality is Uber does not control and has no visibility into what drivers are doing in the time before accepting a trip through our app. They can be doing a lot of things. Drivers can—and, according to surveys, many do—find work from as many platforms as they want and often have multiple apps open at the same time.
That means during the time they have the Uber app on but aren’t on an Uber trip, they very well may have one of our competitor’s customers in their car. Drivers can compare and contrast opportunities on competing apps, and regularly refuse any trip requests that don’t suit their needs. And they can take breaks whenever, wherever, and for as long as they want. In other words, platform work is something they can easily fit into their lives, and not the other way around. It’s precisely the lack of control by Uber of the time between trips that allows them this flexibility.
Even though drivers benefit from this flexibility, they should of course always be paid fairly for the work that they do. But that doesn’t mean that someone should be paid simply for having an app open, especially when they are accepting work from other apps during the same period of time, or simply refusing to work at all. In California for example, if the earnings guarantee were to apply to all online time, a driver could be owed 120% of the local minimum wage for the same minute of pre-trip time from up to nine companies, just because she had all her apps on, even if she was running errands or sitting at home.
If platform companies like Uber paid drivers for all the time they are logged onto an app, we would be forced to take supervisory steps to ensure they are productive during that time, like any other worker guaranteed an hourly minimum wage. This would mean requirements like working in dedicated shifts, solely for Uber, and terminating drivers who failed to perform.
We’ve written before about what this would mean for drivers. It would be a giant tradeoff, taking away virtually all aspects of the flexibility that led many app-based workers to choose this type of work in the first place. In traditional hourly employment your employer demands your attention. Watching videos on your phone, calling your parents, texting friends, applying for jobs, reading the news, grabbing a bite to eat, shopping for groceries, grabbing your kids from school, basically anything that isn’t the job itself…all of these are things you’d have to do during specific breaks or when you’re off the clock. But with flexible app-based work, these are all things that you can do any time you like—no permission needed, no special requests, no supervisors. And you could leave your phone on and be logged into multiple apps while doing all of these things because you—not your employer—decide when you are ready to work.
Becoming a dedicated shift employee is precisely what drivers around the globe say they don’t want, according to every known public survey. For example:
- This September 2020 survey of French delivery drivers found that 72% considered flexibility and independence to be some of the most important aspects of their work with Uber Eats.
- This July 2020 survey of U.S. drivers and delivery people found that:
- 86% chose app-based driving was to have flexibility in their schedule
- 86% would no longer be able to drive if it didn’t offer a flexible schedule
- This 2020 survey found that Eats couriers in Geneva Switzerland, who were forced by the local courts, to become employees strongly disliked the change:
- 72% of the couriers hired as employees reported they preferred working independently.
- 62% of converted couriers who felt they were worse off due to the change cited no longer being able to choose their own schedules.
- 50% of converted couriers reported that they do not intend to continue working as an employee in the long run after trying it out.
- This 2019 study found that, on average, drivers in Chile and Mexico would need their pay to be more than doubled in order to be willing to switch to a traditional employee job.
- This 2019 survey of Australian drivers found that nearly 4 in 5 value the flexibility of the Uber platform and 3 in 5 wouldn’t work for a “traditional company” without flexibility.
That’s not to say independent work is perfect, and we don’t believe that the status quo is good enough. But if you listen to drivers, they will tell you they want to receive additional benefits while also remaining independent. Rather than eliminating independent work in favor of traditional employment, frameworks like California’s Prop 22 or the UK’s worker classification improve it.
The flexibility of platform work is core to why drivers choose it in the first place. Paying for unengaged time would require Uber to take that flexibility away. Platform work needs to be improved—but we’re going to take our lead from drivers themselves. At the end of the day, we believe what drivers want is what should matter most, to everyone.
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