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Encore: Drivers question whether it's worth it as Uber and Lyft cut incentives


Americans are looking for ways to offset the costs of high inflation on their budgets. For some, that means gig work. As NPR's Raquel Maria Dillon reports, that's been an unexpected upside for employers that hire independent contractors, like ride share companies.

RAQUEL MARIA DILLON, BYLINE: Salvador Sahagun (ph) used to be a chef in Santa Rosa, Calif. After his taqueria closed, he started driving for Uber.

SALVADOR SAHAGUN: And with the sign-up bonus - and I don't know if they somehow know that you're new and they entice you to - they give you better rides or somehow. I was making good money.

DILLON: The ride-hailing apps were offering lots of incentives to sign on and pick up rides, like a bonus for doing three rides in a row or 15 bucks extra for driving at busy times, to cope with a driver shortage during the pandemic. Now, with prices rising and inflation at a 40-year high, he says the money's not so good anymore.

SAHAGUN: I remember going to the supermarket and buying my groceries. And I would spend $100 a week. And now I have to spend $120 or $130 for the same things.

DILLON: He's driving more now - 50 to 60 hours a week. Many people are struggling to make ends meet and looking for side hustles. That means more workers turning to Uber and Lyft. In Uber's latest earnings report, CEO Dara Khosrowshahi says there's a strong flow of new drivers signing up.

DARA KHOSROWSHAHI: Over 70% of them have said that inflation and what they're seeing right now in terms of the cost of groceries, the cost of living, plays a part in that decision for them to come onto the platform.

DILLON: With more drivers available, Uber and Lyft are cutting back on recruitment incentives. Here's Lyft co-founder John Zimmer on the company's latest earnings call.


JOHN ZIMMER: Total active drivers were the highest they've been in two years. And more than half of new driver acquisition in Q2 was organic.

DILLON: Organic means drivers are signing up for the platform without incentives, which means Lyft is saving money - not so for many drivers, like Dustin Santos (ph), who recently landed a full-time job at a Honda dealership in Berkeley. But he's still driving for Uber on his days off and on weekends just to make extra cash. Though, he has his limits.

DUSTIN SANTOS: I just don't like to drive after 10 o'clock on the weekends 'cause that's when all the drunk people come out, so...

DILLON: It doesn't help that gas prices are so high. Uber offers a bonus to help with those gas prices, but it's only $0.50 a ride. Santos says that is insulting.

SANTOS: Just keep your $0.50. I don't even want it. It's kind of a joke for you to even say that. Like, 50 - 'cause it doesn't matter if I'm going 50 miles or one mile. That's all I get is $0.50. So it's just them trying to say that they're doing something when they're really not.

DILLON: He says it's rough for drivers lately. What he really wants is more rides and a bigger cut of the fare or more options to stay afloat in a tough economy.

Raquel Maria Dillon, NPR News, in San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Raquel Maria Dillon
Raquel Maria Dillon has worked on both sides of the country, on both sides of the mic, at Member stations and now as an editor with Morning Edition. She specializes in documenting wildfires and other national disasters, translating the intricacies of policy into plain English and explaining the implications of climate change.