By Tuesday afternoon, Lyft driver Elida Zabaleta had earned $100 in the five hours she spent ferrying passengers across the city of San Jose. With gas prices in California surging, she’d have to use more than half of that to cover fuel for the day, leaving her with just $45.
The rising cost of gas has made a difficult job all the more difficult, Zabaleta said, forcing her to spend more time behind the wheel to earn enough to afford living in one of the country’s most expensive cities.
US gas prices have reached record highs in recent weeks, surging in part by the fallout of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine after already having been high for months. California drivers are paying the most of any in the country, at an average of $5.57 a gallon, according to AAA.
Rising prices are hitting gig workers particularly hard as fuel makes up a large part of their daily costs. Uber and Lyft drivers already struggling after the pandemic hit both wages and working conditions say paying more at the pump means they have to spend more time driving in order to achieve the same level of pay. Some are spending more than 60 hours a week working, and some say driving is simply no longer profitable.
Zabaleta, who has driven for Lyft for two years, paid $5.20 a gallon to fill up this week. Meanwhile, factoring in the cost of gas, her income came out to about $9 an hour, far below San Jose’s $16.20 minimum wage. Zabaleta routinely spends as many as 50 hours a week behind the wheel, giving herself just one day off, and is working more to cover the increasing costs.
Even before gas prices started rising, pay was becoming increasingly unpredictable driving for Lyft, she said. She previously drove five days a week, but with fewer passengers during the pandemic and fewer bonuses from Lyft, Zabaleta had to add an extra work day to her week in order to maintain the same level of income, she said. Companies such as Lyft aren’t doing enough to help drivers, she said.
“This job should be something the worker should enjoy doing – this is a job that’s high risk and we’re putting our lives on the line everyday,” she said.
Other drivers said that without increased wages or other support from ride share companies to help alleviate the burden of fuel costs, driving will no longer be worthwhile.
Rondu Gantt started working as a ride share driver in the San Francisco Bay area in 2018 to supplement his income, but began driving full-time after his teaching job left him burnt out. Since then wages have only dropped, he said, and without the bonuses the companies offer, the job wouldn’t be profitable at all.
“We are at the point where we need the companies to pay bonuses every week just to make the job sustainable,” he said. The normal pay rate is too low, he said, so in addition to driving during the day, he routinely returns to the road at night when surge pricing is in effect.
The expensive price of gas has made the job more challenging, Gantt said. “My costs are higher, my pay is the same, so I’m losing money. That’s a mathematical reality,” he said.
Benjamin Valdez, who drives part-time for Uber and Lyft in Los Angeles and works as an organizer with Rideshare Drivers United, said he hasn’t driven for two weeks because of the high gas prices. When fuel costs go up, drivers stay out on the road for longer in order to try to make a profit, he said, which means there is more competition for rides.
The loss in income is difficult for his family, Valdez said, but with gas prices as high as they are and more drivers out on the road, he’d be losing money driving. “I only drive when it’s profitable, which is few and far between right now,” he said.
California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, has said he will propose a tax rebate to help the state’s drivers grapple with the increasing costs at the pump. Drivers are also hoping to see companies such as Lyft and Uber take steps to help support them amid the high prices, which experts say will likely continue for months.
Organizers with Rideshare Drivers United are petitioning the rideshare companies to raise compensation and “set the rates fairly and equitably because of our increased costs”, said Daniel Russell, a part-time Uber driver and organizer with RDU.
When asked if Lyft would offer additional support to drivers as fuel costs increase, Lyft spokesperson CJ Macklin said it had taken concrete steps to help, including a fuel cash-back program run in partnership with GetUpside. Macklin also said that US drivers are now seeing greater average hourly pay than they were a year ago, even with high fuel prices, as more riders return to the platform. Uber did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Vitalii Konstantinov, who drives for Uber in San Diego and works with Rideshare Drivers United, said rising costs have forced him to dip into his family’s budget, and cancel a trip to Disneyland he had planned for his young children. He’s actively looking for other jobs.
“It’s not worth driving for Uber anymore,” he said.
Gantt said he’s also considering leaving the industry.
“It is unsustainable for me to feel comfortable in this industry right now. I feel the vulnerability. I see how relying I am on them to give me a bonus, I see how low the rate is,” he said. “I can’t work 16 hours every day. I’m gonna burn out. It’s physically demanding to be tired, drinking coffee, under-rested, and driving morning and night.”