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“If You Want to Keep Your Car, You Drive”

Thousands of drivers have rented vehicles through Lyft’s Express Drive program, working long hours for the company to pay off weekly rental bills. Now there aren’t enough rides on the road, and drivers can’t pay. We talked to Lyft drivers in three cities about how they’re managing the possibility of losing their cars in the middle of a pandemic.

Lyft welcomes guests to a lounge at Sundance Film Festival on January 23, 2018 in Park City, Utah. Isaac Brekken / Getty

In 2016, Lyft was struggling to expand its share of a rideshare market otherwise dominated by Uber. But there weren’t enough Lyft drivers to meet demand, nor were there enough car owners willing to drive for the app, placing hard limits on the company’s growth in key locales. That year, to expand its driving capacity, the company launched its “Express Drive” program, partnering with three agencies (Avis, Flexdrive, and Hertz) to provide rental cars to prospective Lyft drivers.

To maintain enrollment in the program, each Express driver is responsible for driving a minimum of twenty paid trips through the app each week. Drivers in the program must also give enough rides to cover the weekly cost of their rental (usually between $240 and $270) before they can pocket any income themselves. In a 2018 letter to investors, Lyft COO Jon McNeill reported that 180,000 new drivers had begun working for the company through the Lyft Express in the previous two years (for two-thirds of those drivers, he said, the rental car was their only vehicle).

The Express Drive program has been a rewarding element of Lyft ’s larger growth strategy. The year after Express Drive was launched, Lyft extended operations to fifty-four new cities, and the company’s total number of passengers increased by 92 percent. The company now controls about 30 percent of the total US rideshare market.

But for drivers, the Express Drive program has been far from ideal. Drivers complain about working punishingly long hours to cover the rental costs, even with a tiered rewards program in place to reduce the rental amount for the best-performing drivers. That rewards program was terminated earlier this year, extending drivers’ hours still further. (Lyft drivers are classified as at-will independent contractors, not employees; they do not receive benefits like health insurance, nor do they receive a baseline hourly wage.)

Now, with the coronavirus pandemic prompting business shutdowns and stay-at-home orders throughout the country, Express drivers are finding that there simply aren’t enough rides available to cover their rental costs. Lyft waived the twenty-ride weekly minimum in light of the crisis, and announced recently that it would try to reduce rental amounts in affected areas (although it’s unclear in what areas and to what extent). Overwhelmingly, however, the company hasn’t made any accommodations for Express drivers during this time, instead repeatedly insisting that if drivers cannot pay their rental amounts, they must surrender the vehicles.

We spoke to three Lyft Express Drive workers in three cities about risking their health to stay on the road and the thought of losing their vehicles in the middle of a pandemic. All three drivers have been granted anonymity to protect them from reprisal, and their answers have been edited for clarity.

Sacramento, California (forty-six years old)

I’ve been driving for Lyft for about two years, with a rental car I got through the Express Drive program. To stay in the program, Lyft requires you to do twenty rides a week, and Hertz requires you to reach your payment benchmark for the car — that fluctuates, but for me it’s usually about $244 a week. Now, in the Sacramento area, the average ride is between $2 and $5. It usually takes a minimum of eighty rides to cover the car.

At first I was driving every single day except Monday, twelve hours a day. If my morale was high, I could get out around 7:00 AM. If I was doing really well, I’d get out around 5:00 AM. for the pre-work rush, people going to the airport, stuff like that. Back then [with the rental rewards program in place], I could make $700 in a good week. But they got rid of that program entirely, so now I have to pay for the total amount of the car every week. It was an instant drop in my income— now I can’t really make more than $500 on a good week.

When I got into the Express Drive program, I thought I could do other things at the same time. But I found out very quickly that if you want to make money at this, you have to concentrate on only this. They say you’re your own boss. That’s a lie. “You make your own hours!” No, you don’t make your own hours. You work twelve hours a day!

I was one of the skeptical ones [about the coronavirus], at first. Before things got really bad, I was severely depressed over the rental rewards program being cancelled. When the shelter-in-place thing came down, I was still on the road. I don’t have health insurance. I became conflicted. Should I still be out there?

I made the decision to get off the road, which lasted for two weeks. During that time, I tried to contact the company about what was going on. But Lyft doesn’t have a direct number. The only communication from the company was platitudes — form-letter stuff. I wanted to see if my rental payment [automatic withdrawal] was going to hit on Wednesday, and it did.

I couldn’t afford more than two weeks of that. I had to drive yesterday. I only have maybe $100 or $150 in the bank. I made about $32 yesterday, so that’ll take some off the $244 I owe. I have to drive today, too. I got to. Right now, I have maybe $100 or $150 in the bank. When that [automatic withdrawal] hits on Wednesday, there’s going to be hell to pay.

I’ve been trying to be really careful about wiping down the knobs and door-handles and stuff after my passengers are gone. But that’s no way to make money — if you want to make money, the app has to stay on. You can’t turn the app off to clean the car between rides. You might be able to get one ride an hour doing that, but you can’t make money that way. Of course I have everybody sit in the back, and I use disinfectant.

I’m not really worried about myself. My biggest worry is finding out a passenger of mine has died. A friend of mine accidentally killed somebody in a car accident, and he was crushed. It would be like that a thousand times. That’s why I made the video [“Why I Think I Have to Keep Driving Lyft During the Pandemic”], actually. I wanted to put it out there, almost like a hostage video, so if something happens people know it’s not my fault.

I have a hard time thinking about me possibly being a safety risk to others right now, or thinking that I could be causing somebody harm. Everybody’s taking a risk out here. But you got to work. You have to make money, man. (That hit me really hard after the stimulus package news. A one-time payment? Come on. That’ll pay for a couple of weeks of my car, not even the gas.)

Lyft needs to waive the price of the rentals. If they did that, we [drivers] could decide whether we go out there and drive or not. That way I’d have a choice. It’s important to stay home, and with the price waived I could at least have a vehicle to go to the grocery store to pick up food, things of that nature. Leave it up to drivers whether they want to drive or not.

If I turn in the car, I’d be getting rid of not only my only means of transportation, but also my only way of making money right now, too. You gotta eat, right? I have to keep the car.

Seattle, Washington (fifty-three years old)

I’ve been driving as a Lyft Express driver in the Seattle area for three years. They promised us cleaning supplies and other support [during the coronavirus pandemic], but then poof — they were gone. Lyft sent their [salaried] employees home to self-isolate. The “hubs” (support facilities for drivers) are all closed.

I drove more than fifty hours last week. It was mostly short rides — people going to and from work, going on grocery runs. I made less than $600, and $264 went to Hertz to pay for my rental.

I know there is a pandemic. I’m nervous about the virus. In Seattle, 16 percent of the deaths have been in people in the fifty to sixty age range, like myself. You hear a friend of a friend has it, then you hear they’ve been hospitalized with it, and finally you hear that they’ve died of it.

I’m doing what I can to protect myself, like choosing to self-isolate when I’m not driving. I wipe down my car as often as I can. I haven’t seen my daughter or granddaughter since this all started, because my daughter is a childcare worker and I don’t think we should combine our germ pools right now.

I thank God I have some cleaning supplies, which are like gold in the Seattle area. I’ve put a box of cleaning supplies on my passenger seat to keep people from sitting there. I told a good friend, who works as an Uber driver, that I was running low on disinfectant, so she made me a bottle of it. She also had two masks, so I got one of them. Now we’re both looking for hand sanitizer. I found some rubber gloves, too, but I ended up giving them to an employee at a convenience store, because her boss told her she was responsible for buying her own.

We are supplying our own PPE [personal protective equipment]. Buying cleaning supplies has always been our responsibility, but dang, we are burning through cleaner now. You can’t always find it, and when you can, it’s at inflated prices.

Everything I knew about driving has been thrown out the window [since the pandemic began]. I turned on the app Friday afternoon, thinking it would be a good time to drive. I drove all over the area, in Seattle and Tacoma — nothing. Ballpark estimate, I drove between 175 and 200 miles, and picked up no rides. It was a waste of half a tank of gas, for no pay.

With the stay-at-home orders and almost all industries shut down, going out driving is a real guessing game. I’ve heard of drivers who weren’t able to get even twenty rides this past week. Lyft dropped the twenty rides a week requirement, but it takes thirty to forty rides on average to make the rental payment.

Lyft said they would cut rates for rental drivers in affected areas, but that hasn’t happened here. And when you contact them [the company], you don’t get real answers. They’re just copying and pasting responses. There’s a lot of talk about support, but none actually being given.

Lyft is still taking their 40–50 percent of every ride. Without us driving, they wouldn’t be making any money. Yet they haven’t reduced the percentage of each ride-payment that they take. And they haven’t reduced the rates they charge on rentals.

They can’t make us work. But if you want to pay your bills, you work. If you want to eat, you work. If you want to keep your car, you work. I need my car. It’s my only source of transportation.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (forty-four years old)

I’ve been driving for Lyft since February 2019. I’m the mother of a sixteen-year-old and a twenty-two-year-old. I get a little SSI [Supplemental Security Income] because I have severe health anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder, but the Lyft work helps to make it stretch.

I try to get in at least six days of work a week. I’ll usually head out around 6:00 or 7:00 AM to hit the morning rush. Around 10:00 or 11:00 AM it slows down, so I might go back home then. And if I don’t get too comfortable at home, I’ll go back out for the evening rush hour later. I usually work five to six hours a day, but if I’m really pushing myself I’ll do a full ten hours.

Lyft makes us pay [for the rental car] weekly. The rental price changes depending on how many off-the-clock miles you want. You pick a mileage package at the beginning of the week. Right now, I’m playing $236 a week for a 200-mile package. I never make more than $300 a week, after the rental payment comes out. Some weeks I can just cover the rental payment. Actually, that’s most weeks.

Lyft shut down its Philly office two weeks ago, and it won’t reopen until April 7. But they won’t cut us [drivers] a break. They removed the twenty-ride weekly minimum, but that’s it. They still want their rental payments. At first, I kept driving. I wore a mask, and so did my passengers. In between passengers (the few that there were), I would stop to use bleach on the backseat and doors.

Lyft says they’re reducing rental fees in certain cities, but apparently Philadelphia isn’t one of them. I tried to get in touch with the company by hitting the emergency button on the app and by sending messages on Twitter.

I managed to reach them on Twitter last Wednesday. I told them that, because of the shutdown, drivers like me couldn’t get enough rides to cover the fees. I was freaking out because the rental payments could cause me to lose my car. All they sent in response were cookie-cutter standard answers about how if I couldn’t pay, I could return the vehicle.

I stopped driving a few days ago. My husband filed for unemployment last week, and my SSI hits on the first. I’m doing Postmates work now, and putting that money towards the car. I’ll have to spend $160 out-of-pocket to cover next week’s rental costs. And then the following week I’ll have to cover the whole rental cost — that’s another $236. I actually just learned Lyft ballooned that amount into a single payment of $371, which I definitely can’t afford. I am so upset. I was crying to them on the phone, and they sent the situation on to another department. I guess I’ll hear from them in three days.

Don’t get me wrong: I love Lyfting, but what they’re doing to us is wrong. If I could talk to the president of Lyft, I’d tell him to have a heart. We can’t pay. But we need these cars to survive.