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Uber driver made just $80 one week: ‘Uncertainty eats away at you'

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  • In his new book, "Drive: Scraping By in Uber's America, One Ride at a Time," Jonathan Rigsby takes the reader into the driver's seat of ride-sharing work.
  • "You're forced to work long hours at odd times and to rely on bonuses and tips and surge payments to earn a decent hourly wage," Rigsby told CNBC. "The uncertainty eats away at you."

Most people know very little about the Uber drivers who take them to work, school and wherever else they need to go.

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In his new book, "Drive: Scraping by in Uber's America, One Ride at a Time," Jonathan Rigsby takes the reader into the driver's seat. Despite Rigsby working as a crime intelligence analyst for the state of Florida, he doesn't earn enough to pay his bills, take care of his son and save for his family's future.

When he and his wife divorced, he was earning less than $25,000 a year after taxes, alimony, child support and other debt payments. In 2016, he decided to turn to ride-sharing to make some extra money.

He eventually wrote his memoir about all that followed.

To earn "a decent hourly wage," Rigsby told CNBC earlier this month, "you're forced to work long hours at odd times and to rely on bonuses and tips and surge payments."

He aimed to make $250 a week on the road, but this wasn't always possible. After his car expenses, he earned just $80 one week.

"The uncertainty eats away at you," he said.

A spokesperson for Uber said compensation for a driver will vary depending on a variety of factors, such as local demand.

"The median Uber driver in the U.S. is earning more than $30 per active hour, and the flexibility to work whenever and wherever they want is a core reason why many drivers turn to Uber," the spokesperson said.

CNBC interviewed Rigsby this month. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Annie Nova: You eventually decided to drive for Uber, even though you had a job with the Florida government. Can you talk about why you made that decision?

Jonathan Rigsby: After my divorce, I had to learn to juggle a lot of new expenses with fewer resources. I had alimony and child support on top of rent and student loans. I was very fortunate to have a full-time job that gave me a salary and health insurance, but the burden of all these new expenses was more than a government worker's salary could bear. A lot of ride-share drivers are living in similar circumstances to what I experienced, without having even that minimal safety net.

AN: What was the most you made in a single week, and the least, driving for Uber?

JR: Halloween is without a doubt the most profitable time for Uber drivers in my city. People will come from as far as Miami to party in Tallahassee because it's cheaper. In 2018, I buckled down and drove a huge number of hours during that week. On top of my day job, I probably drove for 30 hours and made more than $700. But I spent all of the money paying off car repairs that I had been forced to put on a credit card.

Then there's a period just after the students graduate and before summer classes start when the town is just empty. I remember panicking because I'd only made about $120 in a week, and that was before factoring in all the gas I'd burned. Once I took out my expenses, I might have made $80 for 15 to 20 hours of work.

AN: I know the cost for a ride a passenger pays doesn't reflect what a driver makes. How does it work?

JR: The split between the driver and the company on any given ride can vary a lot. Sometimes you give someone a ride and find out that the company is taking 50% of the ride's cost for themselves. Sometimes the driver makes 80% of the ride. Companies have been slowly increasing their average take. First, it was 20%, then 22%, then 24%. Every change has been to decrease driver pay and to push the companies toward profitability.

Even when drivers are making good hourly rates, you are taking on the cost of fuel, maintenance and wear and tear. It reduces your earnings by roughly $4 to $5 per hour, which is usually the difference between being above or below minimum wage. No one gets rich doing this except Uber's executives.

Drive: Scraping by in Uber's America One Ride at a Time by Jonathan Rigsby.
Courtesy: Jonathan Rigsby
Drive: Scraping by in Uber's America One Ride at a Time by Jonathan Rigsby.

AN: I know Uber is not your main source of income, but it is for others.

JR: I'm fortunate to have the backstop of a salaried job, but there are lots of people out there using ride-share and delivery jobs for their basic necessities. It's precarious and stressful. You're forced to work long hours at odd times and to rely on bonuses and tips and surge payments to earn a decent hourly wage. The uncertainty eats away at you.

AN: Did driving for Uber make it harder to spend time with your son? What was your visitation agreement like after the divorce?

JR: In the beginning, our agreement was that I would spend Tuesday, Thursday and alternating Saturdays and Sundays with him. Even in the hardest times, I never took away from my time with him to drive. If I gave up time with my son just to work, then what was the point of everything I was doing? All of the hard work was for him. When I wasn't with him, I was working as the 'taxi man' —  the name he gave to it — but I carried a little stuffed bear in my car's cupholder with me. It was my way of taking him with me everywhere I went.

AN: During your toughest times, you write about making constant difficult decisions like whether to pay to wash your clothes or to buy food, and finding "every possible way to conceal my situation from the people around me." Why did you feel you needed to hide your poverty?

JR: I had a full-time job with health insurance and a retirement fund and all those things they tell you make you middle class. But I was destitute, teetering on the brink of being homeless. There's a sense that it shouldn't be so hard to get by. You blame yourself because everything in the American ethos tells you that hard work leads to success, and if you're struggling, it must be your own fault.

AN: You write that driving for Uber worsened your drinking problem. How so?

JR: I was out driving until 2 a.m. some nights, and the only way I could stay awake to do that was to ingest huge amounts of caffeine. When I got back to my little apartment, I'd be so wired, I'd drink myself to sleep — then get up the next morning to do it all over again.

AN: How else did the work impact your health?

JR: Sitting for long periods in your car is very taxing. I force myself to take breaks, to get out and stretch, but during really busy nights, rides come one after the other. You look at the clock and realize you've been sitting in one place for five hours. You're hungry. You're thirsty. You need to use the bathroom, but the only places that are open are fast-food restaurants. You eat cheap junk food so that you can get back on the road quickly and keep working. My blood pressure and cholesterol both suffered from the physical toll. I often worried about blood clots. 

AN: What was it about the ride-sharing that made you feel so lonely?

JR: People tap on their phones and summon this single-use servant, a person they don't even have to talk to. You take them where they're going and they disappear. Sometimes people are rude or mean to you for no reason, and you have no choice but to put up with it because you need the money. You're alone when you log on, and when passengers get out, you're alone again.

AN: Your situation changed considerably when you met another partner. What does this aspect of your story tell us?

JR: Modern American life is really precarious. Most Americans live paycheck to paycheck, and surviving on one income is becoming increasingly impossible. Having a partner helps to ease the burden by giving you a backstop, someone who can share the financial costs. Once you get a little bit of breathing room, you regain the ability to think about the future and to take a few risks. 

Author Jonathan Rigsby: Drive - Scraping by in Uber's America One Ride At A Time
Courtesy: Jonathan Rigsby
Author Jonathan Rigsby: Drive - Scraping by in Uber's America One Ride At A Time

AN: Are you done driving for Uber?

JR: I still drive on Friday nights. My driving hours are vastly reduced from what I used to do, and I'm hopeful that I'll be able to quit driving soon. But right now, I still need that little bit of extra income. When the day comes that I don't, I'm going to delete the apps and never do this sort of work again.

AN: How is your life different now from those days when you were driving for Uber much more?

JR: The biggest change was the ability to take care of myself and have hobbies. I've now learned how to paint by watching old episodes of "The Joy of Painting" on YouTube, and my apartment is full of landscapes that I painted. I'm a healthier, happier version of myself and a better, more present father for my son. There are some scars, but they're a part of me.

Copyright CNBC
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