Is Freedom and Flexibility an Illusion in the Gig Economy?

Independent contractors, gig workers, whatever you want to call us, choose this line of work for many reasons, including the flexibility and freedom to work whenever and however we want. Giving up W-2 benefits like minimum wage, employer-funded health insurance, and more is worth it to many gig workers. However, is gig work really that ‘free’ or ‘flexible’? Senior RSG contributor Sergio Avedian shares his experience switching from rideshare to delivery, plus what he learned about Uber’s algorithm.

I have been a rideshare driver for the past six years on the Uber/Lyft platforms. Lyft is a one-trick pony and does not offer too many choices for drivers, but Uber markets itself as a “Super App” for consumers as well as drivers. In fact, during the latest interview with RSG, the CEO of Uber called us “the Earners”, small business owners.

Uber offers a wide variety of gig work to their drivers. During that interview, the CEO kept talking about Power of the Platform (POP). An Earner on the Uber platform can deliver everything from food to groceries to alcohol these days. They can also choose to do rideshare or a mix of both.

As you see in the screenshot above, I drive Uber X, the most common and popular rideshare option, but I am also given the choice to toggle between four activities, or single them out.

Quick Summary: 

  • Uber can’t claim freedom and flexibility when they take away opportunities based on an independent contractor’s (IC) choices.
  • If you prefer ridesharing over delivery, make sure you keep a healthy mix of the two on your app to keep your options open.
  • Remember that the algorithm makes decisions for the platforms you work with.
  • Consider signing up for other gig companies to diversify your earnings opportunities!

Freedom and Flexibility

For the past six years, I have only chosen to shuffle passengers around (rideshare). I live in Los Angeles, one of the top markets for Uber. Rides are plentiful all times of the day and going in every direction.

If drivers know what they are doing, they can make really good money as long as they stack all the weekly incentives Uber sends them. The city looks like this most of the time, although this summer has been particularly slow.

The map on the left is for rideshare, and the map on the right is for delivery. 

So, with freedom and flexibility in mind and considering the Power of the Platform, I decided to deliver food and packages for a couple of weeks. Driving people around gets tiring after a while.

What is the difference other than the color? Deliveries do not include surge, but they count towards your weekly Quest, according to Uber. With no downside, I thought I would give it a try.

Learn more about Uber Quests with this review.

I started my day with the first of two delivery request boxes and sprinkled these trips among my rideshare requests. I was truly taking the CEO’s word and using the platform to its fullest extent.

After about ten days, I truly enjoyed delivering food; it was fewer miles, less wear and tear on my car, and I did not have to deal with passenger attitudes. The money is not the same as rideshare, but I thought it would come close if I could hit my Quests.

Another thing I discovered is that you have to depend on tips for almost half your income since base rates on delivery are worse than rideshare.

There is definitely a lot of downtime doing deliveries, but I managed to keep myself busy by answering emails and phone calls. I finished my first week doing deliveries, and then I got the following email followed by a message in my Uber driver app. I thought it was a tip that showed up late.

The End of My Rideshare Career?!

Surprise, surprise, no, it was not a tip. It was a slap in the face from Uber. It was the end of my rideshare Quests and promotions I had been receiving for six years. Some algorithm decided that I was only doing deliveries and sent me this message.

The screenshots above clearly indicate that someone is watching over me, maybe not a human, but I am being watched for sure. So much so that now I am labeled as a delivery driver only, and I will be qualifying for UberEats promotions.

What? Where did flexibility and freedom go? I thought I had a choice of four activities and could select any one activity without penalties.

Quests and promotions make up to 40% of a driver’s income on most weeks because the base rates are horrible and have remained the same since 2019. Meanwhile, everything we purchase as drivers has gone up by 100% or more.

Here comes my algorithmic boss telling me that I will not be getting rideshare Quests any longer because it figured I did mostly food delivery. I, of course, called Uber Support with absolutely no success. I was told that the SYSTEM detected that my patterns had changed. Wow! So much for freedom and flexibility. I always thought it was a bunch of Uber PR department rhetoric.

Anyway, this seals the deal. It is nothing but empty marketing words. Besides just turning the app on and off when we want, “freedom and flexibility” means nothing.

Why am I being punished for using the Power of the Platform? Where in the Terms of Service (TOS) is that mentioned? That I will be receiving only rideshare or delivery incentives? Now I was in Quest jail. Yeah, I am an Independent Contractor, all right!

Adding Insult to Injury

I kept doing food deliveries, and a few days later, my opportunities box in my app lit up. I thought here comes the Quests. Not so fast!

Instead of weekly/weekend Quests, I received these Boost Zones and was intrigued. After studying them, I was not only disappointed but pissed off. Uber sends me the following Boost times and Zones as a replacement for Quests:

Really Uber? Now I’m expected to do deliveries from 12 pm-4 am? Or 9 pm-12 am? Where is my flexibility and freedom to drive when I want? Why am I being put in Quest purgatory?

My Conclusion

If I hear those two words one more time, I will lose it. If there is true flexibility, I should be able to do what I want, when I want. I should be able to do rideshare or food delivery when and where I want without any restrictions or penalties, enjoying the fruits of my labor.

I know exactly why the SYSTEM, as Uber Support called it, decided to cut me off. I took a look at the receipts on a bunch of trips. UberEats margins are razor thin, pennies in most deliveries, unlike Uber’s healthy 50% take rate from rideshare trips.

My algorithmic boss figured Uber would lose money if they paid me the Quest, and it shut me down. Now, I have to prove to the SYSTEM that I am still a rideshare driver and do a bunch of rides without incentives until it decides that I qualify for rideshare Quests again.

There is nothing Flexible or Free in Uberland!

What can you do about it? Make sure to check out other gig companies, so you can diversify your earnings opportunities. If you prefer delivery over rideshare, take a look at these best food delivery companies.

If freedom and flexibility are why you became an independent contractor, make these companies work for you! Don’t drive when you aren’t earning bonuses – log on to a competitor instead and work for whichever company offers the highest pay.

Have you ever switched to do delivery instead of rideshare? What did you discover?

-Sergio @ RSG