Los Angeles and San Francisco drivers trying to supplement driving income on recruitment bonuses are meeting challenges as Uber faces political heat over corporate decision making, and competition from Lyft’s lucrative Ambassadors program.
For new Los Angeles and San Francisco Uber drivers still learning the ways of the road—dealing with drunk people, maximizing a geographic area, deciding whether to amenitize one’s back seat with Kleenex and phone chargers—a little cash cushion has always been available. It came from recruitment bonuses, whose amounts fluctuate, but have generally been north of $300 for the current driver, with the newbie getting their welcome gift, also in the hundreds, after a vehicle inspection, background check, and driving a certain number of rides.
But Uber has had unseemly corporate behavior and driver hardships exposed in the last few weeks, making it tougher for current drivers to convince the gig-curious that affixing Uber’s distinct square-in-a-broken-circle to their windshields is a straight route to easy green. And it takes longer to cash out than urban lore might suggest. In the summer of 2014 it was as few as 15 rides to see the money; today the requirement has been extended to 75.
Driver chatter—in person, social media, or self-published blogs— is the only method of learning Uber bonus policy over time, because the company itself does not publish it like a typical promotion with an expiration date and clear terms, let alone archive it for easy public access. So Paste called around to get the current snapshot.
For now, in both Los Angeles and San Francisco, $500 is the current bonus for the a driver after reaching 75 rides, while the referring driver will take $300. Without a referral from a current driver, the sign up hub of Uber’s site promises a $1250 total payout after 100 trips, noting that unspecified terms apply.
Uber recruiters at UCLA’s heavily trafficked Bruin Walk thoroughfare in fall 2015, aggressively recruiting new students to drive. Photo by Julie Walmsley
It might not be enough to continually add Ubers to Southern California streets. “I definitely haven’t had anyone ask about becoming a driver in a long while. In almost any conversation, Uber is definitely seen as a deal favoring the passenger over the driver,” said Los Angeles driver James Breham, 53, who’s been on the road for the embattled ridehail behemoth since last October.
He jumped right in and hasn’t studied the craft much, apart from skimming videos posted by the more seasoned drivers who broadcast their veteran perspective on YouTube. Those drivers generally believe that the heyday of Uber cash—both driving and recruiting—is well in the past.
Current driver referral offers go out via email to the existing independent contractors Uber misnomers as “partners,” but the specific terms of recruitment incentives, like many Uber policies, change without notice.
Uber flyers like this were a common site in Westwood Village, near UCLA, where recruiters could be seen in full force, about a mile north of Uber’s then-new local office. Photo by Julie Walmsley
Los Angeles and San Francisco drivers are also, according to anecdotal evidence from those interviewed, grappling with a flooded market. Put a different way, there aren’t all that many more ridehail neophytes to cultivate. Breham isn’t recruiting too aggressively because “I figure there’s maybe five people out there who have not signed up with Uber or Lyft so I don’t really push my referral code as heavily as I probably should, but when I do I often get some blowback about how there’s already enough drivers on the road.”
Uber’s direct competitor Lyft also has incentives for pulling in drivers, as well as a separate Ambassador Program. “Ambassadors” don’t have to drive to recruit; they just talk Lyft up, presently earning up to $750 for each new driver, and $10 for each new passenger’s first ride, according to Lyft’s current program description on its website. Some Los Angeles Lyft Ambassadors report a consistent $4,000 per week since the beginning of the year.
Signing up to drive without a referral from a current Lyft contractor yields a $500 bonus after completing 100 rides within 30 days. With a referral, it is only $300, but an extra $2.31 is tacked on to every ride for the first 30 days up to 100 rides, presenting the possibility for a larger total payout of $531.
Lyft’s earnings estimator for new drivers predicts up to $400 per week in Los Angeles while driving 20 hours per week, or $20 per hour. In San Francisco, that figure jumps to $700 per week, or $35 per hour.
For his part, San Francisco Uber driver Jeremy Ferrick, 41, is edging away from Uber and toward on-demand food delivery service Postmates. He doesn’t try to recruit new drivers in: “The last few weeks, it’s hard to tell people it’s great.”
An actor and a musician who had his income nicely supplemented by Uber when he was driving in Los Angeles, he’s seen prices change and finds some Uber policies, like the requirement to allow service dogs that might provoke an allergic reaction for his next passenger, a deterrent. Ferrick said in a phone interview that constant price cutting is unnecessary: “I feel like they had a good business plan a couple years ago for drivers, and [fare slashing] wasn’t good business because customers were perfectly willing to pay the fares before.”
Ridehail’s unofficial guru Harry Campbell, also known as The Rideshare Guy, believes mercurial driver bonuses and wary passengers might temporarily put a dent in Uber, but the general concept will drive on. “I don’t think there’s less passengers using rideshare. Really it’s just that they’re shifting their usage to Lyft,” Campbell said. He noted that $500 for a new Uber driver is still a decent upfront bonus, and his audience is used to living in flux: “I mean, are we surviving? Uber drivers, we’re always surviving.”