Are Uber’s drive-at-home dads the new “piecework” button-sewing moms?

On the road again. And again. And again.
On the road again. And again. And again.
Image: Reuters/Regis Duvignau
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At 5:33 am on a Saturday, the sun slowly illuminated a Dulles Airport access road as a father’s words carried to the backseat. The “drive-at-home dad” described tiptoeing out of the house before dawn most mornings to work for Uber, then heading home to feed his two kids breakfast so his wife can leave for the State Department job she loves. After taking his sons to school, he clocks another five hours behind the wheel, finishing in time for pickup and homework help.

He’s not alone: across the nation, blue collar fathers increasingly turn to companies like Uber for the flexible work schedule needed to support their partners and children. It sounds good, and certainly modern, but some call it a bait-and-switch we’ve seen before.

Maryland resident John Hawkins used to work as a flagger. When a utilities company needs to perform work near a roadway, it often hires a work zone safety service to don fluorescent vests and manage traffic. Hawkins would receive a call and be dispatched to a worksite, heading home whenever the job finished up. That made life painfully unpredictable. He never knew when he’d be forced to cancel plans with his son, and once he arrived, Hawkins said, “a job could last just four hours, and then that’s all the work I’d get for the day.”

His story is typical of lower-wage workers in America according to Senator Cory Booker. In his book United, Booker said that hardworking people often can’t get enough hours to earn a living wage. What’s more, “the lowest income workers face the most irregular work schedules,” according to a 2015 Economic Policy Institute briefing paper. That, Booker wrote, “mak[es] juggling kids’ schedules nearly impossible.”

When Hawkins’s sister recommended he give Uber a shot, he took a few days off work. “I drove for three days and made more money than I did the whole week before, plus I was able to get my son back and forth from school and spend more time with him,” he said. Hawkins quit his job and began driving full-time. At first it seemed too good to be true.

Now, he says it was.

Uber has been widely criticized for failing to provide its drivers with a living wage. Like some, but not all, members of what’s become known as the “gig economy,” Uber tends to classify blue collar workers as independent contractors rather than employees. That’s important because employees must be paid a minimum hourly wage, receive certain benefits, and in some states, be reimbursed for expenses like gas.

Some call lack of these protections the cost of flexibility. Female professionals have long been known to seek out part-time jobs only to find themselves working 75% time for 50% salary. These days fathers also want to actively engage in the childrearing process, and they’re willing to take a pay cut in order to do so.

That was always okay prior to the New Deal, said Professor Nelson Lichtenstein, an expert in US Labor History at the University of California, Santa Barbara: “Back then the opinion of the courts was, ‘make a deal.’ It was called liberty of contract. But reformers said, ‘no, neither side can choose to have a wage lower than an established minimum or hours greater than an acceptable maximum,’” and legislation was passed to make it so.

Further use of a historical lens shows that Uber giving drivers the ability to perform labor when and where they want involves new technology, but an old debate.

During the “liberty of contract” era, women often took in “homework,” tasks they could complete at home such as sewing buttons on shirts. In theory, that meant one could care for children and fit in paid work during downtime, being compensated by the number of pieces produced rather than by the hour.

Starting in the 1870’s—according to Feminist Studies Professor Eileen Boris, author of Home to Work—reformers fought to ban homework. Progressive opponents viewed the practice as exploitative, because companies set the rate per piece and reduced it with no recourse for the worker. What’s more, quotas meant homeworkers wouldn’t be paid unless they completed a minimum batch by a certain time, driving women to toil through the night. Once New Deal labor laws and unionization were in place, bigger businesses objected to homework as well in order to avoid competition from the individuals they called “chislers.”

They faced vigorous opposition from women wanting control over their own work, however. Supporters of homework also argued that it allowed the old and disabled the ability to earn.

Eleanor Roosevelt and other protectionists won out, and the practice was banned in garment-related industries. Boris said members of the Department of Labor’s 1934 Housework Committee realized that some would suffer because of the change, but they thought the prohibition of homework would lead to better employment opportunities generally. “Homework may have been good for individual women,” said Boris, “but it wasn’t good for women as a whole.”

That brings us back to the gig economy. “In a period of chronic underemployment and stagnant wages,” Lichtenstein said, “people will want to work for whatever they can get, and an erosion of standards—from ten cents per button to five, from ten dollars a ride to five—will naturally result.”

Both Boris and Lichtenstein also worry, as New Deal reformers did, that the heralded flexibility is flimsy, with companies like Uber subtly coercing their workers and giving them less control than it would at first appear.

There’s some evidence supporting this view in the story of Donald Lohr, a veteran who lives near Mystic, Connecticut. Lohr used to work full-time as a courier for FedEx. Driving for Uber enabled him to cut back to a part-time schedule and eat with his family in the evenings. On Fridays and Saturdays though, he often got alerts from Uber letting him know about crowds at the nearby Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Resort Casino. He’d go out driving again after dinner to scoop up the higher fares.

Hawkins too got messages from Uber reminding him about high-demand events like Nationals games ending and bars closing. At first it seemed helpful, but later he said, “It feels like they’re making me drive when I don’t want to.” And it’s not just about timing: “They also have this diamond over the map on the app that they call ‘the reward zone.’ If you drive in there, you make more money. When I first started, the whole area of the diamond got you the bonus, but the reward section got smaller and smaller, and they move it around to get you to drive exactly where they want you to be at just then,” he said in 2016.

This doesn’t surprise Lichtenstein: “There’s an imbalance of power, and over time it tends to be the company that chooses when and where the worker is available in arrangements like these.”

Hawkins’s earnings didn’t live up to expectations either. “That first few days, I made what seemed like a lot of money after my last job, but Uber’s hiring more and more people. There’s more cars on the road, and I didn’t get as many rides. One day I drove for 9 or 10 hours, and I made $100.” That’s before subtracting gas and other expenditures.

Why then didn’t he move on right away? “I couldn’t find work. If you don’t have other options, people can just walk on top of you.”

Wilfredo Garcia knows the feeling. The charismatic dad of three’s two sons “play DC Dynasty Baseball,” he declared with a proud chuckle, “and my daughter’s in college—she’s the reason why I’m bald.” During the school year, he said, the boys live with their mother in Frederick, Maryland, coming to stay with him in Washington DC every other weekend: “So basically I’d bust my butt the whole week leading up to it, driving extra so I could spend all my time with them.”

During the summer Garcia shifted things around: “I’d start at 9 after I dropped them at camp. Then I stopped around 1:30, because I had to pick them up at 3 and you never know where you’re going to end up at the end of a ride.” Afternoons and evenings with his kids weren’t the best part of becoming an Uber driver though, because there’s another side to Garcia. He’s fighting stage-four sarcoma.

Before he got sick, Garcia worked as a truck driver for a demolition company. But a person who’s in and out of the hospital with surgeries every six months or so can’t hold down a job like that. “Once I could create my own schedule, I could just do me, live again,” Garcia initially said. That cheerful roar boomed out as he quipped, “I’m glad it happened to me. I’m too stubborn to die.” Then he fell silent for a moment, returning all seriousness: “My life now is about spending as much time with my kids as possible so they can remember me.” Uber was saving that life, he said.

But Garcia too changed his mind.

After maintaining an exceptionally high 4.94 star rating, he was abruptly terminated. Ten years ago, Garcia said, someone took a swing at him while he was working as a bouncer at a bar: “I was defending myself, but I paid my debt to society and since then I haven’t had so much as a speeding ticket.” Though he passed the initial background check, he said Uber must have changed their criteria. Now that more people want to drive, he surmised, they don’t need him anymore.

“The real flexibility here,” Boris said, “is usually for the employer who gets the labor it needs without having to make a commitment to workers.” The same dynamics that once made homework “an illusionary solution to finding more time for the family,” in Boris’s words, are what left Garcia with nothing but prayers and a GoFundMe page.

Lichtenstein said gig jobs also have a “corrosive” effect on labor standards. The more people who work in this fashion, the fewer full-time employee jobs end up being offered. “I don’t know what the laws say,” Hawkins added, “but I know what they’re supposed to mean. You can’t ask people to work for you and then pay them less than minimum wage.” Yet lawyers for Uber have repeatedly argued that drivers aren’t employees and rebuffed the claim that the company pays “starvation wages.”

William Jhaveri-Weeks, a partner at California law firm Goldstein, Borgen, Dardarian & Ho, and many others who have studied the legislative and legal history of both federal and state employment laws would tend to agree with Hawkins. “The workforce flexibility created by smartphone technology,” Jhaveri-Weeks said, “is not mutually exclusive with complying with the law by properly classifying workers as employees.” In other words, one shouldn’t have to choose between flexibility and proper compensation for hours worked.

But that’s not the reality of today’s job market, and some blue collar dads, like Lohr, relish the opportunity to support their families, both financially and emotionally. “If I get home and one of the kids is sick, I don’t have to go out driving,” Lohr extolled.

We’ve come full circle, then, with would-be reformers arguing that gig labor drives compensation per hour through the floor in an exploitative manner while some workers vociferously defend the road they’re on—leaving our nation once again facing the question: “Where to?”