“I’m so over hour long waits in the city for Uber eats, because they say they can’t find a delivery driver. Ummm if your whole business model is based on delivery and your demand is exceeding supply, maybe pay your drivers more? Just a hunch.”
That tweet from @thisari88 on Saturday perfectly sums up the frustration that has been percolating through social media accounts in recent weeks as Uber (NYSE: UBER), Lyft (NASDAQ: LYFT), DoorDash (NYSE: DASH) and the rest of the app-based gig companies struggle with a problem that is infecting many sectors of the U.S. economy in May 2021 — a lack of workers.
When the April unemployment numbers were released by the Department of Labor, it showed employers across the economy had added just 266,000 jobs in the month. There are an estimated 8.2 million jobs still to recover to reach pre-pandemic employment levels.
As early as March, the gig economy companies started expressing concern about a lack of drivers as COVID-19 vaccination rates accelerated and economies opened back up. DoorDash CFO Prabir Adarkar said the company was seeing an increase in orders but not the drivers to deliver them.
In its Q1 2021 results, Lyft said that while active riders fell 36.4% year-over-year to 13.4 million, that was up from 12.5 million in Q3 and Q4 2020 and each month in Q1 active riders increased. Uber said trips taken in Q1 were 1.45 billion, which was flat quarter over quarter. Active drivers increased 4% quarter-over-quarter to 3.5 million, but that was still down 22% year-over-year.
In January, payments firm daVinci Payments released a survey of the gig economy and found that during the pandemic, it actually exploded — growing 33% to $1.6 trillion in 2020.
Clearly, there is demand for the services provided by the nation’s gig workforce, but that workforce still seems reluctant to jump back into service.
Harry Campbell, who writes the popular RideShare Guy blog, recently wrote about what he saw as the three reasons drivers were not returning quickly — unemployment assistance programs and Paycheck Protection Program loans, lingering COVID and safety concerns, and more competition for drivers.
“Gas prices aren’t helping either since they’re spiking right now, but I don’t think it’s a big reason why drivers aren’t hitting the road. Earning potential is actually at an all-time high right now,” Campbell wrote.
A February report from rideshare and delivery assistance company Gridwise found that drivers were more likely to choose food delivery during the pandemic for safety reasons — it is generally little to no contact.
A survey from Branch, an employer payments platform, and card-issuing platform Marqeta found that 85% of gig workers picked up additional work during the pandemic, and meal and grocery delivery was preferred by 50% of app-based workers, far outpacing rideshare, which came in second at just 10%. The companies said many workers chose gig work to supplement income, or to replace lost income.
“But competition among platforms will only increase as the gig economy and independent contract work continue to grow and reopenings widen,” said Branch CEO Atif Siddiqi, adding that companies offering “faster, flexible payouts at no cost will gain a competitive edge.”
In their Q1 2021 earnings reports, Uber, Lyft and DoorDash all reported customer demand continues to grow. In addition, they reported drivers on their platforms were making more than they ever have.
“With demand currently outstripping supply, driver earnings are at historically elevated levels,” Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi said on his company’s Q1 earnings call. “Median earnings for all … before tips are around $37 an hour in New York City and Philadelphia, $36 an hour in Chicago, and $33 an hour in Austin, just to name a few cities.”
LYFT CFO Brian Roberts said industrywide demand is driving up prices for rideshare.
“We’ve been increasing investments to grow driver supply,” he said. “This includes onboarding new drivers and welcoming back drivers who may have stopped driving during the pandemic.”
Getting those drivers back, though, has been problematic, and has led the companies to offer incentives.
In April, Uber announced a $250 million “driver stimulus” boost in an attempt to lure drivers back to the service as pandemic-related restrictions are lifted and riders return. Lyft announced an $800 driver referral bonus program.
“This will work to recruit new drivers to the platforms, but one concern many long-time drivers and couriers have is additional pay for themselves,” Campbell wrote in his blog. “In these cases, Uber in particular has offered long-time drivers incentives to hit the road (I even took the $100 for 3 rides incentive!), but so far it’s looking like this isn’t enough yet. And they don’t appear to have incentives for those who have stuck it out and continued driving throughout the pandemic.”
As a result, concern remains about whether there will be enough drivers to meet that demand. And if there isn’t, what happens to the gig economy?
The rideshare companies remain confident driver supply will return. John Zimmer, president, co-founder and vice chair of Lyft, believes drivers handling food delivery will transition back to rideshare as the year goes on.
“While exact comparisons are difficult, historically, studies have shown that rideshare represents a higher earnings opportunity than food delivery,” he said on Lyft’s Q1 earnings call. “Rideshare also offers a fundamentally different experience with social interactions that are largely absent from food delivery. This is important. After a year of social distancing, drivers are telling us they crave these in-person conversations. They miss the camaraderie and meaningful interactions they have while using Lyft, and we believe this brand preference bolsters our competitive positioning.”
Logan Green, Lyft CEO and co-founder, said he believes as more drivers get vaccinated against COVID-19, they will become more comfortable returning to the workforce.
“I think that’s really going to change a lot of the kind of feelings of health and safety around driving,” he noted.
Green did bring up the added $300 per week federal unemployment benefits being offered. Those are set to sunset in Q3 — and in fact, many states have already announced rollbacks of the enhanced benefits.
In addition, Congress moved quickly to support unemployed workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing gig workers and the self-employed to qualify for benefits for the first time. Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, and Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, introduced the Unemployment Insurance Modernization Act that would codify that exemption, but as of now, access to unemployment benefits for gig workers will disappear later this year.
What happened to gig workers in 2020? Gridwise report tells the story
Most of the gig economy companies are predicting strong finishes to 2021, but if they continue to see driver shortages, that could impact their bottom line. Most seem to be banking on historically higher rideshare pay compared to food delivery as well as increased vaccination rates and incentives bringing drivers back into the fold.
“It’s a really great time to bring new drivers into the system,” said Lyft’s Roberts. “And again, I think we’ll get some organic supply help just in terms of drivers who come back, who maybe just didn’t feel super safe in the earlier parts of the pandemic before they got their vaccines to be giving rides on the platform.”
“We’re actually seeing our drivers drive less food and more people because the demand for people is higher [and] the earnings opportunities are higher now,” Khosrowshahi said. “And we are seeing encouraging signs as it relates to more drivers coming back on, whether they’re new drivers that we’re recruiting to the platform or drivers that we’re resurrecting and telling them to come back because their earnings opportunities are so high.”
If Uber and Lyft expect to reach their financial targets in 2021, the return of drivers is an imperative.