Uber and Lyft drivers' take-home pay plummets as petrol prices soar

Increasing oil prices are making Uber and Lyft drivers consider whether a rideshare side-hustle is worth sustaining. PHOTO: REUTERS

 NEW YORK (BLOOMBERG) - Drivers for Uber Technologies and Lyft are feeling the pain at the pump as the war in Ukraine drives gas prices in the United States to an all-time high.

When Mr Phillipe Jean, 45, filled up his tank to drive for Uber on Sunday night (March 6), the price per gallon was US$4.19, an "unfathomable," figure he said. Seven hours later, it jumped to US$4.45.

"I'm barely breaking even and I'm driving a Prius," Mr Jean said. The driver, who began working on rideshare apps four years ago, said fuel costs eat up about 10 per cent of his take-home pay on average. Today, it is about 60 per cent.

Petrol prices have dramatically spiked across the country as Russia's assault on Ukraine intensifies. On Monday, key US lawmakers reached a deal to bar imports of Russian oil into the US, paving the way for a rapid crackdown on crude from the country. Anticipating such a move, oil had its biggest daily swing ever, with the price of a barrel of Brent crude surging to nearly US$140.

The surge has trickled down to the pump at a "staggering" pace, according to Patrick DeHaan, head of petroleum analysis at Gasbuddy, an app that helps users find and save money on petrol.

The US national average price of petrol is up more than 49 US cents (36 Singapore cents) in the past week, the largest seven-day increase ever, including the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, GasBuddy data show. On Monday, the price surpassed its all-time high of US$4.10 a gallon.

That is making Uber and Lyft drivers consider whether a rideshare side hustle is worth sustaining. In Phoenix, where a gallon of petrol has soared to US$4.16, Ms Christina Brown, 46, spent US$59 to fill up her Lincoln MKS sedan, almost double what she paid last summer. As a single parent, Ms Brown supplements income from her job in operations at Delta Airlines by driving about at least 10 hours a week, and more if the apps offer promotions.

Those kinds of second thoughts pose a key challenge to a pandemic recovery for Lyft and Uber, which have struggled to find enough drivers to meet resurgent customer demand. The imbalance has resulted in higher wait times and fares for customers. The companies' leaders have said supply has substantially improved since they first began doling out incentives and bonuses last year to lure drivers back on the road.

The unprecedented shock to prices at the pump could add more uncertainty to the equation just as many Covid-19 restrictions are being lifted and more workers are heading back to the office. On Monday, Uber raised its profit outlook for the current quarter, citing increased demand for rides.

It is unclear whether the higher petrol prices are being passed on to consumers just yet. But Uber said that for every 20 per cent increase from today's average, rider fares would only need to rise 1 per cent to keep drivers' and, Uber's cut from each ride, "consistent".

"Our platform only works if it works for drivers, so we'll continue to monitor gas prices and listen to drivers over the coming weeks," an Uber spokesman said. Lyft and Uber both pointed to their partnerships with GetUpside as a way of providing immediate relief for drivers. The rewards platform offers 25 cents in cash back for every gallon of petrol purchased at participating gas stations, with higher rewards available for Lyft's Platinum and Gold drivers.

But drivers are clearly concerned. A campaign aimed at getting ride-hailing apps to help drivers with fuel costs has gathered more than 5,500 signatures on organising platform Coworker.org. The petition calls for Uber and Lyft to take a smaller commission from fares and to pay drivers the mileage its takes to pick up a passenger from the point where the request was accepted to the destination.

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