Uber Changes Its Rules, and Drivers Adjust Their Strategies

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On a recent morning in Santa Monica, California, Sergio Avedian pulled into the parking lot of a Vons supermarket, signed into the Uber driver app, and waited.

At 7:07 am, a ride request came in for a trip to LAX that the app promised would earn Avedian between $9 and $12. He declined it. Another request, again for the airport, for $13 to $17. He declined. Another request, a short, $3 to $4 trip within Santa Monica. Nope.

It went on like this, with Avedian lingering in the parking lot, sipping his coffee, and declining requests from Uber riders as he waited for something he considered worth his time. Thirty minutes later, he got it: A 15-mile ride toward Glendale, near where he lives. Just over an hour later, he dropped his passenger off. She paid $93.51; he pocketed $76.68.

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Avedian has been driving part time for Uber and Lyft for four years, but just two months ago, or anywhere outside California, this sort of strategy wouldn’t have worked.

But in January, in response to a new state law, Uber changed the workings of its driver app in the Golden State, affecting some 395,000 drivers. Drivers can now see where a rider wants to go and an estimated payout before they accept. They are, theoretically, not punished by the Uber algorithm for rejecting too many rides. (Though starting last week, Uber began sending fewer requests to those who reject or cancel the vast majority of their ride requests.) Driver bonuses are structured differently. And around three California airports, Uber is experimenting with allowing drivers to choose their own fares.

In response, some savvy California drivers have changed their behavior. “I’ll just sit down and cherry-pick,” says Avedian. “I’m doing fewer rides and making more.”

Gabe Ets-Hokin, a writer and ride-hail driver around San Francisco, has embraced the same strategy. “When it became clear to me that Uber was not going to fire us for excessive cancelation or for declining rides, I started doing it whole hog,” he says.

A spokesperson for Uber said that the changes in the app were prompted by Assembly Bill 5, a new California law that attempts to clarify the difference between an independent contractor and an employee. “Gig economy” companies like Uber, Lyft, Postmates, and Doordash have always classified their workers as contractors, freeing them from paying Social Security or payroll taxes, or complying with federal laws regarding wages, hours, and working conditions. AB 5 tightens the rules for qualifying as a contractor, requiring that a worker be “free from the control and direction” of the company they’re working for; perform work outside the “usual course” of the company’s business; and engage in the same type of work when not working for that specific company.

“Employers often respond to changes in the law by tweaking their business practices to avoid responsibility, and that’s clearly what we’re seeing here,” says Benjamin Sachs, a professor of labor and employment law at Harvard Law School.

But not every business is controlled by a black box of an algorithm, designed to poke, nudge, and push both drivers and riders to drive and ride more. Since Uber changed its rules for California drivers, a small group of dedicated drivers—who have long clustered in forums on Reddit, a website called UberPeople, and in groups on Facebook to trade tips—have been studying how to peek inside the new black box, and make more money doing it. Avedian even coaches drivers on smart driving methods.

Uber has changed the way its bonuses work. Instead of handing over a lump sum after a driver hits a set number of trips in a set amount of time, Uber now lowers the company’s take, increasing the driver’s pay for future rides. A driver who may have once paid out 20 percent of each ride to Uber may now have to give the company only 15 percent once they hit their ride goal; that may prompt some drivers to stay on the road to earn bonuses. (The goals are set region by region, but drivers say that the thresholds now are generally lower than they were when Uber handled out a cash bonus.)