Uber wants to keep drivers from leaving. Some in Charlotte say it still has work to do.

An Uber car drives through LaGuardia Airport in New York. Uber is enabling passengers to tip its U.S. drivers with a tap on its ride-hailing app for the first time, and it’s giving drivers an opportunity to make more money when passengers keep them waiting. Some Charlotte drivers, though, want to see more changes.
An Uber car drives through LaGuardia Airport in New York. Uber is enabling passengers to tip its U.S. drivers with a tap on its ride-hailing app for the first time, and it’s giving drivers an opportunity to make more money when passengers keep them waiting. Some Charlotte drivers, though, want to see more changes. AP

In a parking lot one mile from Charlotte’s airport with over 25 other Uber drivers, a driver named Amy had already waited for half an hour for her turn to pick up a passenger.

“This will not pay my bills,” the former insurance agent said as she passed the time listening to music and occasionally texting her boyfriend. The ride-sharing app showed there were still 10 more drivers ahead of her in line to pick up the next available rider at the airport.

Amy, who didn’t want her last name used, is among some 6,000 active Uber drivers in and around Charlotte. And like many others, she’s hoping to return to full-time work.

Their concerns highlight a challenge facing the San Francisco-based ride-sharing company: its relatively high rate of driver turnover. Only about 25 percent of the drivers who passed Uber’s screening and drove for at least one ride were still driving for the company a year later, according to the technology news provider The Information, citing internal data obtained from Uber.

More than a dozen Charlotte Uber drivers interviewed over the last week said Uber would need to make changes for them to consider staying with the company long-term. Many of them say they take home $10-11 per hour or less, after car maintenance and gas costs.

To keep more of its drivers, Uber in June launched a “180 Days of Change” campaign aimed at improving drivers’ earnings. Among the changes: Uber now allows passengers to tip their drivers through the app, a function long used by Uber’s major U.S. rival, Lyft. Previously, Uber passengers could tip their drivers only in cash.

This week, Charlotte’s Uber drivers are welcoming the chance to earn extra money by putting in a few hours during the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow Club. But they say it’s difficult to earn much money with Uber unless you’re willing to drive at all hours, all through the year.

“It’s either sleep or money. Make your choice,” said Clinton Morgan, who has been driving Uber for six months. He said during one recent 24-hour period, he drove Uber for 16 hours and 2 minutes and made a total of 26 trips. That day, he earned $201.27 through the app, or roughly $12.55 per hour before deducting the costs.

“Nobody can make a living for Uber unless he or she lives in the car,” said Walter Ryan, another driver. “I can work at Bojangles’ and earn more.”

But he and others appreciate the flexibility of the app, which allows them to take other freelance work from time to time.

“You set your own time. You work when you want to work,” Morgan said. “With Uber, nobody schedules when you are working.”

Uber’s efforts to address driver satisfaction come as it faces other challenges on a number of fronts: The Wall Street Journal reported that it knowingly leased faulty cars to drivers in Singapore. It’s still looking for a CEO after co-founder Travis Kalanick stepped down in June. And former employees have accused the company of a sexist, overly aggressive corporate culture. The privately held company has posted repeated losses, but says it is on a path toward profitability.

‘180 Days of Change’

Since Uber launched its campaign to address driver concerns in June, Charlotte Uber drivers say they see positive changes. But they believe Uber can do more.

Amy said allowing tips through the app makes her feel safer because it avoids the exchange of money. Said Morgan: “I was always getting a lot of tips anyway. Now that they can tip on the application, it’s even better.”

Uber has also shortened the period within which a passenger may cancel a ride without penalty. Now drivers will collect a cancellation fee if a passenger cancels the ride 2 minutes after requesting it.

Spencer Dail, who has been driving for Uber for almost two years, said he appreciates the changes. “In the past, it seems that all they cared about were the passengers, like drivers didn’t matter. Now they’re starting to benefit the drivers,” Dail said. He also likes a 24/7 support hotline that the company has recently adopted for its drivers.

But he added Uber’s current design does not allow customers to enter multiple destinations. He finds the app inconvenient in situations where several passengers ask to be dropped off at different places.

A 50-year-old man who drives for both Uber and Lyft in Charlotte said about 4 out of 10 customers give him a tip on Lyft but only 2 out of 10 do so on Uber. He also said Lyft keeps a smaller percentage of the fares paid by riders from the drivers compared to Uber. He wouldn’t give his name, citing privacy concerns.

Uber says more improvements for drivers are on the way.

“Uber understands that the company’s support could sometimes be impersonal and slow to respond,” an Uber spokesman said in a statement to the Observer. “Drivers told Uber that better support would go a long way toward improving their experience.”

In addition to the campaign, Uber said it has taken action to bring more clarity to how earnings are calculated for every trip. It now gives precise rates to drivers so they know exactly what is going into their pocket for any given trip or promotion

Safety concerns

Drivers say they’d also like to see Uber make safety improvements. Amy, for example, said she was troubled by the abduction and slaying of a Charlotte Uber driver whose body was found in Rock Hill in May. Two men face murder charges in the case.

“My fear is that someone would get into the car in the back seat and maybe have a knife or something like that,” she said.

Many of the drivers who spoke with the Observer said they don’t drive after sunset due to safety concerns, even though evenings are usually busier times with passengers going to clubs and restaurants.

Another problem: Picking up passengers who have had too much to drink.

“One tip that I always give to new drivers: make sure you have a zip bag in your car in case people puke,” Ryan said, referring to drunk passengers.

Morgan said he once had a prospective passenger call for a ride, then pass out drunk in the middle of the street. Morgan opted not to take the customer.

A spokesperson for Uber emphasized the app has many safety features. Passengers using the app are required to provide name, email, phone number and credit card information. Another safety measure is the rating system where drivers and passengers can rate each other.

Signing bonuses

Uber is also trying to lure new drivers with signing bonuses and referral rewards. Bonuses for new Uber drivers vary from city to city but sometimes can be as high as $1,000.

John Rueda, who has been driving for Uber in Charlotte full time since last year, said a lot of drivers quit after finding out they don’t make enough money as Uber previously touted.

Earlier this year, Uber has agreed to pay $20 million to affected drivers to settle Federal Trade Commission charges that it misled prospective drivers with exaggerated earnings.

Rueda said he’s been spending less time with his grandchildren because it is so difficult to make ends meet by driving Uber. He earns about $8-10 per hour.

But some drivers, like Morgan, said Uber can bring good money for those willing to put in the long hours.

“Let’s say you come out here at 5 o’clock in the morning and you worked till about 3 or 4 o’clock,” Morgan said while he waited for a passenger at the airport. “Some people do that. You can make a lot of money.”

Wei Zhou: 704-358-5240