Ted Parks, Uber Driver

Ted Parks is an Uber driver in Chicago who has done more than 15,000 trips over the past 6 years. He’s the father of a 6-month-old baby and a member of the Chicago Gig Alliance. He organizes with his coworkers to win fair pay, safer working conditions, and transparency for Uber and Lyft drivers in Chicago.

I’ve been driving full-time for Uber for six years, but a couple years ago I had to take on another job because my income from Uber was so unreliable. At the time, Uber changed the algorithm and made it almost impossible to get the weekly bonus that full-time drivers depended on. It seemed like they just decided we were making too much money and cut our pay overnight.

Driving for Uber comes with so many out-pocket-expenses. When I first started driving, I used my personal vehicle. Then I invested in a Prius because it’s more fuel efficient. The Prius  had 50,000 miles when I bought it – now it has 302,000 miles on it. I do all my own tuneups because I can’t afford to take my car to the shop. Uber drivers pay for everything ourselves – fuel, car payments, maintenance.

I fixed my own brakes and the shocks, too. I changed the front and the back shocks myself and it’s almost time to do it again because after a while with so much wear and tear on the vehicle you start to feel the bumps really badly. I have to work and save up to get the parts – because they aren’t cheap. Then I have to take a day or two off unpaid every time I need to work on my car. Uber doesn’t give us any paid vacation or sick days.

Between Uber and my second job, I can’t spend as much time as I want with my family.  I leave the house at 5 AM so I can do Uber rides during rush hour. Then I come home and shower and go to my second job from 2 PM until 8 PM.

If Uber paid a fair wage, I wouldn’t have to work so much. I’d make enough money to be home some evenings and take the weekends off.

I first got involved in organizing my coworkers when I helped turn drivers out for a big protest after Uber took away our bonuses. We blocked the street in front of Uber’s Chicago headquarters and did civil disobedience with planned arrests. Since then, I haven’t stopped mobilizing my coworkers.

We’re dealing with landmines organizing in Chicago now. Uber formed a company union – an organization that claims to represent drivers but is funded directly by the company – whose sole job is to take air out of the room for the real organizations that are trying to make change for drivers and passengers.

People don’t know that the company union is part of Uber’s MO. They want to be supportive and they see people in t-shirts saying they’re fighting for drivers. But it’s all a ruse. And it makes our work so much more difficult.

We’re trying to pass city council legislation with minimum pay rates, like they have in New York City, and to address other issues like unfair deactivations in a meaningful way. So the company union is doing their own Uber-backed legislation, using all the language of a real union but trying to stop us from winning real victories for drivers. They want to get 10 cents out of each ride in dues, without making material improvements in the lives of drivers, or forcing actual change from Uber.

In the meantime, Uber keeps cutting our pay. The most recent cut is the worst one yet. Uber slashed our pay by 60 to 70 percent. Since then, I’ve seen a 20-minute ride for $3.91, a 45-minute ride for just $11. That’s less than minimum wage. The only way to earn as much as we used to is to work 60 to 70 hours a week.

It feels like we’re at Uber’s mercy when it comes to these low-paid fares. If we turn down the low paying rides that pay less than minimum wage, Uber will  penalize us by not sending us rides for a while. We don’t know what the algorithm is but we know we have no flexibility when it comes to which rides we accept.

They don’t care about us at all. If a customer were to call and complain I would be deactivated without question.

Just today I had an UberPool (driving multiple separate passengers in the same car). I had two passengers and one of them started vaping. I told him to stop. But it’s a dangerous situation for me just to speak up. If I tell him to stop he might complain about me and I could get deactivated. If I don’t tell him to stop, the other passenger might complain about me and I could get deactivated.

We face stuff like that all the time. Of course I don’t want someone vaping in my car, but I have to think every time about whether it’s worth the risk of losing my income to say something.

I’ve caught COVID twice, probably both times from driving for Uber. I brought COVID home to my wife when the new variants came. And now I worry every day about bringing something home to my baby.

At the height of the pandemic, Uber sent us a couple packets of wet wipes and that was it.

I’m in close proximity with passengers in my car, in an enclosed space. For a while, passengers had to wear masks but they didn’t always. And then I’d have to decide whether it was worth telling them to put on a mask and risk them reporting me.

Talking to my coworkers and organizing, I’ve heard so many horror stories from drivers who got deactivated for no good reason. One guy was deactivated for refusing to pick up teenagers at a high school who were too young to ride without an adult. He lost his only source of income with no recourse.

I know other drivers who work 7-days a week, without a single day off, just to make ends meet. I’ve had people tell me they’re too old to go back to the office, who just want to be treated fairly. I had one lady tell me that she took a fare and the pay for it was so low she lost money driving the passenger. She felt so insulted and deflated and just turned off her app and went home.

I feel motivated to keep fighting because I have a family. I have a child. I don’t want my kid to grow up in a world where these large corporations get to abuse workers and change laws in their favor.

The workers who make these companies rich are real people – we aren’t just parts of an algorithm. We have lives to live, and we’re the ones who are being hurt so that people who are already very rich can get even richer at our expense. I’m going to keep doing everything I can to build power with my fellow drivers and other gig workers like us here in Chicago and everywhere.

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