How Uber and Lyft fought Seattle over base pay for motorists

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In hopes of setting a base pay for Uber and Lyft motorists, Seattle has actually put itself in the middle of a face-off in between the business and academics.


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The city of Seattle had actually given inflammation for Uber and Lyft for many years. Last fall, that inconvenience reached a peak. After passing a tax on all trips, Mayor Jenny Durkan revealed a set of steps to assist Uber and Lyft motorists. 

Among them was likely a specific aching area for the ride-hailing business: a base pay for motorists.

To set the base pay, the biggest city in the state of Washington very first required to understand just how much motorists really make. It wasn’t as easy as using Seattle’s existing base pay of $16.39 due to the fact that driving for Uber and Lyft is various from many other tasks. Drivers cover all their own costs, consisting of gas, insurance coverage and car upkeep, and those expenses required to be factored in. So, Seattle commissioned 2 widely known financial experts from the New School and the University of California, Berkeley to crunch the information.

Unbeknownst to the city and the financial experts, nevertheless, Uber and Lyft had actually silently commissioned scientists from Cornell University in the hopes of informing another data-driven story. The business stated they paid the university an overall of $120,000 for that work. 

The 2 research study groups developed really various conclusions. The New School and UC Berkeley financial experts computed that after paying costs, Seattle ride-hail motorists made approximately about $9.73 per hour, according to their 80-page analysis launched on July 6. The Cornell scientists put the number at $23.25, according to their 130-page report, likewise launched on July 6.

“I was just amazed, outraged really,” stated Michael Reich, the UC Berkeley financial expert who dealt with the research study for Seattle. The Cornell report “just made my head spin. I couldn’t believe it.”

The divergent research studies have actually triggered a scholastic tussle including PR blitzes, data-shaming and a dramatically worded defense. The Cornell report likewise triggered an important internal memo from a teacher at the university that raised concerns about the school’s participation in research study commissioned by personal corporations.

Uber and Lyft might be young business, however they had actually obtained a page from a well-used business playbook. Companies have actually long paid academics to perform research studies that may affect policy makers and popular opinion. Tobacco, pharmaceutical and chemical business are infamous for it. Coca-Cola apparently utilized the strategy to move blame far from sugar as a factor to weight problems. Google presumably invested countless dollars to money research study documents that challenged antitrust guidelines. If effective, these sort of research studies can cause unwinded laws and a great deal of conserved cash for the business.

In the case of Uber and Lyft in Seattle, the ideal research study might assist the business conserve countless dollars by affecting the city’s policy to prevent paying its existing base pay. Likewise, for motorists, a minimum per hour pay that properly considers costs might be a lifeline at a time when they’re risking their health due to the fact that of COVID-19 to shuttle bus individuals around town. Seattle, which has about 30,000 ride-hail motorists, is anticipated to reveal a choice on the driver-specific base pay in coming weeks.

Reich and his associate, James Parrott, computed that the base pay for Seattle motorists need to be $28.19 per hour to represent costs. The Cornell scientists, led by teacher Louis Hyman, didn’t develop a number based upon a comparable analysis however rather concluded that 92% of motorists in the city currently make more than the $16 base pay, even after subtracting costs.

Although Seattle had not asked for the alternate analysis from Uber and Lyft, the business stated they expected regulators may still take it into account.

“We hope policymakers will take a fact-based approach as they consider new policy proposals by using the insights from Cornell’s in-depth analysis of detailed data,” an Uber spokesperson stated.

Cornell University didn’t return an ask for remark.

War of words

Over the previous numerous months, Parrott and Reich dealt with surveying almost 7,400 motorists and making their calculations. The Cornell scientists were silently doing their own analysis utilizing information on 14,000 motorists offered by Uber and Lyft. Less than a week prior to Parrott and Reich were to launch their findings on July 6, Cornell’s scientists sent their report to the city.

Chelsea Kellogg, a spokesperson for the mayor’s workplace, stated they were all taken by surprise. “We only got a little bit of a heads-up,” she stated.

The opposing scholastic groups accepted have a Zoom call to talk about the findings. But that didn’t smooth things out. And, as the 2 reports were openly launched last Monday, both sides installed their defenses.

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The New School and UC Berkeley financial experts took a look at base pay levels in big cities throughout the United States.


James Parrott and Michael Reich

Parrott and Reich penned a five-point defense to the Cornell research study, defining the distinctions in between the 2 reports. They stated the Cornell scientists didn’t include all of the motorists’ costs, consisting of car cleansing, smart device costs and cars and truck insurance coverage. They likewise kept in mind the Cornell research study consisted of suggestions in its profits estimations, which isn’t permitted under state and regional laws. In addition, they stated the Cornell research study for the many part just considered the time motorists were on a trip. Time invested awaiting trips, which can be as much as 50%, wasn’t constantly factored in.

“If drivers are really being paid that well,” Reich stated, “there should be a lot more people wanting to be drivers.”

Meanwhile, Uber and Lyft invested the recently pressing their story. Lyft emailed press reporters a link to the Cornell research study on July 7 stating it reveals “drivers in Seattle make $23/hour.” The business didn’t discuss the city’s commissioned report. When CNET asked Uber and Lyft about the Parrott-Reich research study, both business stated they had concerns with the research study.

“We had questions about the procurement process they used to choose the labor-affiliated researchers,” stated Julie Wood, a Lyft spokesperson. Parrott and Reich are financial experts and aren’t associated with any union. The set was likewise tapped by New York City in 2018 to do a comparable base pay research study for ride-hail motorists.

Uber and Lyft indicated the truth that Parrott and Reich were utilizing information the financial experts gathered from motorist studies, whereas the Cornell scientists were dealing with flight information offered to them straight by the business.

“Parrott and Reich’s study is based on limited data and flawed assumptions about drivers’ experiences that are unsupported by facts, evidence or reality,” an Uber spokesperson stated. “Parrott and Reich throw the kitchen sink into their per-mile cost estimates to artificially depress driver net earnings estimates and wildly inflate the pay standard needed to ensure that drivers earn minimum wage.”

Lyft’s Wood stated, “The fatally flawed combination of an anecdotal data set and a series of incorrect assumptions means this report’s conclusions are divorced from reality.” 

Parrott and Reich stated they surveyed motorists to collect their information due to the fact that Uber and Lyft, pointing out privacy concerns, decreased to offer flight information when Seattle requested it. As these days, the financial experts state the business still will not turn over that info.

“If the authors of the Uber-financed study had bothered to talk to even a single Seattle driver,” stated Nurayne Fofana, who has actually been a full-time ride-hail motorist for 4 years and was surveyed by Parrott and Reich, “they would know that the vast majority of this work is done by Black and brown immigrant drivers, working long hours for low pay to support our families.”

The lead author of the Cornell research study, Hyman, stated Uber and Lyft were “uncomfortable” offering the information straight to Seattle, so rather they offered it to his group. Hyman stated that neither he nor the other scientists on the job got any of the $120,000. Instead it went to the university. He included that although the research study was commissioned by the business, it didn’t form his group’s research study. 

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The Cornell scientists’ report states 92% of Uber and Lyft motorists in Seattle make more than the $16.39 base pay, even after subtracting costs.


Cornell University ILR School

As far as the outcomes of his report, Hyman stated, “We expected to find full-time drivers making less than minimum wage. We were very surprised to see so many drivers working part-time and earning average wages.”

Hyman worried, nevertheless, that the $23.25 typical per hour pay number the business are promoting should not be the focus of his research study. He stated his group computed the typical per hour spend for full-time motorists at around $18, which indicates half the motorists were making more than that and half were earning less.

“I know there’s that number the comms people at Cornell and Uber and Lyft are pushing,” he stated. “For us, we really wanted to emphasize the variation.”

Reputation at stake

As the disagreement played out recently, an internal memo composed by an unaffiliated Cornell teacher distributed amongst the university’s scientists associated with the research study.

Citing “serious worries,” the author of the memo, which was seen by CNET, stated there were issues Uber and Lyft will utilize the findings to promote their own interests. The author showed that the department needs to be associated with research study that advances public law, instead of “advance the monetary gains and power” of particular personal business.

This isn’t the very first time Cornell has actually been challenged over a report for ride-hailing business. A publication based out of the university’s Industrial and Labor Relations school had actually released a research study in 2018 by an economic expert who works for Uber, Jonathan Hall, and the late labor financial expert Alan Krueger. That report analyzed motorist demographics and profits and stated 81% of motorists were pleased working for Uber. Those findings were slammed by other financial experts as agreeing with towards the business.

In the memo, the Cornell teacher stated that after the Hall-Krueger research study was released, the track record of the ILR Review was “very seriously damaged.”

According to numerous media reports, Uber has actually utilized the Hall-Krueger report (and earlier models of it) as a tool to develop itself in brand-new cities and to affect regulators, consisting of safeguarding itself for keeping motorists categorized as independent specialists.

After speaking with CNET and other press reporters recently, Hyman emailed CNET on Saturday stating he recognized his group needs to’ve composed an intro to its report to put its findings in context. That seven-page introduction, which was contributed to the top of the research study, highlights the variation in Seattle motorists’ profits.

“Our function is not to work as protectors or apologists for the [ride-hailing companies],” the report’s introduction now checks out. “Furthermore, these findings cannot be generalized to other cities, domestically or internationally.”


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As for Seattle’s regulators, Durkan’s office said it doesn’t plan to use the Cornell study in determining its minimum wage for ride-hail drivers. Instead, the city intends to use the numbers from the report it commissioned from Parrott and Reich. This means Uber and Lyft will likely be required to pay drivers in the city a minimum wage of $28.19 per hour within coming weeks.

Kellogg, the spokeswoman for the mayor, said that given the economic hardships facing workers in the US right now, it’s important to make sure ride-hail drivers earn a living wage. 

“This study comes at a time when protecting workers without a safety net is even more critical,” Kellogg said. “Seattle faces a global pandemic, historic financial downturn and is in the middle of a movement to undo centuries of systemic racism, including disparate access to economic opportunity experienced by people of color and immigrants.” 

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