Bob Nesbitt had a long career in sales. After retirement, he turned to the gig economy to earn some extra income. Nesbitt, now 75, has been driving nearly full-time for Uber and Lyft in the Portland-Vancouver area for about seven years. 

Nesbitt said it’s been harder to rely on income from rideshare companies lately.

His Lyft account was abruptly deactivated last May. Despite repeated attempts to contact the company, Nesbitt told the Mercury he has never been able to get in touch with someone who could help him. 

“You have no recourse. It’s like getting fired from a job for no reason,” Nesbitt said. “If Uber does this to me, I’m out of work. I’m on Social Security…that’s not paying my bills.” 

Nesbitt is one of several Uber and Lyft drivers who cite disparate pay between Vancouver and Portland, and a host of other recent changes that have led rideshare workers to seek intervention from local government leaders.

Rideshare drivers held a rally in Portland last Wednesday morning, seeking improvements in pay and working conditions and calling on the city and state governments to better regulate app-based transportation network companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft. 

The demonstration in Portland was one of dozens of protests and strikes around the country that day, with drivers responding to recent issues they say have made it difficult for them to make a living on the rideshare platforms. 

Problems plaguing Portland’s rideshare drivers 

The protest was held outside Portland’s Uber Greenlight Hub in the Sullivan’s Gulch neighborhood, and was organized by the local chapter of the Drivers Union (DU). DU, a non-traditional union affiliated with Teamsters Local 117, is an association of workers from Uber, Lyft, and other app-based transportation platforms. 

The organization was formed about 10 years ago to serve the Seattle area, and began to operate statewide in 2023 after Washington legislators passed new standards regulating pay, benefits, and job protections. Late last year, DU formed an Oregon chapter, recognizing the shared market between drivers in Vancouver and Portland. 

“The gap between driver rights on both sides of the river effectively did much of our organizing for us,” Kerry Harwin, DU’s communications director, told the Mercury. “Drivers who work across the state border began to come to us, asking why this discrepancy existed and what they could do about it.” 

While drivers have long sought increased support from rideshare platforms in the form of benefits, job protection, and guaranteed pay, people at the DU protest said poor working conditions have recently come to a head. As companies like Uber and Lyft— previously more concerned with popularity than profit, thanks to a now-dwindling influx of tech cash— now seek to turn a large profit, their services have become more expensive, and drivers earn a smaller cut of the fare. 

Harwin said while drivers were once guaranteed at least 80 percent of passenger fares, they now often receive less than half. 

“This decay is further compounded by Uber and Lyft’s shift toward algorithmic pay discrimination, effectively gamifying driving to pay drivers the absolute minimum pay they will accept, with different fares for the same trip depending on driver desperation,” Harwin said. 

The saturated market of drivers has also made the job more competitive and less lucrative. Add inflation, high gas prices, and the pandemic’s impact on general travel habits to the mix, and it’s clear why drivers are having such a hard time. 

Earlier this month, Lyft announced it would enact new driver benefits, including guaranteed payment of at least 70 percent of weekly rider fares. DU members say the policy is deceptive, and will not result in a pay increase. 

“[The announcement] offers far less than the company claims, falls far short of driver demands, and is far weaker than the company itself used to guarantee…LYFT’s fuzzy math collapses under closer scrutiny,” a DU press release states. “Drivers, who bear the lion’s share of increasing operating costs, not only for insurance but also gas, car acquisition and vehicle maintenance, see LYFT’s latest announcement as a continuation of a status quo that has seen the ongoing erosion of driver pay year after year.” 

Phil Berger, a Portland rideshare driver and member of DU, told the Mercury that passengers should also be upset about the lack of transparency from Uber and Lyft. 

“There are a lot of issues that riders should be up in arms about,” Berger said. “I think the biggest issue is fare transparency…it used to be clear that the rider paid a certain amount per minute and per mile, and that was the whole amount they paid. [It’s not clear] anymore.” 

In addition to concerns about pay fairness, and other job security issues, some drivers report their accounts on the rideshare apps have been deactivated for no discernable reason. This adds to precarity many drivers experience in their jobs. 

Soon after his Lyft account was deactivated last year, Nesbitt, the retiree, connected with DU members, and discovered many others were facing similar situations. 

“I thought I was a lone ranger, until I went to one of the [DU] meetings,” Nesbitt said. 

While some drivers at the protest called on Uber and Lyft to change company policies and improve working conditions, organizers have directed much of their attention to the city and state government. The regulations in Washington, which have allowed drivers more security through guaranteed pay, sick leave, workers compensation, and a new deactivation appeal process, may be a roadmap Oregon advocates can look to for guidance. 

“The path [to change] is through public awareness and legislation,” Harwin said. “I don't think anybody's ever gotten Uber to do something for workers without a law that made them do it.” 

The city's role 

One potential mechanism for change is through the Portland Bureau of Transportation’s (PBOT) TNC Drivers Advisory Committee, created by the city in 2019 “to focus on issues impacting TNC drivers and serve as a forum where drivers can express issues, concerns, and suggestions about this evolving industry.” Members of the committee are supposed to be able to give recommendations to the bureau director and representatives from companies like Uber and Lyft. But drivers who have been involved in the committee say their concerns aren’t being addressed. 

Berger, who serves as the vice chair of the TNC advisory committee, said the group “is really getting no cooperation from PBOT.” 

“We have a committee that's ready to vote on recommendations and has been for some time…but there's so much red tape in terms of what we can even discuss,” Berger said. 

Berger said many drivers don’t know about the TNC advisory committee, and he wants to turn that around. He also encourages passengers to join the committee or attend meetings and advocate for driver and rider shared interests. 

According to PBOT spokesperson Dylan Rivera, the TNC advisory committee operates the same as other similar city groups. 

“The advisory committee is required to follow certain meeting requirements in order to operate in accordance with public meetings requirements and best practices,” Rivera told the Mercury. “We understand that some drivers may have been frustrated by agenda processes. PBOT will work with the committee chair to accommodate more time for public comment in response to a very recent influx of drivers attending these meetings since December.” 

Rivera also said it’s unclear if the city has much authority to address driver concerns related to compensation and paid time off. But he said the TNC Ombuds program— which PBOT started in 2019, contracting with a local law firm to “help mediate disputes between drivers and the TNC companies”— is “open to help address many issues that a driver may have with Uber or Lyft.” 

“Complaints from drivers tend to focus on issues related to deactivations but also include instances where drivers’ pay may have been withheld due to issues with the app,” Rivera said. “In these ways, [PBOT’s] TNC Ombuds program provides similar services to those offered in Washington.” 

While the problems with the rideshare industry may not be able to be solved through city policy alone, drivers and worker advocates still want to see a shift in how their work is regulated. One path to increased worker protection may require reforms at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). 

Uber and Lyft drivers across the country have begun to form non-traditional unions like DU, which offer driver support and advocate for improved working conditions in the industry. But independent contractors aren’t recognized by the NLRB, and aren’t able to formally unionize.

“Our position is…the National Labor Relations Act doesn’t get to decide what a union is. We can still use the templates of unions and behave as a union,” Harwin said. “I think we need federal-level change that recognizes that gig work requires different forms of labor organizing. But until that happens, we’re not going to stop doing what we’re doing.”