If ride-hailing app Uber goes public next year its valuation could hit $120 billion. Its smaller rival Lyft: $30 billion. But will drivers benefit?

Flush with cash despite years of never earning a profit, the companies will be able to do things like finally pay out employees and acquire other businesses. As the hot new IPOs, they’ll also get good publicity, which can raise the visibility of Lyft and help Uber — with new CEO Dara Khosrowshahi at the helm — gloss over past reports of harassment in the workplace, gender discrimination, and cut-throat tactics.

Outside of Uber and Lyft, would-be investors are champing at the bit. “There’s so much pent-up demand to invest in the ride-sharing businesses,” financial consultant Christopher Clapp at MorganFranklin said. They’ll be the first major companies in the sharing economy to go public, and what happens could affect the industry’s next round of IPOs, which will most likely include Airbnb.

After the smoke clears, it’s not clear how drivers will be affected.

A driver companion app, Gridwise, crunched the numbers from 500,000 rides and found the median hourly wage of a ride-share driver was more than $16.60 in 2018, up from $13.87 in 2017. But after expenses, and paying Uber and Lyft their cut, that hourly pay is closer to $9 an hour, reports The Street.

And once Uber and Lyft go public, possibly as soon as March or April, the drivers are probably not looking at a big pay day. 

“Drivers will not be able to share in the upside,” Clapp said, although the companies could carve out a way to grant stock options to independent drivers based on performance or time at the company, but that seems unlikely. Clapp was fairly certain only corporate, full-time employees will benefit from the IPO. 

The drivers and delivery people are the core of Uber and Lyft’s business model. The gig workers don’t get benefits, sick pay, or any stock options. Instead, as a driver, you have the flexibility to drive when you want (assuming you don’t need to drive constantly to make rent) and can “be your own boss.”

In a lawsuit filed last week in a U.S. District Court in San Francisco, drivers accused Lyft of under-paying its workers and not paying overtime, alleging, “Lyft exercises significant control over [drivers].” Lyft said it had no comment on the suit.

Drivers have protested, sued, and fought for better pay and labor practices for years. Larry Hanley, president of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) International, a group representing drivers, said he doesn’t think “anything good happening to the workers” will come from these companies going public.

Instead, he sees the IPOs as way to squeeze more from drivers. “It’s the one industry that I know of in the Western world where workers are so harmed by their employers they are killing themselves,” Hanley said, referring to recent driver deaths in New York City.


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A protest in front of Uber headquarters in San Francisco last week.

A protest in front of Uber headquarters in San Francisco last week.

Image: sasha lekach / mashable

After New York City implemented a cap on the number of new cars that could be used for ride-sharing earlier this year, Lyft and Uber both were dismayed at what they considered a severe decision. As for hourly wage issues, both companies say they support a living wage and argue they pay drivers fairly.

What will change once Uber and Lyft are public companies is drivers will be able to invest in the company they work for. But that can be risky. 

“If the company doesn’t do well, your stocks tank, and your job is in jeopardy,” said James Angel, a professor at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business.

Harry Campbell of The Rideshare Guy blog wrote in an email that he sees the IPOs precipitating lower driver pay as Uber and Lyft take more money from each ride to sop up losses as the companies face closer scrutiny from investors. This doesn’t bode well for driver retention. He says drivers are already turning to other contractor-based services like charging e-scooters for Bird or Lime. Hanley, the union president, agrees about the disappearing driver supply: “The question becomes when does the music stop?”

But not all the predictions are doom and gloom. Joseph Furnari’s HyreCar, a car-sharing service for ride-sharing drivers, He saw firsthand the “cash injection” that the IPO brought the company, along with the “golden halo effect” that affects the entire industry.

Furnari sees drivers benefiting from a more robust, public company. “[Uber and Lyft] are taking that war chest and turning that into a better experience for your customers and drivers,” he said.

As New York Magazine pointed out, new features from Lyft — the ability for passengers to tip by default, and automatic five-star ratings if riders don’t bother to rate their driver — could be an attempt to woo drivers before the IPO. Uber also released a driver incentive program with the lure of free college tuition at Arizona State University online.

No matter the turmoil over driver pay and labor rights, Furnari says the IPOs can only help the entire ecosystem. “This is a positive for everybody involved,” he said. “It’s a company maturing with more regulation, more scrutiny, and more of a burden to do the right thing.”

Hmm, that sounds familiar.

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