If you’ve taken an Uber or been delivered a meal from Postmates lately, you might not have thought about the person behind the wheel. From full time jobs to side hustles, carshare and food delivery services provide a way for just about anyone to earn extra cash. But COVID-19 has changed the nature of these apps and the way drivers do their job. These are the stories and perspectives of some Miami locals that were on the roads during the pandemic.
Yamilca Vieida grips the steering wheel of her Toyota Camry with blue latex gloves and peers in the rear view mirror through her face shield. Even though she’s wearing a surgical mask, the squint in her eyes tells you she’s smiling at her backseat passenger. Her cup holder doesn’t have a bottle of Pepsi, but a can of Lysol.
When the pandemic first steered the public away from confined indoor spaces and close contact over a year ago, food delivery and carshare drivers were faced with a choice: Risk your health or lose your income. For some who do the job full-time, the latter wasn’t an option. For others who use it as a side gig, the risk to their health was worth the extra cash in their pocket.
According to Uber’s annual report, carshare trips (not including those for delivery, frieght and other segments)dropped by 50% in 2020. “In 2020, many drivers stopped driving because they couldn’t count on getting enough trips to make it worth their time. Dennis Cinelli, Uber’s vice president of mobility in the United States and Canada, said in a recent blog post.
For others like Vieida, 29, it was a concern for health and safety. Until the recent widespread availability of vaccinations, every day was a step (or drive) into the unknown. She said she stopped driving in March of 2020 to avoid being exposed to COVID-19. “It was scary,” Vieida said. “I worked for Amazon during the pandemic because it was more safe.” Vieida moved to Miami from Venezuela with her husband about three years ago, and has worked for Uber for about one year.
She eventually returned to driving in November of 2020. And today, she said she no longer feels it necessary to wear a face shield or gloves. And although she has an upcoming appointment scheduled to receive her first dose of the Pfizer vaccine, she said she is still very precautious.
“I’m scared to get sick,” said Vieida. “I go to get tested regularly, like every 15 days.”
Jose Mendez, 38, never stopped driving during the height of the pandemic. He has driven for Uber and Lyft for the past four years part-time, but now averages eight or nine hours on the road each day. “I was scared, but I needed work,” said Mendez, who moved to Miami eight years ago from Cuba and has two children.
Even so, Mendez said he feels safe with the added safety precautions—the apps require both drivers and passengers to wear face coverings at all times. “I’m not nervous to drive because of the masks, the sanitizer and God. Only God knows if I will get it.” Mendez said he has already gotten his first COVID-19 vaccination dose and has his second dose scheduled.
In a poll on Distraction’s Instagram, 76% of the 225 respondents said that while their use of carshare services has decreased during the pandemic, their use of food delivery apps like Uber Eats, Postmates and Doordash has gone up. But this isn’t just a college student trend. Take out has been the lifeline of many local restaurants—ordering in gave those stuck at home a break from cooking and a taste of their favorite foods when going out wasn’t an option. So it’s no wonder that Postmates, for example, reported a 226% growth in revenue for 2020. And one UM alumna has reaped the benefits.
Sophia Espinosa, a 2020 graduate, began doing deliveries for Uber Eats and Doordash during her sophomore year at University of Miami. “Whenever I was bored and had an hour to spare, I would go and do it,” said Espinosa. She now has a full-time job, but still considers it her “side hustle.” On her days off from work, she said spends a few extra hours making deliveries. “Even though I’m fine with my finances, it’s nice to have extra money,” Espinosa said.
But for a time, she forfeited the cash. In March of 2020, Espinosa took a hiatus from making deliveries. “The chances of you getting it [COVID-19] from handing something to someone really quick are obviously very low,” she said. “But during the big months of COVID, you didn’t want to even see other people.”
“I was scared. But I needed work.”—Jose Mendez, UBER DRIVER
However, the following November, Espinosa said she felt comfortable enough to start taking advantage of the apps again. The major food delivery services, according to her, made a major transition in response to the pandemic. Espinosa said that there’s now hardly any interaction in most of her orders—many restaurants have designated areas for food pickup and orders are set to be left outside by default, rather than directly handed off.
That, in addition to the PPE requirements, is what Espinosa said made her feel safe. “To be honest, I’ve felt really safe doing it because of the fact that everything has switched to contactless and that the app always asks if you’re wearing a mask and makes you take a photo,” she said. “The job itself has been a positive experience.”
Apps like Uber Eats and Doordash pay drivers the delivery fee, tips plus a small percentage of the total food order’s cost. As for services like Lyft and Uber, drivers earn a base fair plus amounts for how long and how far they drive and tips. But for another Miami local, working for Uber wasn’t exactly what he expected.
David Afkham, 31, said he wanted to try out Uber Eats deliveries after her saw a video on TikTok of someone who claimed to make over $200 a day. He said he focused on lunchtime deliveries only, averaging about eight to 10 hours each week. At the time, August of 2020, Afkham didn’t have another job. “If you have no other options for work, it’s a good deal. You can set your own hours, you drive when you want to, you have no boss and the job itself isn’t very hard,” he said. Even so, Afkham decided to stop just two months later. “But in Miami, distances are far and there’s always traffic, so it’s tough to be quick with deliveries, which will impact your chances of making a substantial income. I wouldn’t do it again because it didn’t live up to my expectations.”
Next time you need a lift to the beach or want Thai food without actually leaving your apartment, strike up a conversation with the driver or leave a generous tip. Chances are, they’ve put their life on the line at some point during the pandemic to provide that service.
*Some interviews in this article have been translated.
To Drive or Deliver?
Here’s a look at how the pandemic has taken a toll on rideshare and delivery services—by the numbers.
The pandemic was a give and take for Uber—their gross mobility bookings were down about 50% in 2020 from 2019, but gross delivery bookings were up by about 130%.
Things may be getting back to ‘normal.’ Customer spending on Uber and Lyft increased 30% from February to March, according data from market research firm Edison Trends.
Doordash, which saw a 226% growth in revenue for 2020, added nearly two million new “dashers” (AKA drivers) to their platform from mid-March through September of 2020.
words & design_emmalyse brownstein. photo_sydney burnett.
This article was published in Distraction’s summer 2021 print issue.