Tornado, virus, protests rattle Nashville rideshare economy

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — After driving for Lyft for six years, Joni Bicknese decided to invest in a minivan at the beginning of 2020, reasoning that she could make more money if she could transport more riders. Then came what she calls Nashville’s quadruple-whammy: a tornado, coronavirus closures, protests that rocked downtown, then more closures.

Many drivers opted simply to stay home and try to collect unemployment, something that wasn’t available to them before Congress extended benefits to gig workers in response to the economic chaos brought by the virus. But the $600 per week federal supplement ran out last week, leaving just the maximum weekly unemployment benefit of $275 in Tennessee.

Bicknese says business has gone from dismal to tolerable, but only because so many drivers have voluntarily stayed home. Bicknese chose to keep driving because she didn’t think she could make her car and insurance payments on unemployment. March and April were “devastating, horrible,” she said.

“For four or five weeks it was no income. Then what happened is so many drivers filed for unemployment and stopped driving that demand came back,” she said.

Samuel Moore is one of those who left the business. The public school teacher was driving part time for extra cash but quit at the beginning of March over concern about the virus.

“I had intended on driving pretty heavy over the summer full time,” he said. “Alas, that didn’t work out.”

Moore had his main job to fall back on, but others drive as their full-time job. Joy Evans, who moderates a private Facebook group for drivers with more than 2,000 members, said many are worried that the unemployment supplement is ending but demand for rides is still low. Evans estimates that many drivers working full time before the pandemic were probably earning about $60,000 a year. She said they likely won’t be able to get by on just $275 a week.

The pandemic has been particularly harsh on America’s estimated 1.5 million gig workers, who operate largely without safeguards such as minimum wage, unemployment insurance, workers compensation and health insurance.

A spokesman for Uber said the company is offering up to 14 days of financial assistance to drivers diagnosed with COVID-19 or asked to self-isolate by a public health authority and already has provided more than $19 million in aid.

Spokesman Javier Correoso declined to address how many drivers are still on the road, either in Nashville or across the U.S., but did say demand for the service is generally on the rise. “After falling 75% in the second quarter from a year earlier, it’s now at less than a 60% decline from the prior year,” Correoso wrote in an email, citing a call between Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi and investors from the beginning of July.

Lyft also declined to release driver numbers but said in an email that the company has begun a pilot project to deliver things like meals and medical supplies to government agencies, nonprofits, businesses and health care organizations.

Rodney Neighbors remembers driving around panicked tourists just before Nashville shut down in March.

“The next day it was a ghost town,” he said. “I thought, ‘Oh, my God. What am I going to do?'”

Neighbors was lucky enough to be offered extra hours at a second part-time job until the rideshare business picks up. He says he’s making close to what he did before the pandemic but has to drive a lot farther. He’s also worried about the future.

“If there’s another partial shutdown, no one’s going to be able to afford to take Uber because they won’t have jobs,” he said. “I hope it doesn’t come to that.”

Even though business is better now than in March, things aren’t the same as before the pandemic. Instead of well-heeled tourists, Bicknese finds herself driving people on unemployment, factory workers and patients travelling to medical appointments. She recalls giving 25 rides one day without getting a single tip.

And then there are there are the fights over masks. Uber and Lyft now require both drivers and riders to wear them, but Bicknese said customers don’t always cooperate. Just southeast of Nashville in Rutherford County, where she lives, “all it is is fighting people over masks. It’s like the Wild West.”

Driver Samuel Taylor said he started wearing a mask back in March, but passengers were uncomfortable, thinking it meant he was sick. He ended up not driving for several months because of low demand and safety concerns. Taylor lives with his mother, so he said he tries to be extra cautious.

He started driving again a couple of weeks ago, stretching a 10-pack of single-use masks Uber sent him by spraying them with disinfectant and reusing them.

Before the pandemic, Taylor said he would often drive to nearby Franklin in the evenings, looking for business travelers going to the airport or trying to get to Nashville for a night on the town. These days, he mostly picks up locals going to work or heading home.

“Sometimes it’s a waste of time,” he said, noting he’s making about half of what he did before the pandemic. “But I haven’t pushed too much. I’m still testing the waters.”

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