Friday, April 29, 2016

Uber’s tortured logic

The first time I used Uber, I sat in the back seat, googling to see whether you were supposed to tip your Uber driver. What I came away from the google with was that, while there was no formal mechanism for tipping – and, in fact, Uber makes it clear that tipping isn’t necessary – everything out there written by Uber drivers said that tips are most welcome.

Since that first trip last fall, I’ve used Uber maybe 10 or 12 times. It’s been generally reliable, in some cases easier to get than a cab. (But not always. For some reason, cab drivers, with their primitive old-timey know-how, know how to find my address, which is on a major thoroughfare, downtown in a large city, and in the same block as a famous tourist spot, the Cheers block. Those relying on GPS or some sort of online map function, often find themselves in other parts of the city. I had one crazy back and forth with Uber. I could see on the app, that all the cars that were actually close to me were being waved off, while someone tootling around Jamaica Plain, which is maybe five miles away, was listed as one minute away and the one coming to get me.)

And, not that at least some cab drivers aren’t, but Uber drivers have been fun to talk with. Oh, yes, and they’ve all been quite appreciative of the tips I’ve given them. Ain’t nobody getting rich as an Uber driver. The tips help.

As a result of a class action suit against it, Uber has “agreed to clarify that tips are not included in its fares — an important concession that drivers hope will prompt more passengers to add a gratuity.” (The way the info on tipping is framed on the Uber app, one might be lead to believe that everything’s all inclusive. Which it is. It’s just that there’s not any concept of a tip factored into the prices that Uber charges.)

What Uber drivers would like the company to do is to add a tip function, so that their often cash-free clientele can add a bit extra.

For some reason, Uber doesn’t want to do this. Maybe they think it will at least psychologically translate into a fare increase, which will undermine their low, low price image. Maybe they figure ‘why bother?’ given that all the human drivers will go away once Uber gets their hands on the self-driving cars they’re so keen on.

But Uber is framing their reasons in grandiose, academic, moral high-horse terms:

Tipping is inherently unfair because of customers’ unconscious racial biases.

The transportation network company’s stance is based in part on an academic study that found white restaurant servers earned larger tips, on average, than black servers who provided equally good service...

The Uber spokesman, who declined to make a company official available for an interview, said introducing widespread tipping would make drivers’ overall compensation dependent on those same racial biases…(Source: Boston Globe)

Okay. So drivers can’t be provided with a better, easier way to get their tips – and the only way to get a tip from one of the rising generation for whom carrying cash is the ‘what’s in your wallet?’ equivalent of wearing a bustle, driving a flivver, and using a rotary phone – because a study of the restaurant biz showed that blacks get lower tips? Sounds like BS to me.

But while I may call BS, there is a counterpoint of sorts offered:

Michael Sturman, a coauthor of the 2008 Cornell study, acknowledged drivers’ frustrations. But he said multiple studies have found tips are more strongly correlated with gender, race, and attractiveness than performance.

“Companies often use tips as a way of passing compensation costs on to the consumer,” he said. “The problem is that you don’t have any control over whether violations of [antidiscrimination laws] are occurring. So there’s a lot of discomfort for companies to say they’re going to use a pay system that we know depends on race and gender, which is illegal.”

Which sounds as if he believes that any service that involves tipping should do away with tipping, as it may be allowing their customers to explicitly or implicitly discriminate. Once again, I call BS. Uber’s grabbing on to this as part of their reasoning seems like tortured logic at best.

I’d be fine with doing away with tipping if everyone just upped their prices by 20% and FULLY PASSED THE EXTRA 20% ON TO THE SERVER. Having been a waitress, I would say that just raising the hourly pay to the minimum wage wouldn’t have made me happy. I was fine getting the sub-minimum pittance, as long as I could make tips. Some days were good days, some were awful. But mostly it balanced out on the side of making more than minimum wage. I expect my experience was not unique, regardless of the color of the server. I don’t know many folks who would opt for the guaranteed minimum wage if they could make more with tips.

I haven’t been a cab driver. Do they even get paid hourly? Uber drivers sure don’t. But I imagine that most of them – Uberista or cabbie -  like getting tips.

Sure, it’s not great to hear that black servers may get worse tips than white servers. But that’s a problem that’s pretty deeply rooted in our society, and it won’t be uprooted by getting rid of tipping.

Anyway, I will continue to tip Uber drivers, just as I do cabbies, and I’d say that my tipping habits are pretty colorblind. But just to make sure, I’ll try to make note of what my impulse tip is for white drivers vs. black drivers. What I do suspect I’ll find is that I’d tip a woman Uber driver more than a man Uber driver, therefore being guilty of gender discrimination.

Since they won’t allow a tip function on their app, for Uber drivers, those tips will be in cash, since I am fuddy-duddy and bustle-wearing enough to still carry.

But I may not be using Uber for much longer.

Lyft has a tip function.

Think I’ll download their app next time I’m out and about.


Frederick Wright said...

I remain fanatically opposed to tipping, believing it to be a demeaning tradition meant to reinforce master/servant hierarchy. Pay fair wages, period. Tipping MIGHT be okay if it is truly done as a gratuity, but as we have seen with waitstaff, it quickly devolves into primary, or ONLY, compensation. A person's livelihood should never be dependent on the discretion of their customer.

Pink Slip said...

Frederick - Good points, but I do know that I wouldn't have found waitressing nearly as interesting if it hadn't been for the tipping aspect. Of course, I was young when I was a waitress, and was working for school and travel. If I'd been paying a mortgage, supporting a family, or whatever, I might have preferred to know what my steady income was going to be, rather than deal with the ups and downs of a good night vs. a bad night.

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