Will drivers cash in on Uber  stock when the company goes public?
May 9, 2019

Will drivers cash in on Uber stock when the company goes public?

Some Uber drivers can buy stock in the company's IPO this week. But do they even want to?

Uber is going public tomorrow, listing its shares on the New York Stock Exchange. Some employees of the company stand to make millions, even billions of dollars.

And Uber is giving drivers with more than 2,500 rides on the platform cash bonuses that they can use to buy stock at the initial public offering price. The amounts range from $100 to up to $40,000, depending on how many rides a driver has.

But how much of a benefit is that to drivers who are already unhappy with their pay?

“I don’t think it’s enough,” said Shaylee Ramirez, who drives for Uber. “They’re trying to throw crumbs at us. At the end of the day, what we need is something that is guaranteed on a weekly basis, on a daily basis, on a yearly basis.”

On Wednesday in New York City, Ramirez and other drivers protested outside Uber’s headquarters calling for higher wages from Uber and Lyft and better treatment. There were similar protests all over the country.

Drivers protest at Uber's New York headquarters.
Drivers protesting this week at Uber’s New York headquarters.

“That stock is not going to stop us from becoming homeless,” Ramirez said. “That stock is not going to help pay our rent and care for our children. So they need to come up with something a little bit better than that.”

One academic says the ideal scenario would be for companies to give drivers equity before the company goes public, as if they were engineers or product managers or designers.

Arun Sundararajan is a professor at New York University who wrote a book on gig employment and how it’s changing the economy. He said securities law hasn’t really caught up with the gig economy.

“The challenge for a privately held company is that it’s extremely complicated to have hundreds or even thousands of people who don’t have a strong relationship or an employment relationship or aren’t accredited investors to own small numbers of shares in a private company.”

But he said he thinks the law will evolve to allow private companies to give equity to their part-time workers.

“That would be a nice outcome,” he said. “It would be reflective of the fact that they made important contributions to the evolution and success of the company.”

Now, of course, having stock in a company doesn’t mean you’ll make money when it goes public. Lyft also let drivers buy its shares when it went public, but its stock price has fallen since its public debut.

Some drivers like Jay Cradeur, who also writes about the ride-share industry, are pragmatic.

“I think if you have the right mindset, it’s not a problem,” Cradeur said. “I’ve just come to accept that this is the relationship we have. I am an expense, and they are going to try do everything they can to pay me as little as possible.”

When Uber goes public this week, it says it will reserve 5.4 million shares, about 3% of its offering, for drivers to buy with their cash bonuses.

Anything they don’t buy will be returned to the public market.

Lyft reported its first earnings as a public company on Tuesday. And although it gave a generally encouraging report, it also held back some information that it used to give investors, like the number of total rides and bookings it had in the previous quarter, which is a fairly useful indicator of whether the service is growing.

Lyft lost over a billion dollars last quarter, which is more than it lost in all of 2018. Investors were mostly worried about the lack of data. Lyft’s shares closed at an all-time low on Wednesday.

But Lyft did announce a partnership with Waymo, the self-driving car company owned by Alphabet, which investors do like because they don’t want to see the company get put out of business by someone else’s army of self-driving cars.

Although obviously, long term, that’s not great news for drivers either. If the cars drive themselves, who needs a human?

The future of this podcast starts with you.

Every day, the “Marketplace Tech” team demystifies the digital economy with stories that explore more than just Big Tech. We’re committed to covering topics that matter to you and the world around us, diving deep into how technology intersects with climate change, inequity, and disinformation.

As part of a nonprofit newsroom, we’re counting on listeners like you to keep this public service paywall-free and available to all.

Support “Marketplace Tech” in any amount today and become a partner in our mission.

The team