Chicago — On a Friday afternoon in the summer of 2019, Chicagoan and rideshare driver Teddi Burgess picked up a couple of passengers from Portillo’s on River North.
As the ride began, a passenger in the front of Burgess’s car began screaming. When Burgess asked the other in the back seat if he could help calm the front passenger, that person also began yelling at Burgess, telling him to stop talking and “just drive.”
Burgess told the couple she was ending the trip, to which the passenger in the back responded with threats to break the car windows and hit her if she stopped. However, she stopped the car, took her phone, jumped out of the car and called 911.RELATED
Twenty minutes later, the two had gotten out of the car and left, but Burgess waited for the police to arrive so she could report the incident to officers. Nobody showed up. He contacted Uber for help and received a generic apology email asking Burgess to “rate the passenger.”
“It was a horrible experience,” Burgess said. “I didn’t get anything. I never received any kind of follow-up. The police never investigated me. Uber never cared about me.”
Just before the pandemic began, there was an increase in people choosing to drive for a living in ride-sharing and delivery companies, and drivers also began to face more crime on the streets. They have been forced to struggle to balance the perks of the job, such as flexible hours, with the reality of the risks.
Burgess started driving full-time, mostly for Uber but sometimes for Lyft, about five years ago, after a business he owned in Rockford went bankrupt. When Rockford drivers could no longer drive to Chicago for work, she packed up and moved to Lakeview in 2018.
When the pandemic hit, he switched to driving part-time while also going back to school through a program Uber sponsors with Arizona State University (ASU), and is almost done with his digital photography degree.
Burgess is also an organizer for the Independent Drivers Guild (IDG) of Illinois, which was launched just over a year ago. The group hosted its first Wellness Fair last week at its first office in Park Ridge, which the organization relocated to in December.
The fair was organized to promote wellness and self-care practices for ride-sharing and delivery drivers amid the job’s ongoing new struggles so drivers like Burgess can feel supported during and after tough times. .
Burgess used to be a dance instructor and also teaches yoga, so she said that for drivers who spend their days sitting in the car, physical and mental well-being is a “major concern.”
Thursday’s fair was geared toward drivers and their families, offering chair yoga to combat fatigue on the job, mental wellness tips, lunches, meal ideas and healthy snacks for drivers on the road and information about support groups the organization has founded, including one for those who have had traumatic experiences on the job. Other support services were also featured, such as Legal Rideshare representatives, who offered drivers information on how to get help with property damage or injury if involved in an accident while on the job.
Burgess said New York-based IDG helped the Illinois chapter get started and continues to support it. Members of the New York group met with local chapter organizers to train them in offering support to drivers during everyday struggles or any traumatic situation.
Lenny Sanchez, director of the Illinois chapter of the IDG, said the goal of the support groups is to “address all the things that affect a driver’s well-being, whether it’s mental, physical or emotional.” The groups offer drivers an outlet to share their thoughts and experiences, as well as strategies to deal with and de-escalate certain situations.
Sánchez was a driver for five years, from March 2015 until the pandemic began. Before COVID, Sánchez said there were more than 125,000 active Uber drivers in the city of Chicago alone, but that number has dropped dramatically in the last two years.
He said drivers have a “big cloud hanging over their heads,” with falling incomes and rising safety concerns triggering drivers to organize. Sánchez said the union has several campaigns, such as wellness programs, to help drivers, as well as plans to introduce new regulations later this year and next.
One of the biggest problems drivers have had to deal with in the past two years, Sanchez said, is the rise in carjackings in the Chicago area. An informal survey, done by the union by talking to drivers at O’Hare International Airport and in ghost kitchens, found around 300 drivers who were victims of a carjacking at gunpoint while on the job in 2021, after being “pulled” by a travel request. Sánchez estimates that this now happens three or four times a day.
“It slapped us in the face the fact that drivers need to know that they are not alone in this, that there is a community of shared experiences and that we are going to support them and get them the resources and advice they need,” Sánchez said. .
At least two Uber drivers have died while on the job in Chicago. A teenager was sentenced to 27 years in prison for killing her Uber driver, Grant Nelson, in 2017. Javier Ramos was fatally shot in 2021 when he was the victim of a carjacking by his Uber passenger.
James Santonelli, a Waukegan resident who has driven for Uber and Lyft for about seven years, working in the surrounding suburbs and in the city, is a member of the union, and said he continues to drive despite the odds, because, in general, he likes what he does and “does it quite well”.
He previously worked in the restaurant management industry in various Chicago markets and said he never had time to himself, but with ride sharing, he has the ability to control his schedule.
“It gives me freedom,” Santonelli said. “That is one of the advantages of sharing a car. I can dictate my own income based on how much effort I put into the business.”
He said organizations like the Wellness Guild “can make a big difference.”
“I don’t know if you’ve ever spent 10 hours in a car sitting in the driver’s seat, but when you get out of the car, parts of your body ache,” he said. “Things like this, teaching drivers a little bit of chair yoga, some stretches they can do in the car on a long day, just sitting at a traffic light for a few minutes, can go a long way in keeping us relaxed and healthy.”
Santonelli said he sees himself driving for quite some time yet, because he’s had some success, but he’s not glossing over the drawbacks. He said that Uber and Lyft “take advantage of drivers when it comes to pay and treatment,” and, with drivers also facing rising gas prices and road crime, it’s not fair. wonder that so many people have stopped driving for these huge companies.
“In the early years of shared driving, it was much more lucrative,” he said. “Uber and Lyft provided us with most of the fares and it was much easier to make a decent living. Over the years, I’ve seen both Uber and Lyft find ways to reduce the amount we earn. […] On average, Uber and Lyft take 40 to 60 percent of drivers’ fares, when all they do is run an app, and we incur all the costs. Our vehicles, our insurance, our gasoline, our security with carjackings and other crimes that are a problem.”
Kim Ziyavo, another union organizer from Illinois, lives in Chicago and drives from time to time. He started driving around Chicago in late 2016 for Uber and sometimes for Lyft, putting in 40- to 50-hour workweeks for more than three years, “before all these carjackings, before I realized how risky it was. it could be”.
He said part of the union’s mission is to provide mental health services, and he hopes the union can engage some counselors, either in the office or on call, in the near future to give drivers professional support.
“We try to see drivers as a whole person,” he says. “They are so used to being just a number or a statistic with apps and being treated like something disposable, so we just want to bring people together and fight for better pay, better working conditions, job security, while we show drivers how to take care of themselves mentally and physically.”
Burgess said an organization like the guild helps not only current drivers, but also new drivers who want to get into the industry. The union offers education, including ways to drive around the city and tips for conserving gas mileage. One of Burgess’s biggest problems before joining the guild was having no one to turn to for help.
“It’s critical to being a good driver in this city, with all the things that are going on around us, that we stay alert, that we stay healthy,” Burgess said. “We have to be really vigilant when we do this work. To do this, we have to take care of ourselves.”