Gig work is the new Ellis Island for immigrants looking for work. But many drivers feel trapped i... - 9 minutes read

Rodolfo has driven over 18,000 Uber rides in South Florida and has a near-perfect rating. Still, he feels trapped.

Adjusting to life in the US after his move from Venezuela five years ago was "extremely difficult," Rodolfo told Business Insider in Spanish. He saw driving for Uber and Lyft as virtually his only option, given he lacked the necessary immigration paperwork and English-language proficiency for higher-paying jobs.

Life has gotten easier since taking up driving, he said. And his job is fulfilling because many of his drives get people to doctors' appointments, assist older Americans on their errands, and allow him to connect with dozens of people a day.

However, he feels the need to "repeat, repeat, repeat" his daily schedule. Some weeks, he's working 50 to 60 hours but only makes $800 to $900 before gas and expenses.

He's not alone. He said he's seen many immigrants become drivers — and the increased competition is hurting his paycheck. It's been harder for him to get higher-paying rides, and he feels forced to accept most rides, including ones for $4 or $5 where he doesn't quite break even.

There are no government or public statistics from ride-hailing companies about the number of immigrants who drive. However, nearly half of all immigrants reported being independent workers, according to a poll of 25,062 adults conducted by Ipsos on behalf of McKinsey and published in August 2022.

For many immigrants, gig work is the only income source they can find, said Katie Wells, a geographer at Georgetown University whose book "Disrupting DC" analyzes Uber's rise in the Washington, DC metro area. Many live a life of waiting — for their new lives to begin, for their remittances to transfer, and for their next passenger.

"This question of migration and the gig economy is not only showing up here; it is showing up across the world as sort of the new Ellis Island, so to speak, for migrant workers," Wells said.

The major ride-hailing companies told BI they aim to support immigrant drivers. In a statement to BI, an Uber spokesperson said the company has a partnership with the language-learning platform Rosetta Stone, as well as a strategic partnership with the International Rescue Committee in support of their global refugee programs.

Uber said it offers in-person support in different languages for drivers and couriers, and its app enables all languages that iOS or Android phones offer. Uber also has supported various US federal government refugee resettlement partners to "help refugees access essential goods and services through rides and deliveries."

A Lyft spokesperson said the company is a low-barrier financial entryway for many people "trying to establish themselves in a new place." The spokesperson said the company is aiming to increase pay and transparency on the app, and that it offers Lyft Rewards drivers discounts to the online language learning app Mango Languages.

BI spoke with a dozen immigrant Uber and Lyft drivers who moved to South Florida from countries including Cuba, El Salvador, Haiti, and Venezuela. Most asked to use only their first names over concerns about professional or personal consequences, but BI verified their identities.

Many said they are grateful that the platforms can help them start life anew. Most, though, outlined challenges such as not earning enough from driving amid heightened competition, the language barrier, not feeling adequately supported on their driver journeys, and feeling like they can't leave the platform due to a lack of other opportunities.

Immigrants feel forced into gig work

Over the past few years, immigration has helped the US's economic rebound. According to an Economic Policy Institute analysis cited by The Washington Post, between January 2023 and January 2024, about 50% of the labor market's growth was from foreign-born workers.

Dozens of ride-hail drivers from across the country who spoke to BI over the last few months said they've recently noticed more immigrant drivers on the apps. Some said they've seen immigrant drivers using fake accounts or borrowing existing accounts from other drivers, and some passengers have told them they've felt unsafe when the driver doesn't look like their profile picture on the platform.

Wells said many immigrants are attracted to driving platforms as they have a low barrier to entry with quick hiring. Drivers don't need strong English proficiency; they just need a driver's license and a car to start. While this allows many drivers to make money, there are inherent risks.

"It's really risky for people that aren't understanding the terms of the work, understanding the risks to be out doing this type of work, but these platforms generally don't seem to care about that," Wells said.

Wells said that without large-scale data, it's impossible to know how much of this workforce consists of recent immigrants. She added that she's seen many immigrant communities unite and build solidarity around driving and delivery work, such as New York City's collective Los Deliveristas Unidos.

It's hard for immigrants to find work outside ride-hailing

Edgar, 60, ran an auto parts business in Venezuela that helped him stay afloat. But when he came to Miami five years ago, fleeing the country's economic collapse, he quickly found that transferring his skills would be challenging.

When he first arrived, he didn't have the proper legal papers to find full-time employment, though that changed when Venezuelan immigrants were granted Temporary Protective Status.

He couldn't find managerial job openings and said his age has been a barrier to breaking into the industry. While he maintains his business in Venezuela, he's spent less time on it. Over two years ago, he applied to drive for Uber and Lyft as a temporary solution, enjoying that he could be his own boss.

"Normally, people like me are retired, not working full-time," Edgar said. "It's difficult to find a job with my skills."

For the last few years, he's driven 40 to 50 hours a week, mostly Monday through Friday, while supporting three kids who are in college or the workforce. According to earnings statements viewed by BI, he makes $700 to $800 a week, which is reduced to $400 to $500 a week after gas and expenses.

"I feel like my earnings are lower than before because Uber has been paying less per mile than last year," Edgar said. "Right now, there is great competition with this job."

D., a Haitian immigrant who's driven for seven years and moved to the US a decade ago, said he enjoys driving though it hasn't given him the level of financial security he's desired. He drives six days a week from 6 a.m. until 4 p.m.; on good days, he can pull in $300 to $400 before expenses, earnings statements confirm. He's had his fair share of rough driving days in Miami that have caused him stress, but he hasn't been able to find other types of employment.

"You have to do it anyway, and if you don't, you won't have anything," he said. "You just have to keep pushing and fighting."

Many of the same factors are at play for the children of immigrants. Alex, 32, was born and raised in South Florida to parents who fled El Salvador. He was raised to work hard but wasn't given many opportunities to attend higher education or get an office job, given his English isn't perfect and his employment history isn't consistent with the demands of white-collar jobs.

To provide for himself and his family, he started driving one to two days a week for Uber in February, in addition to working as an Amazon Flex driver. On average, he said he pulls in $150 a day for Uber after expenses. However, constant traffic has impeded his earnings. He said he makes more daily with Amazon Flex, which pays hourly and provides overtime.

It's hard for immigrant drivers to find alternatives, but some make it work

Most immigrants who spoke to BI said they've applied to all sorts of jobs, from maintenance and construction gigs to restaurants and retail positions, though they haven't had luck getting hired. Some say they suspect it's because of the language barrier, a lack of proper documentation, or limited employment experience.

For instance, Eliezer, an Uber driver from Nicaragua with a nearly 5.0-star rating for two years, said he doesn't know if he'll be driving for much longer, although he hasn't had any leads on other work.

He acknowledged that his earnings were not enough to live comfortably, but he didn't know what other jobs he could get with his résumé and work experience. He prioritizes driving around Miami Beach, and some weeks, he puts in 70 hours to make enough.

"I don't want to be driving for all my life, but this job permits me to travel to my country or other countries because I don't have to ask for permission when I want to go," Eliezer said, referring to requesting time off from a manager.

Some immigrants have successfully gotten other jobs and have relied on driving as supplemental income, leading some to live more comfortably.

Carlos, who immigrated from Venezuela, drives part-time to supplement his real estate work, noting gig driving is an insufficient full-time job. While this year's spring break was much less crowded than in past years, which put a dent in his earnings, there weren't as many fights or security problems as in past years.

Nicanor, who left Cuba in 1997 and moved to New York before landing in Miami, drives for Uber a few days a month to supplement his full-time truck driving. He likes the part-time arrangement, which pulls in a few hundred dollars a month, allows him to focus on a job with more consistent earnings, and socialize.

"I don't want to stay in the house and be alone," he said, adding that he doesn't have much family in the area.

Despite the challenges of earning enough, some drivers are set on perfecting strategies to make driving work for them. Especially since they've faced repeated disappointment getting hired in other sectors.

For Keylis, a young mother and recent immigrant from Cuba, driving for Uber has been "the best thing that has happened to me," she said in Spanish. She worked another job when she first got to the US that wasn't as financially stable, plus she enjoys being her own boss.

She said she makes about $1,200 a week driving around downtown Miami after expenses, and she has little intention of stopping driving as her income is stable enough.

Still, she isn't sure she will have enough saved for a comfortable retirement.

Are you a gig driver who is struggling to make ends meet? Have you recently immigrated from a different country? Reach out to this reporter at

Source: Business Insider

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