SURVEY: Chicago Gig Drivers Face Low Earnings and High Health and Safety Risks, and 9-in-10 Say Drivers Should Have the Right to Unionize

La Grange, IL: A survey of more than 500 Chicago area drivers for rideshare and delivery apps reveals that 62% of drivers work more than 30 hours per week, 41% earn less than $15 per hour, 40% are either uninsured or rely on taxpayer-funded or taxpayer-subsidized health insurance plans, and 91% support union representation rights for gig workers. The survey, which also found that a simple majority of gig drivers wanted to be classified as employees, was conducted between November 2021 and March 2022 by the Project for Middle Class Renewal (PMCR) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the Illinois Economic Policy Institute (ILEPI).

Read the Study, Quality of the Gig: An Analysis of App-Based Platform Drivers’ Working Conditions in the Greater Chicago Area.

Using Qualtrics, the survey gathered responses to a range of questions for 502 Chicago area app-based passenger transportation and delivery drivers. The survey questions detailed app-based drivers’ demographics, work hours, earnings, benefits, expenses, and working conditions. The research comes at a time when a Chicago Rideshare Living Wage and Safety Ordinance has been proposed to raise driver pay and improve safety and when the Biden Administration is proposing a new rule to make it more difficult for companies to misclassify workers as “independent contractors.”

Relative to the overall Chicago workforce, white and African American drivers were a disproportionate share of survey respondents. Consistent with prior demographic analyses of the rideshare industry, more than three-quarters of the drivers surveyed were male. Educational attainment of the sample size was lower than the Chicago workforce, with more than half of all respondents having a high school diploma or less. While nearly six-in-ten respondents said their jobs as gig drivers were a supplement to other part-time or full-time jobs, more than half of all respondents reported driving for gig companies at least 35 hours per week. On average, Chicago area app-based drivers earned 17% lower annual incomes than the region’s workforce as a whole and were less likely to have health insurance.

“Overall, the survey data show a fundamental disconnect between drivers’ expectations of ‘supplemental’ employment, and a reality that demands something far closer to full-time work,” added study coauthor Dr. Larissa Petrucci, PhD. “Flexibility in gig work is inherently constrained by economic necessities that often impose less desirable work hours, locations, and working conditions on drivers. Factors like inflation, unreimbursed fuel and vehicle maintenance costs, and the unpaid time that drivers spend waiting for passengers to request rides or deliveries only intensify these pressures.”

Though half of all respondents reported “flexibility” as the primary reason for working for app-based driving or delivery services, responses suggest that the impact of economic pressures on gig worker flexibility—pressures that may also be heightened by in-app customer rating systems—could also be impacting health and safety at work.  For example, strong majorities of drivers reported routinely forgoing bathroom breaks, experiencing pain related to driving, and suffering from violence and harassment on the job. Women and people of color were most likely to report feeling unsafe on the job, with people of color also more likely to report having a ride canceled once they pulled up to pick up a passenger.

Overall, more than half (54%) of all survey respondents reported that they wanted app-based drivers to be classified as employees instead of as independent contractors. Fully 91% said they supported drivers having the right to unionize.

“In considering the future of work in Illinois and beyond, policymakers are challenged to better define what model of employment will best produce a quality job,” said Dr. Robert Bruno, study coauthor, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign professor, and Director of the Project for Middle Class Renewal. “This survey details how their treatment as ‘independent contractors’ too often coming at a cost of low incomes, no benefits, and substantial health and safety risks. Classification as employees, expanded access to collective bargaining, local wage and safety standards, and other reforms should be considered to help better align the benefits of gig work and the imperatives of job quality, instead of needlessly pitting them against one another.”

The Illinois Economic Policy Institute (ILEPI) is a nonprofit organization which uses advanced statistics and the latest forecasting models to promote thoughtful economic growth for businesses and working families.   

The Project for Middle Class Renewal (PMCR) at the University of Illinois investigates the working conditions of workers in today’s economy to elevate public discourse aimed at reducing poverty, create more stable forms of employment, and promote middle-class jobs.