Lyft, a ride-sharing company that was recently valued at $11.5 billion and has positioned itself as the “woke” alternative to Uber, has done some nice things to distinguish itself from its much larger, international competitor. It was the first to allow riders to tip drivers, it once encouraged users to sit in the front seat with their on-demand chauffeurs, and it donated $1 million to the ACLU in a stunty, well-timed response to Uber’s crossing of a picket line during a protest against Trump’s Muslim Ban last fall.
“We’re a better boyfriend,” John Zimmer, the company’s president and CEO, told Time shortly after the“delete Uber” campaign gave his company a 60 percent increase in new users. And on Tuesday, when Lyft announced its first international expansion, company spokespeople took the opportunity to align themselves with an entire country’s progressive brand, telling Motherboard Canada’s values aligned with Lyft’s mission of “inclusivity, diversity, and treating people better.”
A day before that expansion—which catapults the company into more aggressive competition with Uber—Lyft announced its latest program towards those ends: an education discount. The first such incentive in the gig economy, it’s a stab at fostering brand loyalty in its workers, offering an on-paper avenue for self-actualization and class mobility rather than traditional benefits like sick days and health insurance.
The psuedo-benefit gives discounts for drivers who complete more than 10 rides a month, in partnership with the Denver-based startup Guild Education. Through the program, which also manages education benefits for employees at Chipotle, Lyft workers are paired with an “education consultant” who will help them choose classes through Skype sessions or over text. Depending on the class, eligible Lyft workers could receive discounts between five and 20 percent for online college courses, language classes, and GED programs.
Gabe Cohen, a general manager for Lyft’s Rocky Mountain district, said he expected ESL classes to be the most popular, though he “knows of” a Lyft driver interested in pursuing a career as a geneticist. (If you are the driver hoping to study the human genome through Lyft’s discounted online classes, we’d love to hear from you.)
According to Lyft’s numbers, 92 percent of its drivers are employed elsewhere, looking for work, retirees, or students—the company says the classes are a response to the earth-shattering realization that most of their drivers work part-time while “pursuing other interests.” For many, those other interests include chasing down other sources of income: Earnings are unpredictable and vary by city, but driving for Lyft as a full-time job is considered a very bad idea. “If you want to drive for the money, you’re better off delivering pizzas,” one Lyft driver wrote to another recently. “Delivering pizzas gives you minimum wage off the bat.”
According to a survey taken earlier this year, ride-sharing contractors skew towards middle age, and they’re more educated than the national average by about 20 points. A number of them toggle between Uber, Lyft, Juno, and other on-demand stopgap employers like Amazon Flex or GrubHub. Turnover at Lyft and its competitors is high. Generally, companies offer tuition reimbursement and training because over the longterm, the cost is made up in recruitment savings. Or, as Cohen told NPR more pointedly, “It’s important that drivers feel loyalty to Lyft.”
Tuition reimbursement programs, even when offered in the best of circumstances, trade on human’s endless capacity for optimism and businesspeople’s thirst for retention numbers; even if offering gig economy workers the opportunity for training and advancement sounds like an offer to bootstrap them into less precarious industries, it’s fundamentally a move to attract more workers to, in the parlance of the industry, own the ride-sharing space.
Were benefits like this to become standard, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect gig economy workers to juggle jobs to accommodate similar perks, hitting a monthly quota for Lyft to retain that 5% discount, making sure the minimum number of rides were completed for Uber to lock down another incentive—an odd turn for an on-demand industry that has so far attracted workers with the promise of endless flexibility.
The discounts are also the latest in a string of not-quite-benefits hollowed out to suit the legal needs of the ride-sharing industry.
The partnership with Guild join other pseudo-perks, ostensibly offered to keep charges of exploitation at bay and further legitimize the company’s preferred arrangement of permanent independent contractors: Lyft will go to court to make sure it doesn’t owe employees insurance, but it does give drivers healthcare recommendations and directs them to a third-party care provider.
According to a spokesperson, Lyft fully audited its education program to make sure the benefit wouldn’t leave it vulnerable to claims that its employees were anything but independent contracts. Not that there’s anything wrong with an education discount: It’s the least these companies can do. But with Lyft expanding using $1 billion it raised earlier this year expressly to crush Uber, you can expect to hear a lot more about the company’s socially conscious, worker-friendly vibe.